Jessica Berman on the state of the NWSL, Alyssa Thompson goes first in the draft and shamelessly amplifying … me! :)

The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, Jan. 16, 2023

Before getting into Jessica Berman’s state of the league address at the NWSL draft (see some of her comments below) and Alyssa Thompson becoming the first direct-from-high school draft pick, I just wanted to point out a story that I did on efforts to bring diversity to elite women’s soccer — and why the pay-to-play model in youth sports is deeply flawed.

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Here’s the story so you can read it! I appreciate all the clicks you can muster, because it shows AP that women’s soccer is important.

A bit of backstory here: I’ve been working on this for a while. The seeds of it stem from the 2019 World Cup, when I noted that France’s national team was far more diverse than the U.S. team.

Sure, we’ve always known that the club system in youth sports is super problematic. I have experience as a parent — it’s super expensive to join these elite teams. The travel alone was budget-breaking for me. My son was a baseball player (along with other sports) and the equipment was crazy expensive: Bats, cleats, ever-changing uniforms. Then there were the clinics and the private lessons that were constantly pushed. It’s an industry that takes advantage of parents who hope to land an elusive college scholarship. Basically, “Youth Sports Inc.”

I was grateful to Crystal Dunn for her honesty: She spoke about how she was often one of the only Black girls on her club teams, and how she was lucky to have parents who could afford her sport. And even when she got to the national team, she had to do her own hair and makeup for photo shoots.

Thankfully, youth soccer is in the midst of a reckoning, thanks to athletes like Shannon Boxx and Shawna Gordon, U.S. Soccer Foundation President Ed Foster-Simeon and countless of other grassroots organizations across the country.

Developing elite talent is a bonus of their efforts. The focus is on lifting up ALL kids, regardless of color, financial standing or zip code. It’s not about making money, it’s about fostering well-rounded human beings.

There’s more work to be done, but it’s a good thing that smart people are looking at solutions to fix a broken system.

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OK, that said, Alyssa Thompson was — as expected — the first first NWSL draft pick to come straight out of high school. Remember, Trinity Rodman had already enrolled at Washington State, she just never played a college game because of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Angel City has assembled quite a squad and when Christen Press returns, well, I don’t really need to state the obvious.

And that leads up straight into …


My story on the draft and Thompson.

ESPN’s story from Charlotte Gibson.

Good story here from Jeff Kassouf of The Equalizer on how it all came together.

Clair Watkins passed out draft grades for Just Women’s Sports.

New Mexico has its first NWSL draftee! Congrats Briana Martinez!

Ryan Clarke looked at how the Thorns did for the Oregonian.

The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and Steph Yang look at Berman’s state of the league address before the draft.

The New York Times on the NWSL’s bans and fines.

Oh FFS: Paul Riley is complaining the NWSL is “woke” and “political.” So predictable. He says he’s fighting this, although even Fox said: “What exactly Riley is fighting has not yet been determined.”

Diana Matheson says support is growing for a Canadian league.

Alex Morgan was the lone American among the FIFA Best nominees, from Just Women’s Sports.

Amee Ruszkai on Dortmund’s women’s team for

The wonderful Suzanne Wrack for The Guardian on the WSL’s return and what to look for.

Rachael Kriger for The Equalizer on Orlando’s draft night.

Jenna Tonelli weighs in on Lynn Williams’ move and Gotham’s draft for The Equalizer.

Five at The IX: NWSL Commish Jessica Berman speaks before the draft!

Courtesy of the NWSL

Jessica Berman gave an overview of the state of the league before Thursday’s draft. Here’s just a bit of what she said, because it was a really comprehensive overview.

Berman: I would like to just say that I think it’s apropos that this week we completed step two of our three-part commitment to all of the NWSL ecosystem. We know that we’ve talked about fact-finding, corrective action and systemic reform. And we’re really proud to be able to start a new chapter, as the NWSLPA said most appropriately in their statement, by having shared publicly with full transparency the facts of the joint investigative report, and now having addressed corrective action, which was released on Monday. We worked really hard to get that behind us before we had today’s new beginning and in a position to look ahead to the 2023 season.

The third step in that process is systemic reform. And systemic reform is not something that can be a box check. Unlike fact-finding and corrective action, which is something that had to be on a to-do list, systemic reform is an ongoing commitment. It’s one that we will always remember is something we have to be committed to and learn from. We will continue to work and learn and listen. We will do our best to think about it from a short, medium and long-term perspective. And as announced on December 14, there will be implementation of changes for the 2023 season we announced in conjunction with the joint investigative report. That work is ongoing, but that won’t be the end. And it won’t be the end of our changes. There are a variety of initiatives that are going to take months and years to develop and implement. And we really are at the forefront of this work.

We’ve said multiple times that these issues are not unique to the NWSL, we just happen to have been in a position to have to address it publicly. And it puts us in a position of really forging a path for other sports leagues, and we’re proud to be able to ensure that with our commitment and partnership with the players association that we do everything we can to get it right and appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate that and learn from our experience.

As we look forward to the next chapter of the NWSL growth in history, we’re really excited about what’s in front of us in the short term. I think everybody knows our media agreement is up after the 2023 season and we’ve been so proud to partner with CBS and we’re also excited to both continue discussions with them and figure out what makes the most sense for the NWSL. And there’s a whole variety of factors we’ll be thinking about. And that process really, in earnest, begins next week as we really begin to dive in and those conversations with potential media partners from an expansion perspective. I’m sure I’ll get questions on this. It’ll be somewhere between days and months, more like weeks, when we’ll be in a position to share information, when we have news to share, we will. I think what I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us and I think when we have news to share, you will all agree that No. 1, it was worth waiting for, and No. 2, it will be a moment where we can all really recognize that the NWSL is a business worth investing in and will really demonstrate and validate the value that we all know these players and this league deserve.

