The NWSL 2023 season is upon us. Hear what Commish Jessica Berman said this morning

The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, March 20, 2023

The NWSL season kicks off this weekend, and below you can see what Commissioner Jessica Berman said in her preseason press conference this morning.

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But first, let’s do a quick review of the big news that happened this past week. FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that the prize money for the Women’s World Cup is increasing to $110 million. The overall pool for participating teams is $152 million.

So, that’s better than the $60 million estimate that had been bandied about since the 2019 World Cup. Keep in mind that the field has expanded to 32 teams, up from 24.

OK, so it’s better than $60 million, but not quite equitable. But wait! Infantino said that the goal is to have equalized prize money for the 2026/2027 World Cups.

FIFPro, the global players union, had been pushing FIFA since October. It sent a letter, signed by 150 players, calling on FIFA for more equitable pay — and treatment. Rachel Bachman broke the story in the Wall Street Journal last week.

I obtained a copy of the letter. Players made three proposals:

  1. An equal framework of regulations and conditions for the men’s and women’s World Cups, including equal prize money for the senior events.
  2. A global guarantee of at least 30 percent of prize money for players who compete in the Women’s World Cup, paid in a timely manner.
  3. A binding agreement between FIFA and the players to ensure these commitments.

What’s interesting to me is the guaranteed pay for players. That’s a good way to guarantee that players get paid no matter what the federations try to do.

“FIFA has an opportunity right here and now — as we countdown towards the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and its regulatory framework is decided — to give our teammates of today and tomorrow the treatment and recognition they deserve. As national team players, we want to leave women’s football in better shape than we found it; we want the next generation to enjoy better conditions and competitive opportunities than we did. And, we want to make out contribution in our countries to our own football community.”

Here was my story about the letter.

I’ll have more on this story later this week for the AP, so watch for my story (shameless plug!)

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Germany’s Dzsenifer Marozsan announces retirement.

San Diego Union Tribune with a big preseason story on Alex Morgan.

The Equalizer’s Blair Newman looks at the top questions facing each NWSL team.

Just Women’s Sports ranks the new kits.

FanSided’s NWSL preview.

Jeff Kassouf had a one-on-one with Jessica Berman for The Equalizer.

Just gutted for Janine Beckie. Hate when players get injured.

The whole Visit Saudi thing is over: Not a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup.

Human Rights Watch also posted about FIFA’s decision.

This is interesting: South Africa has jumped into the running for the 2027 World Cup.

The Athletics’ Jashua Kloke has a good explainer on the Canadian labor dispute.

I’m not going to link the BBC’s story on the Afghan women’s football team (you can go look for it if you want, but I don’t want to give the story clicks), but I just want to say I don’t give a sh*t whether those women were elite soccer players or not. They all deserved to be saved from the Taliban, no matter their level. In fact, they deserved to be helped whether they play or not.

The Guardian wrote about the fallout of the story.

My favorite Tweet this week:

FIVE AT THE IX: NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman

Jessica Berman spoke this morning to the media. For an hour! There was a lot there, so here’s a taste of what she said. To highlight: VAR, nothing to report on the Red Stars and Thorns sales or a new broadcast deal, NWSL will have presence at the World Cup, and hopes are that we’ve moved on from the turbulence of the last two seasons.

Berman in this morning’s call

Berman’s opening remarks: So excited about this upcoming weekend and the launch of our 11th season and I can’t believe that it’s been almost a year since I took this role. I wanted to share a few reflections on the past 11 months and also some highlights as we think about our future and the 2023 season, and some things that we’re especially looking forward to. And mostly I want to leave time for questions and make sure that I give you all the information you need to be able to support and promote the league.

