National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird says that the current plan is to try to begin the league’s eighth season at the end of June. The season was scheduled to begin April 18 but was delayed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has virtually shut down the sports world. There is an obvious concession that a late June start could be pushed back further if the pandemic worsens in the United States.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Equalizer on Wednesday, Baird — whose first day on the job was only March 10 — provided updates on the delay to the season, what the structure of the 2020 competition could look like, whether closed-door games are possible, and how the league is continuing to honor player contracts.
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On when the season might start
Is it fair to say that this is not the start to the job that you envisioned?
Well, no. I don’t think I had, or anybody has, a playbook for this. I think early on when this started, I was like, oh I’ve been through the Olympic Games and those are always hard places to go to — various places to go to, various crises and scares. Zika, the cyber security scare in London, the [Olympics in] Russia or Korea, but I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like this.
I realize it’s fluid in every way for everybody. We know the season won’t start on April 18th. Do you have a working date that you have right now for when you want to return by?
Yes. What we have is an agreed-to strategy with our owners and we’ve been in very frequent and regular communication with owners and players and other stakeholders. I’m really pleased to tell you that we have a general strategy in place. We’ve been just communicating with our players and we’re targeting for the end of June for our season to start.
I say that with conviction and hope but I don’t say that because I’m always going to tell you no matter what we do, we’re gonna adhere to the public health guidelines that are in place at the time and and I don’t think that we can predict what they are, but our strategy is in place and we’ve looked at a number of different strategic alternatives with our ownership and that’s what we’re targeting.
So, the extension of the training moratorium will be significantly longer, then.
Yes, and that’s one where we really, you know, again the most important thing is to make sure that the players and the staff are safe and anything that we do in terms of return to training is going to have the guidance from the NWSL medical task force to help us make sure that you put into place when the time is safe and and appropriate for the team. It’s also one that we want to have applied consistently across the league, which is challenging given that states are now issuing different guidelines.
I was going to say, whatever you decide could always be derailed by a local authority or government deciding something else. We saw Toronto’s announcement about no public events through the end of June [editor’s note: that ban does not yet explicitly include sports].
This is so hard because it’s in our nature as sports people that you just want that goal. You want to have that goal line and go for the goal. You look at what Toronto came out with today, I don’t look at it so much as derailing as it’s like okay, they must have some information that will benefit us from what they’re seeing out there in terms of helping to make sure that everybody’s safe.
I actually don’t even look at it as a derailment anymore. I’m looking at it as a league to say, how can we get the benefits of all these other entities who are very, very deeply resourced to help us make the best decisions? But right now, our target is the end of June.
On working with other leagues and the federation
There have been reports that the NWSL, MLS and USL have been on calls together about everything happening. Can you confirm that and just more broadly, how much are the three bigger soccer leagues in the U.S. working in lockstep in terms of these dates and these decisions?
Well, I don’t know that we’re working in lockstep. Again, to go back to the point that I said, which is there’s no doubt U.S. Soccer as a partner of ours has a lot of information and a lot of resources and they are generously helping us in this time to take advantage of them.
By the way, as is MLS. I could not have asked for a greater help and partnership than I am from MLS as I started, because they’ve been very generous with whatever they know. It doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re working in lockstep, but it does mean that we’re sharing information and data that we can all use to the best of our ability to make the right decisions. And that [help] is not just confined to soccer. I felt like my colleagues at other leagues have been just as generous at helping.
Is that you and [MLS commissioner] Don Garber speaking or is that a bigger group? What does that look like?
We have a fair amount of different communication points with MLS. I happen to know personally well some people there who I used to work with at another league, so that always helps. So, I think it depends on the information you’re looking for, but our staff has a lot of different communication points with U.S. Soccer, including Kate [Markgraf, U.S. women’s national team general manager], who has been immensely helpful. Obviously, the head of U.S. Soccer, I’m now in communication with Cindy [Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer president] and hope to soon be with Will [Wilson, U.S. Soccer CEO and secretary general], and Donna [Shalala, U.S. Soccer board member] and I know each other from another league, and at the right time I’m sure will be talking to one another.
