Nancy Gillen ©ITG

Lisa Baird experienced a baptism of fire when she began her new role as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in March 2020.

Just one day after she got her feet under the table, the NWSL was suspended due to the growing threat of COVID-19. Sport ground to a halt everywhere as the world battled to contain the new virus.

Sport had to find a way to adapt to the pandemic and Baird was at the forefront of this process. The NWSL became the first team league in the United States to return to competition last June. It did so through the Challenge Cup, an eight-team tournament that ran from June 27 to July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah.

"I started on March 10, I closed down the league a day later, and we started from scratch," Baird explained to insidethegames. "We created a brand-new footprint for us.

"We had just recently closed media agreements and we had to completely tear them up and redo them. We had to put together a brand new, and I think quite exciting, innovative concept, which was styled on an Olympic tournament, a knockout, single elimination Olympic-style tournament. Then we had to bring sponsors in because we have limited resources as a small women’s league.

"We had to create brand new medical protocol, which was very difficult given that there was no game plan for them. And then we had to pull it all off."

And pull it off they did. There was not one single positive COVID-19 case during the entire tournament. Every player lived in a bio-secure bubble environment near Salt Lake City in Utah and was subject to regular testing. Orlando Pride had been forced to withdraw in the run-up to competition after a number of their players tested positive for COVID-19, but such precautionary measures prevented an outbreak during the Challenge Cup itself.

"While we didn’t intend to be the first league back, we were," Baird said. "We were able to do it all very safely with zero COVID-19 cases, and really just put our athletes first in everything that we were doing.

"We were able to pull it off, and I attribute it all to my players, my owners and clubs, the fans for supporting us. They get all the credit."

Lisa Baird experienced a baptism of fire when she began her role as NWSL commissioner ©Getty Images
Lisa Baird experienced a baptism of fire when she began her role as NWSL commissioner ©Getty Images

The Challenge Cup came at a time when millions around the world had been deprived of live sport for some months. The tournament filled a vacuum and subsequently attracted a new audience to women’s football in the US.

The final between Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars drew an NWSL record audience of 653,000 viewers on CBS. The opening match of the event had already broken the previous record after 572,000 people tuned in. Prior to those games, the NWSL’s viewership record had been 190,000 for a Portland Thorns and Houston clash in August 2014.

"We were absolutely able to stage a competition that not only drew in our avid fans, but actually brought in a whole lot of mainstream fans," Baird agreed.

"We created a lot of social buzz.

"Our engagement rates on social media are, I think, the highest of any league in the US, at least from what we are able to measure.

"Once we had the opportunity, we absolutely wanted to nail it. We are a fierce, competitive league, and that extends to the league office. And I think we were able to do it."

Baird joined the NWSL from her role as chief marketing officer for New York Public Radio, which she had held since 2018. Prior to that, she spent nearly 10 years as chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Baird also worked for IBM from 1999 to 2005, leading the technology company’s global marketing communications initiatives in more than 70 countries. As a result, Baird understands the importance of brand promotion.

The NWSL brand received a boost recently through the involvement of two female tennis stars. Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka announced she had invested in North Carolina Courage last month, following in the footsteps of global icon Serena Williams.

The NWSL Challenge Cup took place with strict COVID-19 protocol in place ©Getty Images
The NWSL Challenge Cup took place with strict COVID-19 protocol in place ©Getty Images

Williams, who has 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, revealed last July she was involved in the creation of NWSL expansion team Angel City FC. The side, which will be based in Los Angeles and is expected to start competing in 2022, is also backed by Hollywood stars such as Natalie Portman, Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria. 

"I have to say it’s very important," Baird said of the investment from the likes of Osaka and Williams. "Naomi and Serena are some of the most successful female athletes on the planet. So, I love that they are sportswomen investing, but what I think is even more important in the story, is that they are now significant investors on their own.

"They were looking at the opportunity with the NWSL, not only with the desire to stand behind female athletes and women’s sports, but also because it is a league that has momentum and is on the rise. Both of those are a win-win for women’s empowerment, but it also shows sport is a very worthwhile investment right now and I think you see that across the board."

For Baird, the involvement of Osaka and Williams in the NWSL was crucial for another reason - diversity.

"We’re just happy to have it, all the investors that are coming in, but particularly two very high-profile women, who are also African-American," she said.

