NWSL introduces former NHL, National Lacrosse League executive Jessica Berman as new commissioner
Berman officially starts her four-year term with the NWSL on April 20.
The NWSL’s new commissioner, Jessica Berman, was inspired to get into the business of sports after attending a New York Islanders game as a young woman.
The Islanders scored and she was moved when she saw two strangers share a celebratory hug as the horn sounded. Berman said Wednesday that ever since that moment Nelson Mandela’s quote, “sport has the power to change the world...” has been her guiding principle.
Berman doesn’t officially start her four-year term with the NWSL until April 20, but she’s already neck-deep in tasks she has to complete to be ready for her start date. After a tumultuous 2021 season that included five male coaches departing teams whether by resignation or termination, Berman is aware of what’s at stake with the upcoming season.
Building trust with the players of the league is of the utmost importance.
“I know the responsibilities and task at hand is not easy,” Berman said.
The league’s former commissioner Lisa Baird resigned following a report from The Athletic detailing accusations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse by former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. There was a search committee involved in Berman’s hiring that included members of the league’s board of governors and players. The committee also included Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL players association.
Players' participation in the hiring process included two separate groups meeting with candidates and asking questions about their qualifications and expectations for the league.
Berman joins the league after nearly three years serving as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs at the National Lacrosse League. Before that, she spent 13 years in the National Hockey League first serving as vice president and deputy general counsel for the league before becoming vice president of community development, culture and growth and executive director of the NHL Foundation.
The new commissioner wants to build on the momentum with the players’ union that’s been established over the last year, which included the league and the players’ association ratifying its first-ever collective bargaining agreement extending through 2026.
One concrete plan Berman has for accomplishing that is implementing weekly calls with the players’ union.
“I view the CBA being done as the first step,” Berman said. “The time to build trust and credibility [in the relationship with the players union] is during the time of the agreement. There’s still a lot of work to be done. We have to figure out a way to work together to implement and execute the terms that have been agreed to.”
This is Berman’s first job in women’s sports and she said she doesn’t see the league as having hurdles to face but rather opportunities to capitalize on specifically as it pertains to sponsorship, viewership growth and media partnerships.
Berman is expected to meet with CBS, the NWSL’s broadcast partner, Wednesday as she concludes her introductory day. She said she still has a lot to learn in the space of negotiating a new broadcast deal in the future. The league’s partnership with CBS and Twitch expires in 2023.
Forty-two days separate Berman from her first official day as commissioner of the NWSL. She’s already spoken with players and league executives and will continue to over the next few weeks. As a first-time leader of a woman’s professional sports league, Berman is driven by sports unique platform among all other cultural experiences.
She said at this moment she believes women’s sports has the most unique platform of all.
“I would only take this opportunity if I felt like I had the tools and skill set to come forward and help this league achieve success,” Berman said.