The National Women’s Soccer League technically has not had a commissioner since Jeff Plush left in 2017. His replacement, Amanda Duffy, was Managing Director of Operations, then Managing Director, then President. Perhaps a totally nominal difference, but one that caused some scratched heads nevertheless - if she was fufilling the duties of a commissioner, why not simply give her the title? That’s all over now, as the league’s board of directors has named Lisa Baird as the new commissioner, according to a report from Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated and confirmed by the league shortly thereafter. According to the league’s press release, Baird officially begins her role on March 10, just in time for preseason to get rolling.
The league went through executive recruiting firm Nolan Partners for the commissioner search and said that Baird was picked “with unanimous support.” Baird comes to NWSL from her most recent position as the chief marketing officer at New York Public Radio. Before that, she was CMO for the US Olympic Committee and was a member of the board of trustees for the Women’s Sports Foundation. Baird was also a senior VP of marketing for the NFL and has worked in marketing and branding for General Motors and Procter & Gamble. In short - she’s a highly business-focused commissioner, something the league has been sorely lacking for a while.
Baird also has experience communicating with US Soccer from her role with the USOC, so she should have at least some idea of the pre-existing landscape and the connections between the league and the US federation.
“I have a lot of experience building brands, building digital extensions of brands, building social communities around the game and rivalries. And that’s an area that I hope I can put my imprint on,” she told Wahl. That’s something that could be very good for NWSL, if she can execute her vision well, because the league has never had a very strong brand. It’s partnership with A&E to broadcast games on Lifetime muddied the waters at best; their (to be finalized) deal with CBS, which should put NWSL games on both linear and streaming platforms, combined with recent sponsorship from Budweiser, could be part of a new, more focused approach to finding and building audiences.
Much will depend on NWSL also hiring the appropriate staff around Baird; the league front office has never been heavily staffed, even when they had the partnership of A&E, which gave them a media arm based in New York City. The 2019 season saw a rotating door amongst their communication staff, at the very least, and so 2020 will hopefully be a much more stable year in terms of the FO. The league has taken big steps to improve the product on the field; hopefully they’ll also be building stronger support behind the scenes as well.