Thorns Win! — Jessica Berman talks state of NWSL — Must-click women’s soccer links

The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, Oct. 31, 2022

Most of our The IX subscribers no doubt watched the NWSL championship game on Saturday night. In the midst of a difficult season off the field, the Portland Thorns prevailed. It was the fairytale ending the players deserved.

So I’m not going to recap Sophia Smith’s epic strike, or the cigar-smoking celebration in the locker room.

But I was struck by Meghan Klingenberg’s tears in the trophy ceremony, as she received her championship medal.

At first I thought they were tears of joy. But perhaps they were tears of relief. The Thorns did it. The season of tumult was over, capped by championship to help soften all the painful private conversations, the constant buzz of controversy and the media’s questions.

Photo courtesy of Domenic Allegra, The IX

One thing is for certain: Jordan Angeli was correct when she stated that Klingenberg was the “heartbeat” of the Thorns.

We’ve all seen the videos of Kligenberg’s hype speeches in team huddles. We’ve all heard her speak eloquently about the challenges of this season. But there is so much more we don’t see.

Molly Levinson, the spokesperson for the players in their successful Equal Pay fight, posted to Twitter:

Klingenberg was the USWNTPA representative in the talks with U.S. Soccer as players were negotiating the collective bargaining agreement reached 2017. While that deal didn’t achieve equal pay, it was an important step in the journey.

Later, Klingenberg was the first of the Thorns to publicly speak about The Athletic’s report on Paul Riley last fall.

“I think with that type of heaviness, comes the realization that things need to change. We’ve been doing a lot of grieving for our fellow players, we’ve been doing a lot of fact-finding, we’ve been doing a lot of having big discussions about where this league should go and how it should look like. And the one thing that keeps coming back to me, and to us, over and over and over again is that, without any say in the league, without any power, without the financial resources to protect ourselves, this will continue happening.”

If there’s one through-line in Klingenberg’s off-field career, it’s her constant calls for more investment in the women’s game.

For that, we can all be grateful. Here’s to you Kling, you deserve this championship. Plus, that halftime feature-ette on being vegan and the love of records was awesome.

There’s also been some breaking news this morning. First, Mana Shim has been named chair of U.S. Soccer’s Participant Safety Taskforce. Good move.

Also, the roster dropped this morning for the upcoming friendlies against Germany. No real surprises here, Alex Morgan and Mal Pugh are back. Catarina Macario is still rehabbing, as expected. The good thing (and I made the case recently in a Soccer Monday) Adrianna Franch is back.

Canada’s roster also dropped for its friendlies in Brazil. Just FYI, Janine Beckie is taking some time off. She’ll be back.

Finally, get ready to pack your bags for New Zealand!


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LINKS!

Here’s a roundup of stories about the victory.

From the New York Times!

From The Associated Press. Obviously, I wrote it, but no byline because I wasn’t on-site.

From Jeff Carlisle of ESPN

From the hometown Oregonian, by Ryan Clarke

The Athletic’s gamer

Seth Vertelney recapped the match for USA Today.

Henry Bushnell covered the championship for Yahoo Sports.

Jonathan Tannenwald focused on the greatness of Sophia Smith for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ryan also wrote a great story about Sam Coffey. He also looked at the 5 Things that contributed to the Thorns’ victory.

USA Today’s great Lindsay Schnell writes about the pressure on Merritt Paulson to sell.

Just FYI: Here’s the link to the website for the organizers of the fan-led bid to buy the Thorns and Timbers.

Jeff Kassouf for ESPN with suggestions on how to boost attendance in the NWSL.

Meg Linehan from the Athletic on Ally’s extension of its league sponsorship.

Rachel Bachman from the Wall Street Journal on Lo’eau LaBonta.

Didn’t want this to get lost in the NWSL stuff this past week, but FIFA released its second benchmarking report on women’s football. I wrote about it, but the report has some interesting tidbits, which is linked in my article.

One thing I will say: FIFA has its issues, as we all know, but Sarai Bareman is a passionate advocate for the game. I know I’ve said it before. She is sincerely trying to grow the sport.

Sopia Smith’s celly also spawned some epic memes. My fave:

Five at The IX: Jessica Berman from DC

Jessica Berman. Domenic Allegra photo.

Jessica Berman gave her state of the league address on Friday before the championship game. Here’s a bit of what she said:

Hello, everyone, thank you all for being with us here at this iconic stadium and moment in time, which will be the beginning, we believe, of a movement for the NWSL. Before I get into specific remarks about the NWSL and some observations in my first six months on the job, I wanted to start by saying that I think many of you were with me, when I took this job. My first day was April 20. And I believe my first press conference was on March 9, and I think I recall saying to you then that I accepted this job for the very specific reason of believing that I was uniquely situated to be able to make an impact for the NWSL. I understood exactly what the challenges were and are and felt uniquely prepared to be able to address them on the basis of my background and experience. And also felt that I had been preparing for this moment, really, every single day since I was a teenager, and that nothing would make me happier than having the opportunity to apply that for these incredible athletes. And what I can say is that the last six months have really only validated, confirmed that and inspired me to know and believe that this league has unlimited potential and we at the league with our sponsors, our relationship with our players, association of players, and frankly, with your support from media, have the ability to actually bring this to life and make these players dreams come true and for the next generation of athletes. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business.

