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Secret to her success: NWSL commissioner guiding league through pandemic

Just five months into her tenure, National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird navigated a return to sport during a pandemic, negotiated a landmark broadcast deal, secured big-name sponsors and announced a flashy new expansion team in Los Angeles. Now just imagine what she can do for the league in a regular year. 

Ahead of Sunday’s NWSL Challenge Cup final between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars in Sandy, Utah, Baird can almost take a deep sigh of relief (or maybe get some sleep). It’s certainly much different than those dire days of March. 

Baird officially took the commissioner’s role on March 10. The sports world came to halt two days later.

“What was remarkable to me was how quickly the entire sports industry shut down worldwide,” Baird told CBC Sports. “Once [commissioner] Adam Silver had started it with the NBA, around the world it was literally that quick. I think the rest of the industries maybe weren’t as quick as the sports industry to understand the sobering reality of what we were dealing with because of live sports, contact sports and fans.” 

When you look at Baird’s resume — executive and marketing leadership positions at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committees, the NFL and IBM, to name a few — perhaps it’s no surprise the NWSL’s return has gone safely and smoothly (aside from Orlando’s withdrawal due to positive COVID-19 tests before the tournament). 

What’s been the secret to her success? Just like soccer, a whole lot of teamwork and hustle. 

During the early days of the shutdown, Baird reached out to her contacts in the sports world. She pulled knowledge from more well-resourced leagues, like MLS (she says league commissioner Don Garber was of particular help). She and her team set goals and principles. 

Being a small, nimble league was also plus.

“I could pick up the phone and in a day contact any owner I needed,” Baird said. “I was able to do several Zoom calls with all athletes on the call, working through issues in real time as we were developing it.” 

WATCH | 1 on 1 with Lisa Baird

CBC Sports’ Signa Butler speaks with the NWSL’s new commissioner Lisa Baird about the league’s core values and its return to play. 4:45

Virtual calls

Sitting on one of those first nerve-wracking virtual calls was veteran Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson of the Utah Royals.

“That was a tough situation because she was fielding questions on a tournament people were very unsure about,” said Matheson, the two-time Olympic bronze medallist (you may remember her iconic winning goal from London 2012).

“I was very impressed that she held the call in the first place and also the way she conducted herself. She wasn’t afraid to take our questions, give answers when she had them or tell people when she didn’t have the answers and that she would go find them.”

After a one-month training camp, the teams arrived in Utah ready to play a month-long World Cup style tournament. The short turnaround didn’t hurt the quality of play and viewers took notice. The opening game between North Carolina and Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns drew an eye-popping record 572,000 total viewers on CBS, a +201 per cent increase from the previous best of 190,000 set back in 2014. CBS hasn’t given its numbers for its All Access digital service, which broadcasts most games. 

One of the main things that attracted Baird to take the NWSL’s reigns in its eighth season was its values, all which coincidentally have helped the league endure these pandemic times.

“We’re scrappy. We fight to the finish and I think you see that on the field with these players right now. These two teams that are going into the final are going to fight for the finish. We are scrappy, we have spirit and heart and we are not giving up,” she said. 

“We are humble, we are respectful. We, as a league. And I don’t think it’s just the fact that we’re women. We have male owners and coaches, We’re a very diverse league. We’re always going to be that league that’s appreciative of what we have.

“And the third thing is that we’re ambitious and we are leaders. When it’s a normal time, we would have 58 of the best players from around the world playing in our league. We want to own the mantle of being the best professional women’s soccer in the world. We’re grateful that we have some of the best and biggest names, but we have more ambition where that’s concerned.” 

Social issues

Also at its core, the NWSL and its players have always been at the forefront when it comes to social issues, whether it be pay equity or social justice. On June 27, the opening game of the tournament, on national television, they focused their awareness and support to Black Lives Matter. It’s continued through the tournament. 

“I think because we were the first league back there were a lot of people paying attention to what was going on,” Baird said. “It was a very intense time for the players, particularly because they’re in a new environment, they’re in the bubble, we were the first team out. I was so supportive of the freedom of expression, but I was so impressed by the courage of our players to do it. It’s not an easy time to make a stand on social justice. I think what they did was really important. I know our fans were very supportive.”

After last week’s dramatic quarter-finals, which saw the top three seeds ousted from the tournament, including the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage, there was more intrigue this week with expansion news. 

Los Angeles, with an ownership group featuring A-listers from Hollywood, sports, and the corporate world, will become the NWSL’s 11th franchise in 2022 after Racing Louisville FC joins the fray next year.

“LA is a sports city. The fans have wanted this franchise for a long time,” Baird said. “I’m really excited to be working with them.” 

Tentatively named Angel City FC, the Los Angeles ownership group includes former U.S. women’s national team stars Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy; celebrities like founder Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, America Fererra, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba; and business leaders including Kara Nortman, Julie Uhrman and Alexis Ohanian (and don’t forget the youngest owner, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., yes, the daughter of Serena Williams and Ohanian).  

“Everybody’s like ‘what do you think of a two-year-old in the owner’s room?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but I think we’re the most family-friendly professional league that I’ve ever seen, so she’s welcome,'” joked Baird, adding “I’ll give a shoutout to my colleague Cathy Engelbert of the WNBA, but we’re pretty family friendly here.”  

With 14 Canadians playing in the league, is there any potential for expansion north of the border? She won’t comment on that just yet, but said this: 

“Canadian fans, if you’re interested in having a team, reach out to us on social media, follow us, make sure that you’re watching us. At the end of the day we’re going to be driven for what’s right for the sport and what’s right for the players, but I pay attention to fans and if you guys are interested, keep that support coming and I’m taking calls.”

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