Thinking about my first year on the job, there’s really two primary reflections that I have in terms of the areas where we’ve made the most progress and the things that I’m most proud of. The first are really picking up on the thread of our very first press conference, which related to my listening tour of listening to you and understanding the first-hand experience of first and foremost our players but also, all of those individuals both front office staff, owners, players, coaches, media sponsors, partners, both current and prospective, all of whom are so passionate about this league and I just feel so fortunate to have the beginning of their process which I will continue to earn and covet as we think about the future of this league. I think the most important thing from a leadership perspective is to think about a listening tour, not as a one and done, but something that will continue and I’d like to think that in my first 11 months here, I’ve really established, with so many individuals within and outside the ecosystem of the NWSL, really an open line of communication and a bilateral communication where I feel really comfortable and safe to asking questions and sharing information about our future and also getting input, feedback and ideas from so many people who are so invested in the future of this league.

The second thing that I’m super proud of, is really just the investment that we’re making in ourselves. I think as we seek to unlock the future potential of this league. We know that a lot of the history of what’s held this lead back and prevented us from reaching our potential is a lack of investment and I’m just so proud of the league and our Board of Governors and our teams and the way that we’re beginning to invest in ourselves. That has shown up in our staff experience and our player experience. We’ve increased the infrastructure support as it relates to training facilities as it relates to simply things like you know where we work. I think many of you know that we officially opened our league office on Madison Avenue in New York City, and these little things actually matter in terms of having people feel professional and valued. Also from a staffing perspective, there have been multiple teams that have doubled and tripled their investment in their staff. And we know and we’ve shared that we’ve doubled the number of staff that existed the league office to be able to support all of the new initiatives that we’re working on, many of which have already been implemented and we’re continuing to implement and I guess I’d like to highlight a couple of those things.

First being that we for the first time, I believe as far as I’m aware of, we’re going to be launching a player first, first person campaign that is focused on really lifting up and supporting our players celebrating the joy and excitement that they bring to all of us and to our fans . We think that’s really apropos given that this is a World Cup year. And we know that we expect approximately 25% to 30% of our players will be featured on the biggest stage internationally this summer in New Zealand and Australia and we’re so excited to support them. One of those elements will be highlighted tomorrow when we launch the beginning of a campaign that’s going to thread through our entire season called We Play Here. We’re so proud of the players who play in our league and who have given us the opportunity to lift their gains and to shine a light on their incredible achievements. We know that this season is going to demonstrate that women’s soccer and the NWSL really can be the major player in the landscape of entertainment that is available here and globally.

Some other things that we’re super excited about, as we think about this season, we are implementing VAR. This is a really big deal. Not just because we know that we have to and are committed to elevating the officiating, the quality of officiating in our game, and that it requires significant investment and our board has authorized that investment, but also because we are the first ever women’s professional league to commit to invest in VAR for the professionals. We’re really proud of that and really proud of our staff that’s executed this tremendous heavy lift in the offseason to get us as ready as humanly possible for showtime this weekend.

Some other highlights that we’re excited about. We know and we’ve talked ate that about attendance and ticket sales are really the rocket fuel that will feed the growth of this league and year over year as we look ahead from 2022 to 2023 season, we’re up 20% in season ticket holders on a league-wide basis and we’ve already surpassed the number of sales for opening weekend and we still have five days to go. Hopefully with all the media that will come out of today’s press conference and everything that’s coming this week, we know that that will just continue over the next five to six days. So we’re excited to break some records.

And then finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our ongoing effort with respect to systemic reform. I know that I’m sure many of you will have questions about that. Some highlights of some of the changes we’ve made, as we begin to really shift the culture of this league for the first time ever, our professionalized human resource department visited every single club this preseason to do in-person training, several hour in-person trainings, really to begin the dialogue and discussion and learning around all of our policies and what we’re committed to, what the lines of reporting are in the event anyone has a complaint, either anonymous or if people wish to self-identify, and also the implementation of the results of the player survey that was conducted in the postseason. That has given us the opportunity to really hone in on the areas from the player experience that need improvement. We’re working in partnership with all of our teams on the execution of those very key strategic priorities on the basis of players’ feedback. So just a few things I wanted to highlight and I guess we could open it up for questions.

