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Lisa Baird on the state of the NWSL: Sponsorship, 2020 play, expansion

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos

Two days before the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup final, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird maintained the tradition of addressing the media on all things related to the league. The 45-minute Zoom call covered the success of the Challenge Cup, the possibility of more soccer in 2020, expansion, and more.
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Here’s a rundown…

On the relative success of the tournament

“We’re really pleased with with our our medical protocols and the way we’ve engaged with that. I think the excitement of the games has been extraordinary. I’m really proud of all the players and the intensity that they have done with this competition and how they have kept in fighting to the finish. It’s been truly extraordinary. Life in the bubble and competing in the bubble is intense, as many of you know, and I’m really proud of our players and the team staffs for the quality and the excitement of the play.”

On the possibility of more NWSL soccer in 2020

“If we can get players safely back on the pitch, we wlll be doing so. We have issued a statement to the players and we’re ready to get back on training. We have not made any decisions about any competition format at this point in time. That will always be guided by medical protocols.

“We will work within the restrictions that states and counties put in place. There’s no question. In fact, I have several conversations that I’m hoping to have with governors or mayors. I want to show them what we did in Utah and how we worked with the Utah state and local officials to make sure that our protocols and our ability to be in a place conformed to them.

“Anything we take into account is going to. Have to abide by those. I think 31 states now have travel restrictions but we were able to do it in Utah and that was working very closely with General Burton, Governor Herbert and the mayor of Salt Lake County, and that’s what we’ll use as the guidance principal around travel first and foremost.”

Editor’s Note: Baird said the league is looking into a fifth phase of the return-to-play protocol which could allow the NWSL to play more soccer in 2020. She says she will take one day off following the NWSL Challenge Cup before going back to work on plans for the rest of 2020 as well as 2021. The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf reported earlier this week that a plan for playing more games emerged from Tuesday’s NWSL board meeting, but confirmed details are still lacking and thus still need confirmation.

On USWNT players playing overseas

“I’m not going to comment on U.S. players playing overseas.”

On future expansion after Louisville and Angel City

“I’m on record as saying this: We want to be expanding thoughtfully, and in a way that that helps us continue to make sure that the standard of play in the National Women’s Soccer League continues to grow. Anything that we do is going to be guided by these principles,

“No. 1, it’s got to be an attractive market and I have said repeatedly that doesn’t mean it has to be a large market. I am thrilled that Los Angeles is coming in, in 2022, and I’m thrilled by the reception to that. But I’m equally thrilled by Louisville coming in. I’ve been keeping up with the ownership there, just what they’re doing to activate their local market is, I mean it’s incredible. Their brand launch and their early ticket sales reception. So it has to be the right market.

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“No. 2, it has to be the right ownership, and I think for us we’ve shown that we have a diversity of ownership. We have teams that own USL teams, teams that own MLS teams, teams that are independent. So, I think the diversity and the quality of ownership is really important to us. And I’m really proud that it was a woman-led ownership group in LA. And you can look for more diversity from us in the future on that.

“The third one is: Where does it make sense to go in relation to what is happening in sport? I don’t have as clear a principle on that but I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a lot of innovation in terms of how fans experience the game. And given that we have a little bit more timeline — because I think getting in Louisville and LA is really important to me — it gives us the opportunity to really talk and and build in innovation with the game for the future using the experts we have on our board and digital technology and fan engagement. That’s something I really am committed to building and we have a little bit of timeline to do that.”

On whether potential ownership groups have emerged based on what they have seen at the NWSL Challenge Cup

Yes.

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On the future of a Black players coalition

“I think the first phase of what we accomplished, and this was a collaboration with the NWSL PA, they wanted the platform to tell the world how solidly they were behind Black Lives Matter, how important that statement about social justice was and we did it.

“I think we supported it strongly and well and consistently through this tournament. I think that was the first step, to show people how supportive we were. But I think you’re pointing out the hard work needs to come. What are the actions the principles, [and] the policies that we’re going to be doing as a league to ensure that diversity runs through everything we do?

“I’m still a very, very new commissioner. I still have some listening to do and to get to know the players. While I was here for the full month at the tournament, I didn’t get a chance to have individual conversations with players. [It was] very rare, really only at the end, you know to say goodbye to some teams that I was sorry to see go. But I need to be doing more listening and more talking and particularly with our Black players to really understand how we can take this league and make it an example of what we need to do to eradicate racism in this country.”

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On the league’s relationship with U.S. Soccer

“Will [Wilson, new U.S. Soccer CEO] and I started around the same time. We had the tournament; he’s been engaged in some other learning. We know that we want to have a very productive and beneficial relationship with them starting next year. The current agreement expires at the end of the year and we’re going to start working on that, but we’ve already developed I think a pretty good, productive relationship and we’ve had basis to start that conversation.”

