Amid complaints, Canadian NWSL broadcasts take a positive turn

(Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

In the top left corner of the CBS Sports Network channel last Wednesday night, the score was 1-0 for the Portland Thorns in front of a packed stadium in San Diego on Pride Night.

In the 46th minute, Canadian national team star and Thorns captain Christine Sinclair brought a lobbed ball down to her feet at the top of the Wave’s 6-yard box and blasted it past Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan to double Portland’s score.

The thrilling play resulted in Sinclair’s 58th goal, making her the NWSL’s second all-time leading goal scorer in her 150th appearance. Previously, she was tied with U.S. national team forward Lynn Williams at 57.

The best part was that Canadians were able to see the milestone unfold in real time, because just over two weeks ago, most wouldn’t have been able to.

To watch live NWSL games, Canadians and other international viewers use Twitch. Previously, Canadians were geo-blocked from the platform during CBSSN matches. The expectation was that they watch on CBSSN, an American pay channel that most Canadian viewers can only access with a VPN connection, which can get detected and therefore shut down. Other international viewers have never been blocked from Twitch during CBSSN games.

But last Wednesday, for the second time in two weeks, Canadians could watch the CBSSN match on Twitch. The Washington Spirit vs. Orlando Pride match on May 27 was the first time ever that Canadians had access to Twitch for an NWSL game on CBSSN.

The resolution comes just over a month after first-year NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman took office on April 20.

“Whereas it seemed always before it was an afterthought, it appears that it’s been an issue that was elevated enough to bring about a resolution,” said Ontario’s Raquel Kerr, the mother of Spirit goalkeeper Devon Kerr. “That is so positive that what the old administration could not resolve, nor even address, has been remedied.”

Before it was revealed that Canadians would obtain better access to NWSL broadcasts, Just Women’s Sports spoke with Canadian viewers at the beginning of May about their experiences with Twitch.

Vanessa Gilles’ mother, Josie Castelli-Gilles of Ottawa, Ont., didn’t miss a beat when asked about her viewing experience in Canada.

“Oh god, with the Twitch, eh?” she said. “AGH!”

With various NWSL channels on Twitch, games on CBSSN were always shown on Channel 3 to international viewers outside of Canada. Before May 27, the channel was set up specifically to create a geo-block for CBSSN games in Canada, and then remained geo-blocked even for games that weren’t televised. CBS and the NWSL did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why this was the case.

Canada’s Vanessa Gilles went undrafted out of college and took the scenic route to the NWSL. On March 19, the Angel City FC defender played in her first NWSL game. Seeing that it was geo-blocked on Twitch, Gilles’ parents scrambled through their Twitter timeline as kickoff began, determined to watch their daughter and the 2022 expansion team make their league debuts.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” Castelli-Gilles said at the time. “It is terrible.”

Castelli-Gilles’ in-laws in France, meanwhile, were able watch every single one of Gilles’ games.

Nichelle Prince’s mother, Robin, who lives in Ajax, Ont., said she started getting streams ready an hour before kickoff because she couldn’t predict whether Twitch would work and where they would be able to find the game.

Robin missed Nichelle’s first goal of the season in the Houston Dash’s 2-1 win over Racing Louisville FC in their last match of the Challenge Cup because the game was on CBSSN. Raquel Kerr subscribed to CBSSN this year just to be able to watch the 11 matches scheduled on that channel and watch Devon play for the Spirit.

“I was just so tired of not being able to [watch],” she said, also at the beginning of May. “It was hit or miss.”

It was still hit or miss with the VPN viewers needed for CBSSN, which could get shut down. That’s what happened to Raquel during the Spirit’s thrilling shootout win over OL Reign in the Challenge Cup semifinal. She had to find a grainy YouTube feed to watch instead.

In desperate situations, Canadians turned to SpankysPlace. The Twitch channel became familiar ever since it streamed Angel City and San Diego Wave FC’s NWSL debut. Castelli-Gilles ended up watching Vanessa’s first-ever NWSL match after she discovered the channel on Twitter in her last-minute hunt for streams.

Spankysplace is run by Richard Welsh, also known as Spanky. During games, he can be seen in a small screen in the top corner of the stream, eating his Cool Ranch Doritos, adding humorous commentary and occasionally leaving the room to let out his two Miniature Yorkshire Terriers.

“The broadcast was great,” Castelli-Gilles laughed. “He’s one of my favorites on Twitch.”

A Gotham FC fan from Pennsylvania, Welsh became interested in the NWSL after hearing other soccer broadcasts mention the league. Instead of speaking anonymously to avoid risk of his channel getting banned, Welsh said he has other priorities.

“I try to go by the law,” he said. “Everybody tries to go by the law, but if everybody wants to watch the soccer game and we’re trying to grow the NWSL, then I’ll take the chance to get a ban. And if it costs me court or jail time, I’m up for it I guess.”

As the NWSL and CBS begin to improve broadcast accessibility for Canadians, they’ve started including Radio-Canada Sports in their social media promotion. The broadcast platform with French-only commentary was previously discovered only by viewers who went digging into the depths of the internet for streams when they were geo-blocked from Twitch. Now, the league advertises it for viewers who might not yet know it’s an option.

“We should be the leaders in this,” Robin said in May, noting that North America is at the forefront of women’s soccer after the U.S. dominated the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and Canada won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. “You have to tell people, ‘Listen, this game is going to be on CBS,’ or ‘This is what’s happening on this day. Sign up, subscribe.’ Whatever you need to do to watch those games.’”

Canadian viewers have made their concerns clear over the past couple of months, and the league, under new leadership this season, seems to be listening.

“It paints a picture that this swift action on matters of importance will be a transferable process to other matters that will see the league develop and evolve exponentially,” Raquel said on Thursday. “[It’s] exciting.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.