ORLANDO, Fla. — For the first time in three years, the NWSL has a commissioner. Lisa Baird logged her first day in the role this week, marking the first time the position has been filled since March 2, 2017.
For players across the league, Baird’s appointment as NWSL commissioner feels like an acknowledgment of the significance of the league and its growth during the past eight years.
“It’s so important that we feel that we are important and we’re taken serious,” Orlando Pride defender Ali Krieger said. “I think that’s the first step, because people care about women’s soccer. I just see that they’re valuing us a lot more and they want what’s best for us. That starts with having a commissioner and having someone in place that really cares and is going to do a good job and is going to help this game grow.”
The role of commissioner is vital for a league, particularly a young one like the NWSL still looking to find its footing. Sports commissioners create parity and discipline within their leagues; but even more important, they spearhead marketing and sponsor partnerships, molding the corporate brand of the sport.
The three-year absence of this presence has been felt throughout the NWSL, which struggled to glean long-term capital from the boom in women’s soccer interest following the World Cup. Now, Baird will work to create a stronger marketing base for the NWSL.
To Julie Foudy — a star of the 1999 World Cup team who now covers the game as a broadcaster for ESPN — the main concern is that this appointment is too little, too late.
“They have so much ground to make up,” Foudy said. “For the NWSL, it’s in its eighth year and there’s so much to be done. In any other league, in any other sport, there would’ve been an uproar of, ‘What are we doing?’ I’m sad it took them that long to get that person in there. Now that they have Lisa and she comes with that wealth of experience, I hope you’ll see some of that World Cup hysteria still shining on the NWSL.”
Baird’s background in advertising for national sports brands inspires confidence among players. Before becoming the league’s commissioner, Baird spent a decade as the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
After working with one of the strongest properties in American sports, she’s uniquely familiar with the business of creating a brand for a national sports organization like the NWSL. That will be vital for the league, which enters its eighth year without ever fully establishing a strong national identity.
Former and current players such as Foudy and Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn believe the strengthening of the league brand at a national level will set an example for individual clubs to follow suit.
“Whenever you have a league trying to establish itself, I think you need to definitely set up the front office to make sure you got the right people in the right places,” Sauerbrunn said. “Then that all trickles down to the teams.”
During her first week on the job, Baird said her first goal was making connections across the league. From there, however, her priorities will shift toward creating strategies to open revenue streams and marketing opportunities for the NWSL.
Baird will push to increasing revenue for the league through broadcast rights and sponsorship deals. Both of these areas have been left relatively untapped during the NWSL’s seven-year history.
After the dissolution of the league’s partnership with Lifetime, the NWSL only has three sponsors — Nike, Budweiser and Thorne.
In comparison, the WNBA has inked 23 league-wide sponsors, including names AT&T and Google. Of course, the WNBA is directly subsidized the NBA, while NWSL is not an arm of MLS.
Acquiring an influx of corporate partners will be one of Baird’s main expectations, and it could have one of the most visible impacts on clubs and players.
For players such as North Carolina Courage forward Jessica McDonald — who has never had her salary fully subsidized by the U.S. national team as an allocated player despite being part of the 2019 World Cup roster — bringing money into the league is a vital step in improving salaries and benefits for NWSL players.
“Hopefully, the new person will step in and make some positive changes, especially for those who are scraping pennies in our league,” McDonald said. “We don’t get paid too much in this league, but if we’re taken care of in other kinds of ways, then I believe that more people will want to come into our league.”
For many in the NWSL, Baird’s appointment is seen as only the first of many necessary improvements. Sky Blue forward Carli Lloyd pointed out more positions still need to be filled throughout the league office — for instance, the NWSL has not hired a communications director.
But for players like Orlando Pride captain Ashlyn Harris, Baird’s arrival feels like a first step toward a different chapter for the NWSL.
“I think what everyone’s going to start noticing is the progress we’re making in NWSL, whether it’s financially, whether it’s small things like staff and putting people in positions to continue to grow the game,” Harris said. “We’re definitely making strides, and I think we’re in a really good place with the league and we’re going to continue to grow.”
Harris said the NWSL should benefit from the hype surrounding the Olympics. After star players return to the regular NWSL rotation following the Olympic games, the goalkeeper expects an influx of expansion teams and international player acquisitions.
But Foudy isn’t so sure.
In the three-year gap between the Olympics and the next FIFA World Cup, she worries American players will be tempted to chase bigger salaries in Europe. The NWSL has already seen the effects of this as big-name clubs in Europe continue to invest in their women’s teams, poaching players such as former Chicago Red Stars striker Sam Kerr.
Players prefer to stay in the United States during international tournament years, Foudy said, to cut down on travel and jet lag during call-ups. But during that three-year international gap, she thinks the restrictive maximum salary cap — $650,000 — could cause players to look elsewhere.
For the NWSL, Foudy says, the key for the new commissioner will be to create a strong enough environment to convince players to remain in the league.
“I think it’s a good step, but I don’t think it’s gonna be enough,” Foudy said. “When that NWSL salary suddenly is in comparison to an EPL side offering you a ton of money, you’re gonna go overseas. Players will just go where the market bears. That’s going to be the challenge for the NWSL.”