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SportsPro Reviews… Jessica Berman’s first year as NWSL commissioner

Jessica Berman’s first year as commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League was as much about dealing with the past as building for the future. After 12 months in the hot seat, SportsPro assesses her impact so far.

24 April 2023 Michael Long

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Jessica Berman would have been under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge at hand when she arrived as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) a year ago.

The American, a former top lacrosse and ice hockey executive, inherited a league in deep crisis. A damaging abuse scandal that sparked widespread outrage, on-field player protests, and the downfall of her predecessor had cast a pall over the NWSL, ensuring that the new commissioner’s mandate would be, first and foremost, one of reconciliation.

Multiple investigations were underway when Berman took the helm in April 2022, their full repercussions still to be felt. Berman had stepped into a storm and yet the organisation she joined was also one brimming with untapped potential.

By just about every key performance metric – match attendances, TV viewership, commercial revenue, fan and investor interest – the league had been on a growth trajectory, firmly positioned as an international leader among a raft of rapidly developing women’s soccer competitions.

Now, 12 months on, the NWSL has undergone a bruising self-reckoning and begun the process of rebuilding bridges with its key stakeholders, not least its players. Berman herself has been tested from the outset, so how has she fared throughout her first year?

Berman presents the trophy to last season’s NWSL champions the Portland Thorns

How has business been tracking?

It is fair to say Berman’s debut year has been busy.

2022 was the first season the NWSL functioned as a truly independent entity, having effectively operated as a subsidiary of US Soccer, the national governing body, throughout its first decade in existence. That transition has given the league license to become masters of its own destiny. In the spirit of new beginnings, then, the September relocation of its headquarters from Chicago to New York City represented something of a symbolic move.

On the media side, too, there has been plenty of movement. Most significantly, the NWSL’s domestic media rights are now on the open market after an exclusive negotiation window with incumbent partner CBS ended earlier this year. Any new deal will be critical to the league’s financial stability in the coming years and it will be on Berman, who is spearheading negotiations, to deliver the significant uplift in rights fee many are expecting.

Outside the US, the NWSL rolled out its own global streaming service ahead of the 2023 campaign, enabling overseas fans to watch live matches for free for the first time. Powered by Endeavor Streaming, the product provides live coverage of every fixture and is seen as crucial for growing the league’s international reach and profile after its global streaming deal with Amazon-owned Twitch expired at the end of last season.

The launch of that service followed new linear and digital media rights deals with DAZNwhose agreement covers several key markets in Europe such as the UK, Germany and Spain, as well as Brazil and Japan – Canadian pay-TV broadcaster TSN, and Central American-based distributor Tigo. All eyes are now firmly trained on the all-important domestic pact – a deal which could come to define Berman’s legacy.

As a high-growth, historically undervalued property, the NWSL continues to attract significant interest from investors. A new franchise, located in the Bay Area, has been confirmed for 2024, with the ownership group paying an expansion fee of US$53 million, the most in NWSL history by some distance and well above what many had projected. Elsewhere the return of the Utah Royals, who last played in 2020, has been confirmed for next year, amid widespread interest from other prospective team owners.

Fan interest is also on the rise. An opening week attendance record in March followed an all-time high audience of 915,000 viewers for last year’s season-ending championship game, which was given a primetime slot on CBS for the first time thanks to additional financial support from league sponsor Ally. Berman also recently revealed the number of season ticket holders across the league has grown by 20 per cent year-on-year.

Other developments have provided further signs of progress, too. Hawk-Eye’s video assistant referee (VAR) technology has been adopted for the 2023 season – a first for a women’s league – while EA Sports has added NWSL teams to its FIFA video game franchise. The league’s salary cap has also increased by 25 per cent to US$1.38 million per team this season, boosting player earning potential to new levels in line with the objectives of the NWSL’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA), hashed out in early 2022 prior to Berman’s arrival.

How has Berman handled the abuse scandal?

Arguably the biggest challenge facing Berman when she stepped into the role was restoring trust in the NWSL’s leadership following by far the worst scandal in its short history. Berman’s predecessor, Lisa Baird, had resigned after just 19 months in charge, while five male head coaches stepped down or were sacked in 2021 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, racism and other abuses.

Speaking to SportsPro shortly after beginning her tenure, Berman was adamant that rebuilding bridges between the league and its players was her “top priority”. She spoke of the need to “diffuse tensions” and promised to maintain open lines of communication, focus on building a safe and supportive culture, and reassess the NWSL’s policies, procedures and protocols.

In the months since, the damning findings of separate investigations by the NWSL, its players union and US Soccer have laid bare historic abuses and systemic failings at various teams. “On behalf of the board and the league, let me first and foremost sincerely apologise to our players for those failures and missteps,” Berman said in a statement issued in December. “We are committed to making all the necessary changes to create a safe and positive environment for our players, staff and fans.”

As well as acknowledging the ‘meaningful impact’ of those investigations, the league’s own report outlined a host of recommendations, including the strengthening of anti-harassment policies and the enhancement of reporting and investigation procedures. In that regard, at least, Berman has been true to her word.

Meanwhile the fallout from those investigations continues. Multiple clubs, including the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and OL Reign, have been put up for sale. The Red Stars and Thorns, whose owners had been forced to step aside after being named in the US Soccer report, were fined US$1.5 million and US$1 million respectively, while four former coaches were given lifetime bans for their personal misconduct.

What’s the verdict?

The general consensus, among industry observers and NWSL fans, is that Berman has done a decent job in what has been a hugely challenging period for the league and its leadership. A vocal and visible commissioner, she has won plaudits for her candour and willingness to front up before the media, not to mention her commitment to listening and responding to the concerns of all stakeholders.

While Berman can’t take full credit nor personal blame for the NWSL’s current situation – both good and bad – her arrival and subsequent management approach has undoubtedly steadied the ship. Key corporate partners have notably stuck around and, in many cases, increased their investment – Berman herself has noted that sponsorship revenue across the league has grown 87 per cent year-on-year. What’s more, the league’s headcount has doubled on her watch and its commercial pie is only growing.

Reputable investors injecting cash in expansion teams is as significant a seal of approval for Berman’s commissionership as any other. In particular, Sixth Street’s backing of the Bay Area franchise – the largest institutional investment ever made in a women’s pro sports team – was a clear vote of confidence, providing further validation of both the league’s current momentum and future trajectory.

Tellingly, the overarching sentiment among players is that Berman has succeeded, through open dialogue and a collaborative approach, in regaining their trust. It is, of course, early days and only time will tell whether the NWSL can finally draw a line under its historic failings, but there is plenty of cause for optimism across the league.

An imminent brand overhaul could help refresh its image and genuine systemic reform is underway. Many within the NWSL are now looking to the future and much of that is down to the steady hand of Berman’s leadership.

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