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Question: It a big year with the World Cup. And we’ve seen obviously major swings come in but in terms of how maybe a World Cup plays into a longer term strategy where you’re looking three, four or five years down the line, what is that big-picture thinking that has been happening? And what’s still in the works between now and July for the NWSL?

Berman: We’re super excited about how we’re elevating the league, not just domestically but internationally. I think that began with our investment in recruiting Tatjana Haenni from the international landscape, who spent all her career in Europe working for FIFA, UEFA and Switzerland. With Tatjana’s guidance, we’ve really begun to crack the code on how we elevate our presence internationally. I think you’re going to see some of that this summer, or the beginnings of that this summer, at the Women’s World Cup where the NWSL will have a physical presence. Some of our teams are going to be doing activations, the league will have a presence and boots on the ground. I have made an intentional effort to spend time overseas with some of the key stakeholders and influencers, as we think about some of the nuts and bolts that will position the league for success including the schedule footprint and how we think about interweaving the priorities of the pro game with the national team activities. That’s an area that we’re going to be doing more intentional strategy work and beginning to get ahead of the planning cycle so that we’re planning one to three years ahead.

Question: You mentioned the attempts at systemic reforms and implementing those. I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little bit on the process of teams carrying out the expectations that the league has set.

Berman: Policies and processes and programs only matter to the extent there’s accountability for them. I’d say fortunately, our clubs are completely aligned with the systemic reform activities that have begun and will continue to remain a priority. I’ll give you some examples. One example that comes to mind is with respect to staffing. We’ve required that every team hire a HR professional to be boots on the ground and with the hiring of our Chief People and Culture officer at league, Lauren Lopez, we are facilitating monthly webinars to make sure that there’s open lines of communication on best practices, and increasing the visibility that the league has with our teams and some of the challenges that they’re facing, either with respect to players or their own staff, which we know are interrelated. We also are requiring that every team designate a club Player Safety Officer, and that player safety officer is going to be required to and there is a job description with very clear requirements of what they will be responsible for, and reporting mechanisms to the league on some key areas that we’ve identified that are necessary, outside of the context of an individual complaint. Those are just some some examples of some of the ways that we’re really infusing some of the culture change work that we’re executing at the league level into the teams. I think, in my experience, the teams are really welcoming of the increased focus and support in this area, knowing that it is really sort of table stakes as we think about the growth of the league.

Question: Is there any update on teams changing owners at this point, or anything that you can report on that?

Berman: The process is ongoing, and it’s something that I personally check in on on at least every few weeks basis. Both ownership transfer processes are underway, and we are in advanced stages of due diligence with several qualified owners. No specific news to share, but, you know, we we are working in partnership with those club owners to make sure that the teams are really put in the hands of the right owner to be able to join the league and support the league’s macro goals.

Question: Given all of the difficulty and angst that has kind of surrounded the league over the last couple of years, How much of this season do you think is an opportunity to kind of turn the page and focus a little bit more on the games, the players.

Berman: It’s one of the reasons I mentioned in my opening remarks, the focus on the players and the themes of joy and excitement, and celebrating the players’ incredible achievements. Some of what I’ve heard in my ongoing bilateral communication directly with players is that they’re a bit tired and exhausted from the burdens of having had to carry the weight of some of these areas of culture challenges and reform that have plagued the league for some number of years and they’re prepared to focus on playing soccer. I think it’s their hope that we at the league and through ownership and management can really take on the burden and work behind the scenes to offer the playing environment that meets the standard that certainly I’ve committed to, which is a place that makes the players proud to play. And our hope is that all of you will will follow that lead and begin to help us shine a light on the games and their athleticism and the excitement of the league. We know that we have one of the, if not the most, competitive league in the world, anyone can win any game. We have some of the best players in the world and we believe that that will be highlighted as we go into our 11th season, as well as sort of the exclamation mark as we lead into the World Cup and watch our our NWSL players compete on an international stage. I do think there’s there’s going to be a shift. We recognize that media and other external stakeholders will still want to and need to ask these questions and we expect to be held accountable to the commitments we’ve made. From a player perspective, I think they deserve and and want the focus and attention to be on the game and the sport itself.

