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‘I truly appreciate the value of the players’: NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman on rebuilding trust and leading through dialogue

Last year the National Women’s Soccer League was left reeling by an abuse scandal that drove a wedge between the competition and its players union. For Jessica Berman, the league’s new commissioner, the process of rebuilding bridges is already underway.

22 July 2022 Michael Long

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Midway through its landmark tenth season, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) finds itself at a curious and critical juncture.

Here is a league tantalised by the prospect of becoming a leader among sports properties globally, one based in a huge media market and the home of the reigning world champions; a place where women’s soccer continues to grow in popularity and where many of its leading stars are already household names, at home and overseas.

Here is a league in which interest and investment is on the rise, one that has seen sponsorship income, TV viewership and match attendances increase in line with heightened demand among media companies, brands, ownership groups and fans alike.

And here is a league that stands to enjoy a substantial bump in its media rights revenue when its next domestic broadcast deal is agreed in the coming months, and which has just secured perhaps the most crucial and consequential pact in its history, a first-ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with its increasingly influential players union.

And yet, here is a league that, for all its undoubted potential, has succeeded in shooting itself in the foot on more than a few occasions.

Heading into 2022, the NWSL found itself in crisis. The fallout from an abuse scandal that rocked the league and wrote international headlines had left a gaping hole in its front office. Previous commissioner Lisa Baird resigned in October 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.

Fans and players were vocal in their public condemnation of the league’s handling of the affair, with its players association, the NWSLPA, notably decrying the ‘systemic abuse plaguing the NWSL’. Games in October were paused mid-match or postponed altogether due to player protests and both Fifa and US Soccer opened investigations, prompting the creation of a new three-woman executive committee to oversee front-office operations and the subsequent appointment of interim commissioner Marla Messing.

Nine months on and the scandal remains raw for many, but the NWSL is looking to the future under its new permanent commissioner, Jessica Berman. The American joined the league in April after two and a half years serving as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs at the National Lacrosse League (NLL).

Having switched sports and assumed the top office at a league intent on change, the highly regarded Berman has wasted no time in making her mark on the NWSL. Plans to relocate its headquarters to New York this September have already been announced, along with substantial upgrades to the league’s broadcast operations and a raft of other measures designed to drive future growth. But Berman’s most pressing priority has naturally been to rebuild trust and confidence with what she calls the NWSL’s “most important asset”.

“When it was announced that I was going to be the commissioner, I suggested my relationship with the players and the players association is going to be and will continue to be a top priority for me,” she tells SportsPro. “My background in labour relations is such that I truly appreciate and understand the value and the role of the players and the union in helping to contribute to the league’s success.”

Players representing Orlando Pride and NJ/NY Gotham FC stand together in solidarity during their game in October, following an abuse scandal that rocked the NWSL and led to the resignation of former commissioner Lisa Baird.

Rebuilding bridges

While Berman inherited rather than negotiated the terms of the CBA, she acknowledges its importance as a bedrock of the NWSL’s future growth and a key step towards strengthening league-union relations. Her appointment was given the blessing of the NWSLPA – one of several demands put forth by the union in the wake of the abuse scandal – and now she says she wants to do everything within her power to ensure “the players feel proud to play in the NWSL and trust the league to lead them and our team into the next phase of growth”.

Asked how exactly she will seek to rebuild bridges, she explains: “That will include analysing all of our policies, our procedures and protocols, our communication practices, and how we think about culture, how we think about education and transparency with our internal stakeholder groups, to make sure that the league and our teams and our players are set up for success.”

Running for five seasons until the end of 2026, the historic CBA raised the minimum player salary by almost 60 per cent year-over-year to US$35,000 and included free agency and revenue sharing for the first time. As such, players will receive ten per cent of net broadcast revenues if the NWSL is profitable in years three, four and five of the CBA.

A host of other commercial, health and wellness benefits are enshrined in the pact. Players will be guaranteed holiday pay, parental leave, salary continuation if they become pregnant, and mental health leave for up to six months. The union also took control of the players’ group licensing rights, which were previously held by the league, and ownership of their personal biometric data.

I do believe that our relationship with the union is really constructive and productive right now.

Jessica Berman, Commissioner, NWSL

Such advancements are sure signs of progress for Berman, who says that any sports league is only as strong as its player base. By her own admission, she knows the NWSL cannot expect to grow without the full support of its on-field talent.

“The league is a manifestation of our culture and who our players are; they clearly are our most important asset,” says Berman, who previously spent 13 years with the National Hockey League (NHL), eventually becoming vice president of community development, culture and growth and executive director of the NHL Foundation. “Our players already are cultural icons that transcend sport who serve as community influencers and leaders.”

For that reason, Berman says she has spent much of her first three months as commissioner “conducting a listening tour”, during which she has met with players to better understand their concerns and aspirations.

“Certainly, as I’m travelling from market to market, I’ve been trying to connect with players directly to make sure that they understand that I have an open line of communication for them, and that I’m interested in hearing and learning from them about their experiences and ways to continue to elevate and professionalise the league from a player experience perspective,” she says.

“So, you know, I would say that I will and have made it a top priority. And I do believe that our relationship with the union is really constructive and productive right now.”