Finally, as we look towards the launch of the 2023 season, some of the things you’ll be seeing and learning about our new brand strategy we’ve built out the league office executive staff and one of our new hires chief marketing officer is really focused on building a new brand identity for the NWSL. And all of that really couldn’t have happened without the hard work that we’ve done over the last year. So a lot to be excited about and we look forward to and thinking about 2023.

I think one of the themes you’ll hear and see, whether it’s from a sponsorship, expansion, media, or any other perspective is really a focus on investment, smart investment on the future. Investment is an indication that the business is worth investing in that smart people have determined that it’s an area of growth and it’s an area that is worthy of investment and I think one of the major takeaways of the joint investigative report is that it requires investment in order to really offer the professional environment that these players deserve.

And with that, I guess two tactical updates that we wanted to make sure to share. First as it relates to our salary cap, we’ve increased the salary cap by 25% for the upcoming season to 1.37 5 million, and we’ve increased the allocation money to $600,000. Those are obviously more broadly within the construct of the compensation structure. But I’m sure as many of you begin to dig in on what’s happening on a local level, our teams are doubling and tripling their investment whether it relates to coaching staff, or facilities or other areas that we know our players need and deserve in order to perform at the highest level.

Question: The fines that you announced, where does that money go?

Berman: The fine money is going to be used in furtherance of systemic reform and to directly benefit the lives of players. The specific initiatives that they will support will likely flow from what we announced in December, as what we’re committed to, but there’s a variety of opportunities for us to consider with those resources. And we’ll be both working internally consulting with subject matter experts in this space on policy reform as well as getting input from players directly and the players association on the best use of that money.

Question: Is there a timeline for when those funds are due? And is there a method for communicating they’ve been taken care of?

Berman: First of all, I have no reason to think that any of the entities that have been fine won’t pay those amounts. These are areas that have been heavily discussed at our board level and we certainly have the ability to enforce as needed through our operating agreement under the league. We’re going to be sending out invoices to the teams. It was this past Monday even though it feels like it was longer ago, it’s been a long week. and will apply to provide an appropriate period of time for that to be paid typically for fines. It’s somewhere around 30 days and we’ll figure that out with our finance team.

Question: What’s the discussion like about being thoughtful about who was investing and why, given sportswashing in women’s sports is a concern.

Berman: It’s a great question. It’s actually a conversation we’ve had a lot with our internal league commercial team as well as with our clubs, which is that right now, the environment circumstantially is that so many brands are interested in talking to us that we can be discerning, we can be clear about what we expect of them and we can be picky about who we want to partner with. And it’s not only their brand values, I will say, it’s the people, the people working in those places because we all came to this work — and I would say over the last couple of days, we’ve had so many league meetings and so many of the people who are working in the NWSL ecosystem are new. Everybody who has joined in the last year came here because of the opportunity.

With that in mind, we can make sure that we’re surrounding ourselves with like minded people who have similar values, that relates to organizations and brands, but it also relates to people. And so there have been, I think, off the top of my head a handful of conversations with brands that we’ve disengaged with on the basis of how they were showing up to the discussions, because we’re not interested in simply balancing a portfolio. We’re interested in partnering with brands that believe in the future of the league and are investing with an idea towards growth and for the long term and we talk a lot internally about being long-term greedy, and making sure that that’s our North Star.

Question: We have a salary cap, we have the allocation cap, what is the league approach towards being able to compete for top international players to bring those players in and have this be competitive with other leagues?

Berman: It’s absolutely a goal to continue to attract international talent and I know it was hotly followed whether Debinha was going to stay and was super excited that Kansas City was able to attract her to stay and I think if you listen to her remarks, one of the reasons she said was because of the investment in facilities and again, I think from a player’s perspective, and we know that these athletes are not only great athletes, but they’re smart. It’s not only about compensation, it’s about their player experience and all of that, I think informs decision making. And I think we’ll continue to see as our clubs invest in the infrastructure to support the playing environment, the players will want to play here.

Question: There are two NWSL clubs for sale. We’ve seen expansion teams, kind of bring those teams in rather than starting on their own in the past. Is that on the table for those two clubs?

Berman: Those processes are being run completely separately and quite intentionally. So and I’m sure you’ve all heard me talk a lot about process. I think process wins always in the context of getting to the best possible decision. One of the reasons we started the expansion process when we did in the way we did with subject matter experts to leave the conversation was to ensure that it had solid footing to be able to curate an independent result. Those groups necessarily are groups that are not necessarily interested in those markets, because they came to the table with particular connectivity in a local market and came and already presented plans for where they would play, how they would play, where they would train, connectivity with public and private partners locally. And so it would be a mismatch to suggest that it would be easy to sort of transport those people over as owners into incumbent franchises. And in fact, both of those owners in Chicago and in Portland, have hired their own subject matter experts in investment banks to lead a process so that they can actually find owners who are the right owners for those particular franchises in those particular markets.

Question: Safe to say that you’d like to see those deals (Portland and Chicago) done before the season begins.

Berman: It’s safe to say I’d like to. Will it happen? Likely not. Because these processes take time, even if you’re working night and day to make it happen. I couldn’t think of a faster process than we deployed for expansion. And that started in July. We’re closing in on a decision currently. I would that their processes began a couple of months ago. So they’re underway is what I would say. Where they are in the process how close they are to conclusion I couldn’t possibly speculate. I would just urge everyone’s patience to make sure we get the best possible owner there’s nothing more important than ensuring the teams are set up for success.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
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Written by Annie Peterson