On the partnership with Twitch

“Regarding Twitch, I think I can speak for Twitch and for ourselves; we’re really pleased with the new audience. It’s performing very well, both our archive games and the audience we’re reaching outside the U.S.. I’ve been told there’s a lot of Brazilians chatting and talking in Twitch right now, so I think that goes to soccer-mad fans around the world are getting up at any hour to watch the best players in the world and the NWSL.”

On the business metrics of the Challenge Cup

“We are doing our own research study post tournament in order to get metrics to really show how far we’ve grown in awareness and what value we delivered our sponsors, so we’ll be sharing that for sure with our sponsors.

“We came with an objective, which was to raise the profile of the league and what we are about. The core of that is always about the quality of play, the outstanding players we have, including the more than 50 players from all around the world that play in our league. And I think right now, that’s what we’re proving is awareness of who we are what we are has gone up.

“I was really pleased to see that. Fans are supporting us when they know the sponsors are associated with us. That’s what every sponsor looks for. Is the affiliation with your mark going to help them with their products and services? We’re going to conduct our research, but our social engagement metrics have gone off the chart.

“I think they’ve sextupled, seven-tupled. We started small honestly and we’re happy with the growth but we’re not already there. It was really hard to have this tournament be short. It was the right length of time for everything we were trying to do in the bubble and in the tournament, but four weeks is not a lot of time to win over not only avid soccer fans, but casual sports fans around the world. I think we accomplished that. I have seen the amount of coverage. I’ve seen what’s happening with fans on CBS. I think you’ve all seen the virtual watch parties that Secret sponsored.

“I think we’re getting to that second level of casual fan. That’s what we need to do to be successful and our goal is to continue to be strong and have an incredible 2021 season to follow up on this.”

How the NWSL adapted to add sponsorship despite shortened season, pandemic

On if any sponsors have expressed regret about missing the Challenge Cup and are eyeing 2021

“I don’t think anybody has expressed outright regret. But let me say I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls — yesterday [I] was on two calls with sponsors — and we want the right sponsors associated with us. I need great marketers, people who believe in the league and what we do and are willing to activate and amplify the messages of our league. So you can be assured that Lindsay Barenz [acting NWSL Media president] and myself and Aaron Salsberg [NWSL Media lead counsel] are going to be on the phones talking to sponsors post tournament.”

On medical protocols inside the bubble

“Remember no one had done this, going into this. Not us, []not the] NBA, NHL, MLS — no one had done this. So, I think having the belief that you can do live sports and you can do it effectively, safeguard players in preseason and then do it in a bubble, I think we’re walking away with confidence in the medical protocols that we put in place. And they need to be updated; they will always —that we’ll always want to do that particularly as we take into account state and local guidelines. But we have confidence in our medical protocols.

“In our own meeting this week, we all walked away confident that our principles of protecting players are in place. And remember, the core was to mitigate risk to make sure that we were able to do this with no COVID. But we also have in place extensive medical protocols that we think will be protective in any training that we go into. So I hope it made a difference. I know it made a difference with our nine teams and we’re going to push to make them even better going forward.

NWSL bubble remains COVID-free as Challenge Cup enters final week

On maintaining a presence after the Challenge Cup

“I’m going to turn to something that’s really important. I know — and I know it even more so from this tournament — that what fans, avid and casual fans want to hear is player stories. I’ve had a firm belief in that coming into this tournament and we’ve used every opportunity to really familiarize people with our players. The famous ones and as I say the ones that will become famous.

“That’s the thing that’s most exciting for me is America’s been introduced to these women. And I think post-season you can see us do some really interesting things around players’ stories. We’re already in discussions with a really cool idea that I am going to make you wait a little while longer [on], to tell the player stories in a pretty unique format. But that you can be sure: you’ll hear from us in the postseason.”

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On media referring to Major League Baseball as the “return to sports”

“I think I’ll just smile at that.”

On the online presence of the NWSL fan base

“Everyone talks about hundred-year-old leagues having grown up with such an advantage because they’re so mature and they’ve grown up. But they’ve grown up in other media. We grew up with social media. We were born on social media and digital media. So, I love the fact that our fans — and I think we see it by their avidness, their engagement and their influence which I think is what separates our fans from others. They’re highly influential people and people follow them and I think that that bodes really well for us as a league, even though we’re very young.

“I read something this morning about Twitch and how the biggest channel on Twitch now is people chatting with one another. We had an incredible performance on Twitch in our very first season with them, the kinds of [evolution] that media is doing with engaged fans and conversation and influence, I think it’s just perfect for us. We’re a brand and a league that’s been born in that world and I think our fans are gonna lead us into a really strong future because of that.”

 

On the NWSL playground phenomenon

“I am disappointed [that no one celebrated during the quarterfinals]. There’s gotta be something that we do with the playground in our future. So, maybe first of all the person that started that [Twitter] account is going to come forward. If you’re out there somewhere on this, listening to this press conference, come forward; we love what you did watching the accounts. I think there was Challenge Cup sunset. And that was some of the fun of being at Zions Bank [Stadium]. So, I hope you come forward. I hope we figure out a way that there’s a playground in our future so someone can celebrate.”

 

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