Building consensus and, most importantly, rebuilding trust with the players will take time. More than anything, Berman’s powers of diplomacy will be tested, as will her ability to rationalise and communicate key decisions. Still, she firmly believes “different perspectives actually lead to better business decisions” and, as a leader who must rally multiple interests behind a common cause, she knows progress can only happen by seeing both sides of the argument.

“Most of my stakeholder management strategy will come from my background as a labour lawyer, where management and union relations are what I have often described as a marriage where you can’t get a divorce,” she says, adding that she is now in weekly contact with Meghann Burke, the NWSLPA’s executive director.

“The underpinning of that stakeholder management or relationship building strategy is that the other party, or whomever you’re trying to gain support from or build consensus with, feels that they have an opportunity to be heard, genuinely heard. That I, as the commissioner, seek to understand their perspective and the history that has informed their position, even if that position is different from what I, as the commissioner, believe should be the future of the league.

“Oftentimes, I think in too many situations the why is missed and decision-making processes go straight to the tactics of the actual decision. That preparatory work of first listening and understanding the different people’s perspectives whose support you’re looking for, and then explaining and understanding the why, in my experience, really diffuses the level of tension around some of the consensus building that is required for good governance. So that has been and will be my approach as it relates to leading the league.”

Player protests and a fan backlash have prompted leadership and structural changes at the NWSL, including the appointment of new commissioner Jessica Berman.

Growing the pie

With Los Angeles-based Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC having begun play in 2022, an expansion process is now underway as the NWSL looks to grow from 12 to 14 teams by 2024. Berman refuses to be drawn on the status of discussions or which markets are of greatest interest to the league, but it is clear that demand far outstrips supply.

According to ESPN, NWSL franchise valuations have increased tenfold in a two-year period, with more than 30 investor groups having enquired about acquiring a team. That rising interest has led to the league’s first-ever formal bidding process that will be overseen by Inner Circle Sports, a New York-based investment firm that has sold teams in multiple sports leagues, including several Major League Soccer (MLS) franchises.

Reports suggest a return to Utah is looking likely for 2024, while a group of ex-players is spearheading a push to bring a team to California’s Bay Area. Several MLS franchises are also interested, according to ESPN, which reports that the expansion fee for the NWSL’s 14th team will be ‘in the range of US$10 million’.

Indeed, for all its challenges in recent times, all the signs are that the NWSL remains on an upward commercial trajectory. According to the league, paid attendances have doubled in the past year, while league sponsorship has risen 87 per cent over 2021. In recent months, the NWSL has signed significant commercial agreements with the likes of Deloitte, Delta Air Lines, UKG and Nike – all of which were seen as major votes of confidence in the league following the abuse scandal.

On the media side, television ratings and overall viewership are also on the rise. Viewership for last season’s championship match increased 216 per cent over the 2019 showpiece, with streaming audiences for NWSL programming having grown 24 per cent year over year. Social media followers across all the league’s platforms have grown by 28 per cent during the same period.

Such growth bodes well for the league as it enters the final year of a reported US$4.5 million media rights deal with CBS, which has shown matches across its various broadcast, pay-TV and streaming platforms since 2020. A further agreement with Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch, reportedly worth around US$1 million, is also up for renewal.

Talks with media companies are currently in the early stages and Berman has said she is expecting “significant growth” in rights fees whenever the next deals are signed. From a strategic standpoint, she says the league will remain “thoughtful about analysing the broader and very quickly-evolving media landscape as it relates to other professional sports leagues globally, and how they are balancing both commercial and marketing objectives”. As she notes: “The intersection of OTT and streaming with linear broadcast has really changed the way most professional sports leagues have thought about media distribution from a revenue and relevance perspective.”

Whatever comes of those negotiations, it is fair to say the agreements will serve as a barometer of the current climate around women’s sport. Like Berman, many observers are expecting media companies to put their money where their mouth is and stump up handsomely for rights to one of the fastest-growing properties around.

In the meantime, efforts are being made to dramatically enhance the NWSL’s broadcast product. During a board of governors meeting in New York earlier this month, league leadership discussed plans for long-term investment and immediate improvements in broadcast operations. Starting in August, the league will invest in upgrades to all match broadcasts on CBS-owned Paramount+ and Twitch, including higher quality cameras, infrastructure and staff to enhance production quality. A commitment has also been made to boost the standard of officiating, with VAR technology set to be implemented for the 2023 season.

Those investments mirror similar strides being made within women’s soccer elsewhere, not least in Europe, where the commercial metrics are also heading skyward. They will also come as music to the ears of those NWSL players who have repeatedly called for more backing from league bosses.

“What we see happening internationally is really getting the attention of investors globally,” notes Berman. “The numbers coming out of Europe – about the record attendance for different matches in women’s football – and what we’re seeing with some of our teams, including Angel City and Kansas City investing in their facilities, is really demonstrating to our fans and to the industry what’s possible with the NWSL.

“We are so fortunate in the NWSL that our US women’s national team is as strong as it is because it really creates the opportunity for us to lead globally, to put women’s soccer on the map as it relates to professional sports, not just women’s sports but all professional sports.”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week, a week of coverage dedicated to the industry’s next great growth opportunity and co-hosted by Two Circles. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about SportsPro’s future themed weeks, click here

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