First-year commissioner Lisa Baird hopeful for NWSL’s future despite COVID-19 setback
The NWSL averaged 7,383 in attendance last season, and Baird’s primary goal as commissioner is to continue to build off that 22.6% increase from 2018.
Lisa Baird was three days into her new position as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League when the sports world stopped.
It was March 12, and she had returned home to New York the night before from a meeting with the NWSL’s staff in Chicago. Baird checked Twitter before going to bed, like so many do, but this time her timeline read nothing like a typical social-media feed.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver had just announced the season would be postponed after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
Baird spent the next morning contemplating taking public transportation to a meeting with league sponsor Budweiser. She opted to drive instead and headed out for what unknowingly would be her last day working from anywhere but home.
“We had a great meeting with Budweiser,” Baird said. “I don’t think any of us had any idea [what was coming]. I went home, and, literally, your email and Twitter feed start filling. You’re rapidly and in real time assessing the situation. It was like watching the dominoes fall.”
Baird acted swiftly and announced the postponement of the NWSL’s preseason on March 13, and within a week, the season was postponed indefinitely.
Right now, the league is planning for the final weekend in June as a target start date.
Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler added that the league hopes to get 16 to 20 games in this season and that the NWSL hopes to become the first professional sports league to return to play. The Red Stars’ target start date to resume the preseason is May 5, but Whisler said that could change.
The NWSL caters to a much smaller fan base than any other pro sports league. The teams’ stadiums are more modest, and for the Red Stars, there is even the potential to seat fans further apart from one another at SeatGeek Stadium.
“There are some silver linings,” Whisler said. “We’re smaller. We’re more nimble. We only have nine teams that we have to plan around. So our goal is to be the first ones playing again. It’s easy for us to pull off because we aren’t used to 40,000-plus crowds.”
The NWSL was carrying the momentum from the U.S. women’s national team’s fourth World Cup title, a freshly signed TV contract with CBS and a promising sponsorship deal with Budweiser into its eighth season.
The league’s average attendance was 7,383 last season, and Baird’s primary goal as commissioner is to continue to build off that 22.6% increase from 2018. She believes the anticipation for the 2020 Olympic Games — which have been postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic — will help that cause.
“The global landscape for women’s soccer never rests,” Baird said. “What I need to do as a spokesperson for the league is continue to point to how exciting the future is for women’s soccer. That’s the key.”
The league as a whole hasn’t lost any sponsors, and Whisler said the Red Stars have maintained all of their sponsorship deals since the postponement of the season was announced.
Whisler has not laid off or furloughed any front-office employees, and the organization has applied for some of the federal loans available to keep his workforce together.
Still, uncertainty remains surrounding the TV deal with CBS.
CBS was set to air two games, the season opener April 18 between the Washington Spirit and OL Reign and the league championship game. CBS Sports Network would air another 14 games, and 71 more would’ve been on CBS All Access, the network’s subscription streaming service. But now there are no guarantees because of the overlap that’s likely to occur with other leagues.
“CBS and all sports programming has been pulled down,” Whisler said. “So all the windows are wide open right now. If we can return quickly, there is a lot of airtime to fill. Twitch will have us whenever we’re ready. CBS, depending on when things turn back on, will have to rethink some of the TV windows.”