U.S. Soccer has had a financial stake in the NWSL since its inception in late 2012. Has there been any talk of how the federation might help the league in terms of the financial impact that everything going on might have?
I can’t say that I’ve had those specific discussions. I think right now, the priority is figuring out how to safely get our players back on the training field and hopefully the season started. That’s been the priority. Where they [USSF] have been helpful is in terms of medical advice and that is really being valued right now.
And who’s on that medical task force you mentioned?
Key physicians from all the teams and obviously we are working very well with the chief medical officer from U.S. Soccer [Dr. George Chiampas] as well as the team physicians.
On the logistics of playing a season
In terms of playing the season and coming back at the end of June earliest, a couple questions: Some of the bigger leagues like the Premier League and the NBA, there are reports of potentially hosting closed-door games and even potentially hosting them in one sort of isolated city or area. A lot of that seems to be dictated by TV contracts that number into the billions and that’s not necessarily a battle that you’re fighting, where ticket revenue is a bigger factor for NWSL teams. Are closed-door games a realistic option, do you think, in terms of the different factors that you’re facing?
Well, you know, we just got agreement from our owners and I’m incredibly thrilled with how we’ve been developing the different scenarios and how much access I’ve had to them and responsiveness in terms of being able to craft a kind of strategy. Now is the real work, though. The real work is operationalizing the strategy. It takes four to six weeks to put together a schedule. You have venue availability and all of the rest of it, so that’s the real work that our team did early this year and we now have to go through and do again on a very, very tight schedule to see what is going to be possible. So that’s the focus right now, is that work, and that will take us some weeks to complete rather than [focus] on is it a closed game or not. We’re hopeful, of course, like every other citizen of the United States is, that our state government or federal government or local or public health entities are going to make progress on helping us understand what’s safe and what’s not over the course of the next [coming] weeks. But I’m sure we’ll have several iterations of our schedule just to make sure that it’s practically doable.
Are there a minimum number of games that you would want to see to call 2020 a full season? Is the original plan for 24 games realistically off the table, given the truncated window?
Well, I think, the strategy that we agreed to with our owners is one of principle. The principles are preserving integrity of the competition, and that’s for the players, the fans and the owners themselves. We want to have a schedule that has a great level of competition. We want to make sure that we play as many games as are safe for the players. So, having the right preseason to make sure that you can get players back into training and competing safely is a principle. So, we’re following the principles rather than any finite number.
And given those principles, how creative do you get? The longer this delay goes on, I assume you have to get more creative and reevaluate, and you’re doing that non-stop at the moment. Have you looked at options like one team hosting a weekend series of doubleheaders as kind of a host site, or hosting something of a round-robin competition that isn’t necessarily everybody plays a home game on a Saturday and a Wednesday in a more sort of traditional setup? Are those types of options on the table?
I can promise you I’ve challenged my staff to be as creative as is necessary to achieve the principles. So, yes, we are going to exhaust every option. I think our advantage is that we’re small and we’re nimble, and we’ll take advantage of that. We’ve not had an issue getting access to ownership to get the kinds of data and information and feedback. Everybody has been pretty responsive; we’ve been in constant communication with our players regarding the guidance we’ve been sending out. So, I think an advantage for us is our nimbleness. But, yes we’ll be creative when that time comes, but right now, really having a great competition schedule that everybody feels good about is a key priority.
What are the factors that you’re facing in terms of these shared venues and venue availability? There is shared ownership among some of these groups but you are going to have every league trying to fit a schedule into this small window. Early days here, but where are you seeing NWSL teams fitting into that equation?
Well, again, that’s our next project, is to operationalize the schedule. That’s where we’re going to be able to see what venue availability is, days of the week are. That chess work is beginning. But again, I think doing this with nine teams in a compressed time period, with as responsive as the clubs have been, is a doable task.
The original schedule called for a Nov. 14 championship, which would have been the latest end to a season by far as it is. There are factors such as the U.S. women’s national team’s mandatory six-week rest period after the November FIFA window — at least from national team duties — as one potential obstacle. Is pushing the season later than Nov. 14 even a possibility?