"I think that as part of commitment as a commissioner is not only to create a league about diversity, inclusion and equity, but to make sure that as a league we live and breathe diversity, inclusion and equity at every level, including in the boardroom."

The NWSL brand has also been promoted through the export of several American players to other leagues around the world. There has been a particular influx of US stars to the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in England, which has been able to offer consistent playing time amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Lisa Baird spent nearly 10 years as chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee ©Getty Images
Lisa Baird spent nearly 10 years as chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee ©Getty Images

World Cup winners are now strewn throughout the WSL, with Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis at Manchester City, and Tobin Heath and Christen Press playing for rival team Manchester United. Star striker Alex Morgan also had a stint at Tottenham Hotspur as she managed her return to football after giving birth to a first child.

As a result of these transfers, NWSL players have been delivered to a wider audience. Many of these players are likely to return to the US soon, but new-found fans in England will still be monitoring their progress. Baird agreed that the presence of American players in leagues across the world was ultimately beneficial.

"Well, of course I would rather see them play in our league," she said. "I mean, I am competitive as well and I think that our league is the best in the world, and of course you want the best players in the league. But I do think that when they go over to play abroad, they are good ambassadors for our sport and our league. They’ve brought a lot of attention, because they are global rockstars."

"I do think, well I’m always competitive and I want to see them in our league, but I’m also conscious that women’s soccer is still a young sport," Baird added. "As a global system of women’s soccer, the more that we can win together and make the game more important worldwide, the better off it is. So, I am glad that they are amazing ambassadors."

As a result of new investors and star players, the NWSL is on the cusp of a period of real growth. But Baird has urged caution.

"We’ve got to take advantage of our momentum, but we also have to be thoughtful," she said.

"Our league is only nine years old. We need to grow, but also be conscious that we have to do it in the right way and in a methodical way. That means expansion franchises, but ones in markets that make the most sense, and with ownership that is dedicated to the long term of the game. That’s important.

"We hear a lot about how private equity is bad and it’s going to change things, but as long as their long-term objectives are aligned then it’s a good thing. It’s great to have all of the investment in the league, but your interests have to be aligned."

The second edition of the Challenge Cup is set to kick off this NWSL season on April 9. The 24-game regular season will then run from May 15 to October 30, with no break for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July and August. This year will be the first time that US Soccer is not managing the NWSL, but Baird has endeavoured to maintain a collaborative relationship with the governing body. She was named to the US Soccer Board of Directors just last month. 

Sportswomen such as tennis star Naomi Osaka have recently invested in the NWSL ©Getty Images
Sportswomen such as tennis star Naomi Osaka have recently invested in the NWSL ©Getty Images

It is hard not to point out that Baird has held a number of high-profile roles in sport administration at a time when the lack of women in such positions is increasingly noticed. The issue of gender equality in sports governance was most recently brought to light in Japan last month.

Yoshirō Mori stepped down from his role as Tokyo 2020 President after he made sexist comments during a Japanese Olympic Committee meeting. He was replaced at the helm of the Organising Committee for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games by Seiko Hashimoto, something which was described by Baird as a "terrific move". Tokyo 2020 then appointed 12 more women to the Executive Board under Hashimoto’s instruction.

With the issue of female representation in sports administration now one under the spotlight, does Baird have a preferred method of ensuring women are given high-profile roles in sport?

"I don’t know if I have a clear opinion on that, because I see many ways that work to get more women in sport," she said.

"Number one is making sure that the pathway is correct, like I am a big fan of the Rooney Rule we have in place here [in the National Football League, requiring teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for positions including head coach]. I think there are certain times when rules like that make sense. But I also think mentorship, pushing people ahead, and giving them positions and authority that push them and stretch them.

"I think there’s many different ways to do it, there’s not a prescriptive way.

"I think that it’s just going to be a continued drumbeat of making sure that women are considered for opportunities, and that we look for talent to make sure that we give them the chances that they are owed."

Perhaps after such a dramatic start to her tenure as NWSL commissioner, Baird will be hoping for a period of stability in the sporting world. It is hoped spectators will be able to attend the upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup matches at a reduced capacity, and Baird will likely soon be able to put the plans in action that she had before the world was turned upside down by COVID-19.

Regardless of what happens in the coming months, Baird has already shown she is fully capable of weathering the storm to the benefit of the NWSL. It is an exciting time to be a women’s football fan in the US.