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New NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird off to promising start

Everyone can have a little cautious optimism, as a treat.

Around the Games: Day 0 - Winter Olympic Games Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s just that NWSL fans are always ready to latch on to optimism, but based on new commissioner Lisa Baird’s first conference call with media, she seems to be off to a good start. Baird talked to media for a little over half an hour on Friday, joined by Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler. As her official job doesn’t start until March 10, Baird was circumspect about a few things, like her knowledge of any broadcast deal and how Twitch enters the conversation, what shape her day-to-day duties might take, or if she’ll make Chicago or New York her base of operations. (In order: she can’t comment on something that isn’t publicly done, but she is interested in esports and has had experience with Madden at NFL; she’ll be getting a lot of guidance from staff already working in the league; New York is an excellent media market with easy access to a lot of sponsors, but we’ll have to wait and see about a long-term HQ.)

What Baird did have to say was about her initial vision for the league, particularly coming from her strong marketing background, which Whisler said was definitely a plus when it came to hiring Baird. “We all knew she had the Rolodex and the relationships and integrity and personal brand,” Whisler said.

That Rolodex of contacts could already be paying off. Baird said that within hours of her hiring going public, she started receiving congratulations from sponsors she has relationships with both in and outside of the United States. “I’m a big believer, having been a CMO at companies and engaged with the C-level in sports,” said Baird, “That not only do we have an incredibly great league with talented players that can be incredible spokespeople for their products and services, but we’re at a time in the momentum of this league where not only the passion of the fans but the purpose of women’s sports and women’s’ soccer is ripe for being a platform for companies’ communication and their purpose within the landscape. I actually don’t think I’m going to have to do a lot of persuading of sponsors that creating partnership with the league is the right one for what they want to do.”

Should that mindset pay off, it’ll surely be a relief to the players, fans, and owners. NWSL has only recently been able to cultivate a high-profile sponsorship with Budweiser, although some teams did have regional relationships with the beer brand. The league has also had sponsorships with brands like Cutter and Thorne, although given that these brands also partnered with US Soccer, it may have been more a case of the league tagging along than cultivating those relationships on their own. That’s why Baird’s long resume as a marketing and brand specialist, along with her existing experience in the sports through the NFL and the US Olympic committee, is cause for optimism.

Baird also seems to already be getting the lay of the land just fine. Though she’s nearly two weeks away from her official start date, she said on the call that she’s already spoken to the leaders of the NWSL Players Association, she’s been in contact with league staff, and she already plans to visit each team to meet owners one-on-one in their markets. Baird cited her tour of the league as part of a prospective first-100-days plan, which would also prioritize working a prospective sponsor list with the ownership.

As the chosen representative of that ownership, Whisler said that Baird was the only commissioner candidate who turned the tables on the group of approximately 20 people present during her interview and got them all talking - in particular, asking them all to tell her what success meant to them, going around a table that held representatives from each team. He acknowledged that in the past, the ownership group may have stepped in to provide advice or guidance, but now they would be “happy to be nudged back into the background,” with Baird firmly at the helm as commissioner.

In the end, Baird checked a lot of boxes with her statements, emphasizing that she wanted to elevate the league’s reputation even more both domestically and globally, grow player profiles through storytelling, and stay on top of where fan interest lies so that they can create a deep, committed follower base. “As with everything you want a commissioner that passionately wants the job,” she said. “I don’t think that I’m exaggerating at all where I feel like this is my dream job, to be at the helm of a league with so much growth potential, to be at the helm in women’s sports at this point in time.”

“I’m anxious to begin to have conversations with partners in the sponsor area and others because I feel like financial growth is going to give us and the owners more wherewithal to do some of the things that we want to do to continue to make sure this is a long term viable and successful - not only women’s sports league, but let’s just say professional sports league.”