You know, the answer is I think everybody knows — players and everybody knows that we’re dealing in an unprecedented time without a lot of visibility. I won’t comment on when the end date would be. I’d love it to be near or on exactly when we’ve already announced it, for a lot of good reasons, including the one that you have. But, you know, we’re just starting to now get to operationalizing the schedule and I’m anxious to see what my staff comes back with.
On paying players, sponsorship, TV deals
I’m under the impression that, with the centralized league structure, that this is a league item and not down to individual clubs. Are all players still being paid in full as expected based on their contracts and would any scenario of a prolonged work stoppage change that in any way?
At this time, we are paying our players and honoring the contracts.
And have there been any changes at the league front office with everything going on?
That’s a hard question to answer given that we’re all working from home, we have a commissioner that’s operating out of our home in Connecticut right now that takes her lunch break to help her daughter finalize her essay on her in-home, distance learning, and another daughter that’s running a category for walmart.com. So, a lot has changed since I started [laughs].
Has any staff been furloughed?
No, no staff has been furloughed. We have a pretty lean team at the league, so no.
You’ve talked about sponsorship a lot since you’ve come into the job. Not to make what’s going on all about women’s soccer, but obviously with coming off a World Cup and going into what we thought was an Olympics, there was a fair amount of momentum coming into this year. From the sponsorship side, what do you see in terms of the challenges as the advertising world has come to a halt? Were there deals that were either done or close to done for the league that this shutdown changed?
I’m always going to be pretty conservative when it comes to commenting on sponsor agreements, but I will tell you we still continue to be in conversations with both existing and prospective sponsors. I’m excited about that because it’s not something that I expected given this time and the business environment. But I think that announcing the CBS and Twitch agreements did stir up some interesting conversations. I think I’ve certainly been active and trying to develop relationships. I think it’s just going to be an ever-changing business environment. I wish I had a crystal ball; I don’t, but so far we are continuing conversations and I think trying our best to get a season in front of us with some definitive date and venues, etc., will only help those conversations.
Those CBS and Twitch deals probably feel like a long time ago. Those were announced right before the NBA shut down and the rest of the dominoes fell. Can you shed some light on what those communications look like and how you’re dealing with an immediate change to the brand new deals?
The first thing that we’re doing is not an immediate change; it’s an enactment of a strategy that was comprehended in the deal, and I’ll talk about that for a minute, which is our partnership with Twitch. We were on the phone with the Twitch partners multiple times this week. We aired our first archived game [last] Wednesday night. It was promoted on the home carousel on Twitch. Kirsten [Brierly, NWSL media relations manager] and the team PR leads did a great job promoting it. We were really pleased that was the first game. We had some education to do to get soccer fans to find out where the streaming of Twitch [was] and when the game was — promoting it, doing all the work we need to do to educate people on how to get on Twitch and watch it.
But I was really pleased with both the concurrent views that we got as well as the peak views we got on the home carousel, as well as the engagement of the Twitch audience. So, we’re enacting the first part of that strategy and it just happens to be at a time when a lot of people are home and watching Twitch, which is good news.
Looking longer term, expansion is an ongoing conversation. I imagine what’s going on affects those conversations in some ways, whether prospective groups are changing their minds or seeing their net worth take a hit. Are expansion conversations even happening given everything going on?
I don’t really have a comment on it other than that conversations are ongoing. What I will say is that this time right now is unprecedented and I don’t think anybody has a playbook, so I don’t want to pretend that I have any sort of playbook, particularly as a very, very new commissioner. What I will tell you is that what hasn’t changed is the long-term outlook for women’s soccer in the United States. That is exciting and vibrant and we intend to continue to do what we can do short-term and long-term to be the best professional women’s soccer league, to be sustainable in the long-term, to have the right expansion strategy, to make sure that we’re attracting more players and having the player pool that can feed a larger league; to make sure that we’re putting together the right partners, whether they’re sponsors broadcasters and others that are going to promote women’s soccer and make sure it’s a top spectator sport — a top business in the U.S. But more than that, I want to continue to be at the forefront of the movement for women’s sports. So, none of the long-term has changed, but boy, the current situation is definitely challenging all of us to be smarter at keeping that long-term goal in mind and navigate the uncharted waters of today.