IMMEDIATE CHALLENGE: Lisa Baird became the NWSL’s commissioner a few days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the league. (Courtesy NWSL )

National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird talks about the challenges of leading the way back

On July 26, the National Women ‘s Soccer League crowned the Houston Dash as the champions of the Challenge Cup, a monthlong tournament organized and held after the coronavirus pandemic forced officials to call off the start of the league’s 2020 season. With the Challenge Cup, contested in a bubble at Utah’s Zions Bank and Rio Tinto stadiums, the NWSL became the first team sports league in the U.S. to successfully return to play, albeit without fans present, since COVID-19 forced a nationwide sports and entertainment shut down in mid-March. A number of positive coronavirus cases had prompted the league’s Orlando Pride to drop out of the tournament before traveling to Utah, but not a single positive test result was recorded after play got underway. The tournament garnered strong ratings for the league and broadcast partner CBS (675,000 Americans tuned in for the championship match), and it all happened with new NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird just a few months on the job.

Baird was named NWSL commissioner in February and oversees all operations with a focus on growing revenue and audience and boosting the league’s global profile. In her brief tenure, she and her team have signed several new corporate partners, negotiated pay continuation with the players association and announced the addition of a new team in Los Angeles.

Baird most recently served as the chief marketing officer for New York Public Radio and before that was chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, where she helped bring in nearly $1 billion in partnership agreements and increased sponsorship royalties by more than 30 percent. She has served as senior vice president of marketing and consumer products for the NFL and also held executive positions at IBM, General Motors, Warner-Lambert, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. Baird serves on the boards of USA Technologies, Fox Racing and Elite Sportswear.

Soon after the Challenge Cup concluded, Baird shared her thoughts on facing the pandemic just days after arriving in her new position, organizing and executing the tournament, and the principles that will guide the league’s return to action.

How did the idea for the Challenge Cup first emerge and what was that process like, going from making plans for the 2020 season and then having to switch gears in a major way?
Obviously, early on no one really knew what was going on with the pandemic and so we set some principles up front on what we thought we should do and the principles were, No. 1, we wanted something that we could really mitigate the risk and so the medical protocols led us to at least initially a bubble approach, a sports bubble, and that was a big reason why we chose to do what we did. But the second piece of it is that, you know what, in a year where the Olympics were postponed, we knew that we wanted to kind of give fans, not only avid fans but casual fans, the chance to really see soccer in its best light, which we thought would be this group play/single-elimination tournament.

HEALTHY ENTHUSIASM: The well-being of its players was key to the league’s planning for its Challenge Cup tournament, which ran June 27-July 26 in Utah. (Courtesy NWSL)

How important was it for the stature of the league, from a commercial and fan engagement standpoint, to pull off the Challenge Cup successfully?
It was everything. I’m not kidding you. You have to understand, when I joined, the pandemic shut down the league within two days of joining. I quickly looked at our cash position and without the revenue coming in from local sponsorships, from ticket sales, which are significant and substantial to us, what we realized was that we had to quickly generate other sources of income and so the first thing we did was, we got a small business loan through the CARES (Act) application process. That tided us over and gave us a bridge until we could go in and sign sponsorships and do everything that we needed to do to kind of generate the revenue to fund the tournament, but most importantly to fund the continued players’ compensation, which we did through the end of the year. We needed to do that in order to pull off everything we wanted to do.

Would you agree that the bubble concept that you employed serves as a template for other leagues and events?
I’m going to say I was very happy with the bubble. Remember, we didn’t know anything about COVID and we wanted to get back into live sports early. We knew we could pull it off. I don’t know that it’s the only way and as we look forward, we’re looking at a return to play and we want to look at those options as well with our players association … and develop protocols. And remember, the medical protocols are what we are all looking at. How do you mitigate risk? We were really blessed with 15 doctors that played a leadership role with us and during preseason. We had one team (the Pride) that had an issue with it. They had a breakout, but we were able to quickly identify the issues and strengthen the protocols. I don’t think the bubble is the only way, but for us at the time it was the right way and now we’re exploring, as many other leagues are, what does it mean to go back into stadiums. What does it mean to do a more regular-looking schedule and how do we do that safely with, again, health and wellness top of mind of our players?

Have you had or did you have inquiries from other leagues interested in what the NWSL did and how much did you confer with other leagues and sports when putting the plan together for the Challenge Cup?
I was reaching out to everybody I could way early on to see if there was a game book and luckily for me, since I had such a career in sports and I know a lot of people in a lot of leagues because of the Olympics, everybody was very generous with what they knew, but what I found is everyone was writing their own playbook, just because we were all new in dealing with it. Now, there’s the ability to have more widespread “this worked, and this didn’t.” There’s a lot more that we know about it. We still don’t know enough, but there is a lot more that we know about and I’ll again reach out to other people in sports to take advantage of what they’ve learned as we kind of go again to probe new areas. Everybody asks me, did the major leagues reach out to me for advice and I keep reminding them, I’m a 20-week rookie and these are 20-year commissioners. I doubt they’d really need my advice, but (I’m) happy to do it if they want it. But we’re really proud of what we did in Utah.