And we are so excited to be able to share some of the incredible achievements that have come to fruition in the last six months. And I’ll name some of them and I’m sure some of them will come up in our Q&A dialogue. But first, we just came from the most incredible event, which was focused on Title IX. The event was entitled Scoreboard for Title IX. I think I recognize some faces in the room who came to cover it. So thank you for that. And the discussion was really about not only taking a moment to celebrate and reflect on all of the progress and the incredible achievements of women and girls on the back of Title IX legislation that was passed 50 years ago, but also to be honest about the future and that we still have a lot of work to do. We learned in the discussion today that in 2022 girls who want to play sports find themselves in the exact same situation that boys were in, in 1972. We are where we were 50 years ago. That doesn’t take away and the incredible accomplishments of the last 50 years, and so many people have benefited from Title IX. In fact, our league, let’s be honest, wouldn’t exist or not for Title IX.

However, we also have to be honest about the road ahead and that we have to be prepared to do hard things. And I think that’s the perfect analogy and framework to think about the NWSL the future. The theme we’ve been talking about a lot at the league office and with our Board of Governors is the theme that both can be true. It can be true that the league has incredible momentum, incredible opportunity ahead of us. All of the indicators for success. investment from ownership investment, from sponsors, interests, from media, support from our fans, all of those things can be true and it can also be true that we have some very hard things to address and to work on and to face down and we are going to own and be transparent that both will be a priority. We won’t lose sight of either one as we work together to unify this ecosystem on behalf of the NWSL and our players. I think you all know that we are in the middle of an ongoing investigation. The Sally Yates report came out approximately three weeks ago, for those who haven’t followed it as closely. That report was commissioned by U.S. Soccer. Our ongoing investigation is jointly commissioned by the NWSL and NWSLPA. And that’s been really the cornerstone and the bedrock of our position on anything related to this topic. As many of you have probably read, our partnership with players and taking direction from the players, has been, and will continue to be, our framework, our grounding for what guides the future of this league, and there’s nothing more important than us delivering on our promise to them and others that these players deserve and will play for a league that they feel proud to play in and provides a healthy and safe environment for them to reach their potential.

The three goals of our joint investigation with the Players Association have always been continue to be first seeking the truth. Second, corrective action, and third, systemic reform. We are still in the first stage of that three part process which is seeking the truth. Our collective direction to our Joint Investigative Team, which is being led by Covington and Burling, is to pursue the facts where they lead, pursue the facts where they lead. That means that we have no specific direction on timeline, substance, findings, recommendations. They have the autonomy to drive process, and as you might imagine, the Yates report unlocked many conversations with witnesses, documents, and other individuals who felt that they had important information to share. And although I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted, or requested, for us soccer’s report to come out three weeks before championship, it turns out that everything happens for a reason and it’s a good thing. Why is it a good thing? because our goal is to let the joint investigators pursue the facts where they lead and leave no stone unturned. Why is that important? Because in order for this league to heal, and for these players to trust the league and the future direction of the NWSL they have to know that that is the sole priority of the joint investigation. And so that will continue to be our position despite the fact that a lot of people want us to be doing and saying more. There will be a time where we have a conversation about corrective action and systemic reform.

You can imagine that since a year ago, time has not stood still. Many, many changes have occurred in the last year at the league office. With respect to systemic reform and even corrective action. But that’s not the focus of what we’re talking about externally. We’re going to continue to work quietly behind the scenes to put the league in a position to be successful and to bring the joint investigative process to conclusion which includes making sure that we and the Players Association are prepared to put our pencils down and have the Joint Investigative Team put their pencils down and release our report publicly.

Finally, to turn to some of the more positive metrics, we’re really excited about the momentum of league and believe it isn’t a moment, but a movement. And I’ll start with attendance which I’m sure many of you have been tracking and see. We announced I believe it was in August that we for the first time in the history of the league, crossed the 1 million person through the turnstile for our attendance an incredible achievement as well with respect to attendance, as I’m sure everybody has been watching, over the last two weekends with these incredible playoff games. We’ve had an average attendance of over 21,000 at our four matches four different cities, each of which has set the record in the history of the league for a playoff match. With respect to viewership are paramount plus viewership numbers are up almost 30% year over year, which is really important for us we need people to want to not only attend games but watch games where they can be viewed.

Our sponsorship revenue is up nearly 90% year over year. We are so incredibly proud to be surrounded by the partners at the league office, the league level. These partners are not only standing by the league, but they are also doubling down on the league. They know and understand, just like I did when I took this job six months ago, that this league needs more resources, not less. And we are so confident that we have the right partners around us and that we are talking to the right new partners who want to join us and be part of the change that we want to see.

