The National Women’s Soccer League has been busy in this offseason. It prepared to add an expansion team, created a spending mechanism to attract top-dollar stars and is on the cusp of announcing a new broadcast deal.
But the biggest offseason decision by far — the one that may determine the NWSL’s growth, or lack thereof, for years to come — was finding a commissioner after three years of plodding along without one.
A chief complaint among insiders connected to U.S. Soccer, the league operator, and among NWSL players has been the lack of a strong commissioner to steer the league into its next phase.
U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe, for instance, has drawn a comparison to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who’s been credited with making his league one of the most popular in the world. The NWSL, she argued, needs someone like him.
“People aren’t hardcore basketball fans — they are fans of the NBA,” she told Yahoo Sports in November. “These guys are cool, and Adam Silver and the league office has empowered these athletes to be the biggest stars, to express themselves and have opinions and be socially conscious. We have all of that — we just don’t have the operators.
“We need a big-vision person who is going to sell the potential of the NWSL and sell the future of it,” Rapinoe added. “You can leverage the moment and the movement of what’s going on right now into a larger business plan. People want to invest in a way that’s socially conscious — people want to get behind women businesses. There’s a way to have a very capitalistic and mission-driven approach all at once but you need someone who understands that and how to think big like that.”
The NWSL owners are hoping they found that person, announcing last week they had hired Lisa Baird as the league’s commissioner.
What Lisa Baird can bring to the NWSL
Baird’s resume is impressive. She spent a decade at the U.S. Olympic Committee doing all the things that the NWSL needs to focus on: signing broadcast, sponsorship and licensing deals. She helped launch the “Team USA” brand, and before that she worked in marketing and licensing for the NFL. She leaves a role as New York Public Radio’s chief marketing officer.
Where she hasn’t worked before is in soccer.
Though she has experience working with U.S. Soccer in her role at the USOC, that’s not the primary focus of her experience — and that might be a good thing. After all, the NWSL in the past turned to “soccer people” to lead the way, but the results were mixed at best.
Former commissioner Jeff Plush, who stepped down in 2017, previously worked for the Colorado Rapids as a managing director, and his resume included serving on the Board of Governors for MLS and Soccer United Marketing. Amanda Duffy, the de facto commissioner after Plush’s exit, had been the head of operations at Louisville City in the USL.
But when it came to capitalizing on events like the World Cup, which the USWNT won twice in the NWSL’s seven-season existence, the NWSL always seemed to somehow be caught flat-footed.
Deals with major national sponsorships were never brokered, despite the players of the USWNT and the team itself becoming the hottest spokeswomen around. The NWSL’s current marquee brand deal with Budweiser was brokered by U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of MLS.
The product has never been the problem for the NWSL. Fans showed up to games in increasing numbers, clamoring to see many of the best athletes in the world. But the league’s ability to market itself and help non-believers see its best qualities has been lacking.
With Baird, the NWSL has someone whose core competencies are the areas where the league needs to grow. No, she hasn’t done these things in soccer, but she has proven she can do them, which is what counts.
Baird told reporters Friday that in the first hours of her new role with the NWSL being announced, contacts at U.S.-based and global brands had congratulated her, and making use of those connections is one of the first things she plans to do.
“Talking to who I think is on the prospective sponsor list for us will be really important early on,” she said, “because that will be something that the owners and I will want to make a real priority going into the season.”
Baird will be judged by her record at the helm of the NWSL and what she accomplishes. But for now, there’s no reason to doubt that she will help the NWSL find new sources of revenue and strengthen its brand.
NWSL needs to invest in more than just Baird
But a lingering question is whether Baird will have the support and resources to execute her vision to the fullest. After all, the NWSL front office is tiny and, for instance, it still doesn’t have a communications director since the previous one left more than a year ago.
Hiring a qualified and ambitious commissioner is a great first step for the NWSL owners, who presumably put plenty of financial investment into finding a top-notch candidate. But it can’t be where the investment stops.
That’s something Rapinoe has seen firsthand, where the support staff around her in the NWSL is constantly changing.
“I want to have the best and the brightest — these are people getting job offers from Google and startups and dope s---,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports. “You might get one person in the NWSL who’s really good for one year, but they’re not staying. You need to incentivize them. They’re not just gonna join for the love of the game, as if that should be the incentive to work for the NWSL.”
Rapinoe’s USWNT teammate Crystal Dunn also emphasized a need for more serious investment in the NWSL last year.
“If the women’s game is going to grow,” she told the Associated Press, “it’s going to come down to us not kind of penny-pinching on things and really putting a lot of resources in.”
Some of that will have to come from the owners.
They have shown a willingness to step up with the addition of allocation money for the 2020 season, which will introduce a massive increase in player spending. But not every team has to spend that money — it’s entirely optional — and the never-ending question in the NWSL is how to navigate an ownership board of haves and have-nots.
But with Baird in place, it may be easier to commit to expanding the NWSL’s operations.
No, the NWSL is not ready to match MLS, which is in its 25th year and has a staff of nearly 350 at its New York City headquarters. But the NWSL is poised to expand beyond the full-time staff that can be counted on one hand – so why not do it now, so Baird can hit the ground running?
“I'm anxious to begin to have conversations with partners in the sponsor area and others,” Baird said, “because I feel like financial growth is going to give us and the owners more wherewithal to do some of the things that we want to do to continue to make sure this is a long-term, viable and successful not only women's sports league, but let's just say professional sports league.”
For Baird’s part, she’s not committing to any specific mandates as commissioner yet, which is prudent and smart. When she officially takes the job on March 10, she’ll begin meeting with the NWSL’s front office staff and doing a tour of individual NWSL clubs across the country.
Then, she has her work cut out for her. But the possibilities for the NWSL to sign new commercial partners and build up its brand seem wide open for the first time in a while. Heading into the NWSL’s eighth season, that’s only a good thing.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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