FINISH LINE: Baird presents the Challenge Cup trophy to Houston Dash captain Rachel Daly, who also won the tournament’s Golden Boot honor. (Courtesy NWSL)

Did any issues with positive tests or symptoms come up once everyone was inside the bubble? I’m aware of what happened with the team from Orlando having to drop out.
That was our biggest and only issue. We were virus free, so we had no positive test results in the bubble. We did tweak things, meaning we made sure the testing was done at the right times between games and things like that and there was some fine-tune tweaking we did of the actual testing methodology, but we had no positive COVD tests, none. It was remarkable.

Are you confident that the kind of ratings the games enjoyed will bode well for how broadcast rights and sponsorships are valued going forward?
I hope so. Some days I wake up and I go, Oh my gosh, I am so excited and confident and pumped up about our future, and I really think that betting on women’s sports and betting on women’s professional soccer is a really good bet for advertisers and sponsors, particularly given the enormous ratings we did and the social coverage we had and the news coverage we had. That was all incredible. And then I go, Wait a minute. We all have to be prudent and sober about really recognizing that we are in unprecedented economic times and I see a lot of uncertainty on the horizon for advertising, for sports, so we’re just going to put our head down and work as hard as we can to continue to build more value propositions with sponsors.

Getting back to the bubble, which protocols turned out to be some of the wisest in retrospect and what advice would you have for other leagues, other sports looking to return to play? I know there is a lot of focus right now not just on the NFL but on college football. That’s a really big deal and it seems like things are hanging in the balance at this time.
I think for us, women’s professional soccer — the doctors call them our patient population, I prefer to call them our player population – they are a unique, incredible group of women, so half of what we put together was very conservative protocols. We had a very conservative approach to return to play initially. We had very specific hygiene, cleaning, sanitization, but the most important part was realizing that you have to protect yourself and the collective by how you live and how you behave. I give all the credit in the world to my doctors and my players for observing what were very strict protocols. I was doing another interview and we were kind of giggling about it because my players, we had such strict protocols, they will tell you, they went from the hotel, to the van, to the training field, back to the van, to the training field, back to the field to play a game and the biggest excitement was our coffee truck. We knew the players wanted coffee and we brought the coffee truck in and they’re like, “Oh my God, a coffee truck!” That was the excitement at the NWSL Challenge Cup tournament from an extracurricular activity (standpoint). But they were all so amazing with what they were able to do and just live with what was a very confining protocol. Now I think we’ve learned a lot more, so we’re taking the advantage of that to guide us going forward.

Was the relatively remote location of the venues in Utah a key part of making the tournament feasible and were there other locations that you considered?
We considered four host cities, but Utah had the combination of the facilities as well as the state itself. We had full cooperation with the local and state government. We were able to put together a full-fledged solution for what we wanted to do. As we looked early on, we saw very little incidence of COVID, and while it did rise while we were there, the absolute incidence of it was so low and keeping our players confident in the environment was really important to us. But they really weren’t out there (in the community). They were in the hotels or on the field. That’s what we had decided to do as our protocol.

The launch of Angel City FC (whose backers include actress Natalie Portman) was announced during the tournament. What kind of momentum did that lend to the tournament, or conversely, what kind of momentum did the tournament impart on that franchise’s ownership group deciding to move forward?
It was very intentional on our part because we knew that was an incredible ownership group. We knew they would create national and, in fact, international buzz and they did, but I think doing it in the midst of the Challenge Cup, we don’t have the numbers yet, but we really increased the awareness and the interest and by the immense press coverage that Kirsten (Brierley,  the NWSL’s communications director) led for us (and by) having our first games on network TV… all of those things bounced off of each other, they amplified each other and that was quite intentional on our part. We were really pleased with the response to it.

Was organizing and successfully executing this tournament the greatest professional challenge you’ve ever faced?
Yes, and I have had some challenges. I was in Russia for the Olympics. I had to do Zika with Rio. I came in and worked with (former NFL Commissioner) Paul Tagliabue to keep the Saints in New Orleans following Katrina. But I think every commissioner will tell you this was the hardest and the most challenging. I don’t think I am the only commissioner that will say that. You had to create so many work streams and solutions and be flexible and problem solve with very little proven knowledge of what we were dealing with. So, yes, this was the hardest.

What are the prospects for the NWSL returning to play in 2020 or beyond, if that’s the way it works out?
We’re having conversations. We have not made any decision as of yet. If we do it, it will be with the same principles that we established in 2020. We’ll do it with unanimous vote of ownership and support. We will do it with the collaboration of our NWSL (Players Association). We are going to do it in a way where fans can continue to participate, and we don’t know what that means in a future world, but those principles of doing it with health, wellness, safety and excitement about our league and its potential will continue to drive whatever decision we make.

PLENTY OF DISTANCE: Portland Thorns FC and the Chicago Red Stars play in the NWSL Challenge Cup on July 1 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. (Getty Images)