Finally, I’ll just end with where I started about the Title IX event we hosted this morning. We have an incredible staff at the league office and we often talk about how the NWSL lacks the resources that more established properties have and as you all know, I spent my entire career working in men’s sports where we thought we needed more resources but you don’t really know how good you have it until you find yourself with less. And I couldn’t be more proud of our league. Our teams the way we’ve leveled up. I’ve heard from many people in this room and our sponsors about the difference between this year and last year, and the difference between last year and the year before, and I think what you can expect from the NWSL is that every year we will be leveling up and we are going to continue to show up like the league we want to be.

Question about growth of the business side:

First let me just say Angela Ruggerio and her team at Sports Innovation Lab are incredible. They, I think, started the movement in many ways to value women’s sports and really taught and continue to teach the industry that when you think about women’s sports — and actually Andrea Bremmer from Ally Bank talked about this this morning at the Title IX summit — when you think about women’s sports, we have to challenge ourselves to find innovative ways to measure value. We can’t measure women’s sports the same way we measure men’s sports because women’s sports haven’t been given the same platform to have the distribution and reach that’s necessary to capitalize on that exposure. So I think some of that work that she’s really led with her incredible team. On a personal level. I have the really good fortune of having been close to Angela since my years at the National Hockey League and when I was at the National Lacrosse League in my last role, she asked me to be part of a women’s executive network group, which is a cohort of some of the most incredible women in our industry and we meet on a monthly basis to share best practices. Some of them work in men’s sports, women’s sports, some work at brands, and really it’s just been an incredible group of women to have shared values, shared experience, and to be able to ask each other hard questions because we know that men have the opportunity to network in that way. And in our industry, there haven’t really been spaces in places for women to do that. And she’s really been a pioneer in facilitating that.

Question about expansion and neutral site championships:

Probably a quicker answer to your second question about a neutral site game. I think right now where our head is at, is that for the foreseeable future, and I don’t know that I necessarily mean more than the next year or two, we believe it makes more sense for a host of reasons which I can get into to continue to host our game at a neutral site. Part of the reason for that is again, I talked earlier about limited resources at the league office to be able to execute a marquee event with five days notice requires 10 floors in a New York City commercial office space and we have one, so until the league is at a point where we can over-deliver for our fans and our partners to be able to turn around an event and seven days, five to seven days. I think it makes more sense for us to be at a neutral site.

I also think it’s an opportunity for us to be intentional about engaging different marketplaces, create connections. Even planning this event has given also the league office a chance to get to know the inner workings of not just the Washington Spirit but DC United, who have been an incredible partner to execute this week and tomorrow’s event, and also to connect with the city’s Sports Commission, local partners, community partners. And for us at the league as we’re continuing to invest in ourselves, understanding our local markets is only going to help us be able to in turn, share those best practices back with our local teams.

As to your first question on expansion, I think most people know in mid-July, we announced that we are partnering with Inner Circle Sports. They’re an investment bank that runs these types of expansion and M&A type processes. And given my background, I thought it was really important that we facilitate an open and transparent process given all of the interested parties who really on a disorganized an ad hoc basis were reaching out to me personally and my first six weeks on the job and I felt that the process needed some order and some professionalism. And so the process began in mid-July. We started with I believe 82 interested groups where we began to do mutual due diligence, meaning that we were researching them and they were researching us, and being really intentional about how we narrow the field and narrow the scope of who’s standing at the finish line. The deadline for the expansion applications is actually next Friday. So we don’t have a lot going on in the league office at all right now (laughs). November 4 is the deadline. We have many, many groups and a confidential data group. And I would expect based on early indications and preliminary conversations that we get expansion applications — which are I should mention extremely invasive and robust in terms of the type of information you’d be asked to share. So it really is intended to be a weeding out process so that those who submit applications are real contenders. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time. — I expect that we’ll have at least five and perhaps closer to 10 bids that come in next Friday.

Question about the expansion timeline.

I think we still have a lot of work to do. That’s really sort of, although we’ve had a process going on since July. That’s really sort of the opportunity for those groups to really present their plan. That is going to prompt an insane amount of work on our end to both review that information and ask questions and then educate our board. Ultimately, as most people know, working with sports industry, this isn’t my decision. This is the board’s decision. My job will be to vet every candidate and make a recommendation to the board. But there’s going to need to be a discussion at the board level before we’re prepared to share anything externally. So to manage expectations, I think it’s going to be a little bit before we’re prepared to share any information publicly.

Question: On negotiations for future TV deal.

They do get an exclusive negotiating period. That period actually begins after the championship. And so we’re excited to get in the room with CBS. They’ve been an incredible partner. We know that, as I mentioned earlier, this is the first time in the league’s history that our championship game is on primetime, on CBS. It’s an incredible achievement. It shouldn’t take 10 years but we are here and we’re gonna move forward from here and we’ll be excited to talk to CBS about what the future could look like.


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
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Eleni Demestihas, @strongforecheck, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Annie Peterson