Source: Sports Business Journal Dec 19th, 2022 By Alex Silverman
SBJ Year-End Awards: Best Hire New NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman arrived with the league facing serious challenges but has helped it find its footing.
Visitors to the midtown Manhattan office of the National Women’s Soccer League step off the elevator at the third floor onto a canvas tarp and straight into a metaphor. The smell of wet paint fills the air. Exposed ductwork hangs from the ceiling. In the main space, a man on a ladder rolls a fresh coat of white onto walls covered with large splotches of tan spackling. Two lone staffers sit at computer monitors among a sea of empty desks covered in plastic.
The imagery isn’t lost on Jessica Berman. “You can compare the transformation of the office to the transformation of the league,” she said.
Transformation is an apt description for what Berman has overseen at the NWSL since she was introduced as the league’s new commissioner on March 9. In her first season on the job, the NWSL shattered previous attendance and viewership marks, grew sponsorship revenue nearly twofold, doubled its headcount at the league office (which moved from Chicago to New York), saw franchise valuations soar and went a long way toward repairing a broken relationship with its players.
“All of the growth and glow is real and earned,” Berman said. “Not just in the seven months I’ve been here but for years prior. These are the best athletes in the world and they — as well as the league — have had to clamor for investment historically. The confluence of where we are as a society and the fact that our product is as excellent as it is has put us on a path where those two things have resulted in some of the incredible achievements that we’ve had as a league.”
Berman’s own path has taken her from labor lawyer at Proskauer to 13 years at the NHL, to deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, all of which prepared her to have a major impact in her first year at NWSL and to win SBJ’s Best Hire of the year award for 2022.
At the time of her hiring, the NWSL was reeling in the wake of a string of abuse allegations by players that led to the firing or resignation of half the league’s head coaches. Commissioner Lisa Baird had also stepped down following the scandal in October 2021, and the league’s owners formed a five-member committee to find her permanent replacement. The NWSL Players Association demanded to be part of the process and formed its own eight-member committee led by Executive Director Meghann Burke.
Growth in NWSL sponsorship in 2022 compared to 2021
For both Berman and the players, the key moment in the interview process came toward the end of an hourlong video conference when someone asked Berman if she had any questions.
“The thing that I wanted to learn from the players was whether they were in a positive enough space to trust a new leader, assuming I earn their trust,” Berman said. “I needed to be convinced that if I showed up and took this leap of faith and gave this my all that it had the potential to be successful.”
The players were struck by Berman’s genuine interest in working collaboratively to reform and grow the league, which Burke said has materialized in her first year on the job.
“What’s really important about Jessica’s leadership is that she understands that players are the key to unlocking our potential,” Burke said. “She is sincerely interested and curious to hear what players think.”
Berman inherited the first-ever collective-bargaining agreement between the league and its players, which was ratified months before she was hired. While she admits she would have liked to be part of the negotiation process given her labor background (“Yes, in capital letters,” she said), the deal being done allowed Berman to focus on positioning the league for success.
Kansas City Current co-owner Chris Long credited Berman for building a strong relationship with the players, piecing together a formidable senior management team at the previously understaffed league office and growing sponsorship revenue by 90% from 2021. “You look at those three alone in a short period of time, I’m not surprised that you’re giving her this award,” Long said.
Improved relationships with the players is a top priority for Berman in her role. Among the benchmarks for NWSL this year: league-wide attendance topped one million fans for the first time and the largest single-game crowd in league history occurred in September when 32,000 fans attended a San Diego Wave- Angel City FC game at Snapdragon Stadium; viewership on Paramount+ was up almost 30% from 2021, and the championship match averaged 915,000 viewers on CBS, a 71% increase from last year’s title game.
Berman also navigated the fallout from U.S. Soccer’s investigation into past misconduct across the league. The Yates Report detailed heinous allegations of assault and harassment against former coaches and found that the owners of the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars had enabled their behavior. (Both Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler have since announced plans to sell their teams.) The report came out while the league and its players union were in the midst of their own joint investigation, the results of which were released last week with a statement from Berman promising to “take corrective action and implement systemic reform.”
“We quickly realized that our best approach was not to attempt to be responsive or defensive to something that we weren’t part of in terms of the process or had any knowledge of, but rather to respect the findings, review them, analyze them, direct the joint investigative team to incorporate those findings into their report and lean into the final stages of getting the joint investigative report done,” Berman said before the new report was released.
The league’s sold-out championship in Washington, D.C., in late October served as a triumphant conclusion to the season despite coming on the heels of the Yates Report. For the first time, the match, a 2-0 Portland win over Kansas City, aired in prime time on CBS thanks to support from Ally Financial.
To Berman, the biggest indicator of success was that 61 players who weren’t participating in the game showed up, representing about a third of the league. Almost none of them had attended the year before, and many told Berman that they were confident about the future of the league with her at the helm. “That was a moment that I will always remember and, in fact, makes me want to continue working hard to stay the course because I feel like what we’re doing is working,” Berman said.
The league is on the verge of adding two new expansion teams for the 2024 season and is in discussions with CBS about a potential renewal of its media rights deal, which expires after the 2023 season. The decisions Berman makes on both fronts will be important steps as the league continues its transformation.