Question: Does the League have a desired timeline as far as the completion of the team sales and is there any communication between the league and the prospective owners for the teams?

Berman: From our perspective, we’re not going to set an artificial deadline. The most important thing is that we have the right ownership in place who are not just resourced appropriately but willing to invest what’s necessary to provide the professional environment that we all know is necessary. And so, as long as we feel that the process is moving forward in good faith, we’ll continue to make sure that that is the utmost priority. As it relates to my communication with any prospective owners, to the extent it’s been helpful or probative to the process, I have had individual conversations. Certainly both clubs are aware that I’m available to have conversations and in fact, some of those prospective investors have reached out to me separately to understand the vision for the league and what we’re looking for in an owner as we would ultimately be the ones who’d be recommending the new owner to the board for approval. So the process has been very collaborative and moving relatively quickly and at an appropriate pace and we’re very excited and confident in the future of how those will conclude.

Question: I know the Boston and Bay Area teams haven’t been formally announced yet. But when that happens, you’ll have an odd number of teams in the league. Are you okay with that or does it open the door to further expansion to get back to an even number of teams? And also you said ticket sales are a big part of the rocket fuel to grow the league. But I don’t think I heard you say anything about broadcast rights being part of that equation. Can the league get to a point where broadcasts revenue is bigger than ticket sales revenue?

Berman: I’ll take the second question first. I think everyone knows that we are in an ongoing media process, our current deal with CBS expires at the conclusion of the 2023 season. I guess I’ll first talk about how excited we are about this season: we have our first CBS game, I think it might be the earliest in the season that that we’ve had, it’s on April 1st and I’m excited to be in Kansas City for that match. We also announced, I think you know, that our championship will be on primetime, which we think is another great opportunity for us to expose and expand our audience. The conversations we’ve had have been robust. There are many interested parties in the media landscape and I couldn’t at this time share any of the details of that. But we are looking at it holistically we’re looking at it both from a domestic as well as international perspective, and we think that there are some really interesting opportunities here and overseas to consider as we think about growing our brand globally and really claiming our space as the best league in the world. We we want to make sure that we provide opportunities for fans to see our games anywhere and everywhere. And that will certainly be part of the strategy and priority for us as we think about the future of our media deals. I don’t have a timeline on when that might happen. Certainly we’re hopeful that we will be in a position to be able to make some announcements in that regard. And I think all the conversations are trending to allow for us to meet that deadline.

I think your other question was about investments in broadcast and why we made that decision to make that investment. I would say there’s a couple of reasons. The first is, surprisingly, for me, at least, in my conversations on my listening for with buyers, it was one of the most concerning issues from the player’s perspective. They really felt that it needed to be a priority for the league to invest in broadcast production production and for the game itself to be able to showcase in a way for fans to be able to appreciate their athleticism and how great the NWSL is. And really that was a consistent theme and almost every team of players that I spoke with. I think we also know that we expect to really have more visibility with our next media deal. And we’re really looking at this next season as preparation for more offerings and a larger stage and certainly the expectation with larger audience will be higher production quality. We felt it was the appropriate time to take those next steps. And then finally, thinking about VAR, there are some minimum standards that are required in order to even be in a position to implement and execute VAR and so that was another reason that made the equation make more sense from a league and ownership perspective.

Question: And the expansion question?

Berman: Given that our current schedule is a balanced schedule, certainly it would present some changes and challenges to the league in building a schedule if we had an uneven number of teams. But again, I’ll come back to my answer to the earlier question about ownership transfers: There’s really nothing more important than having the right kind of owners in place, not just from a financial resource perspective, but a willingness to invest, and therefore we would never rush any decisions as it relates to either ownership transfers or expansion for any other reason. And so, while it will continue to be a consideration in an ideal world, we prefer to have an even number of teams, we’ll always make sure we get to the right result, which is the right owners, and never be rushed to make the wrong decision with an artificial deadline or any other consideration.

Question: We’ve seen the valuation of teams in this league and literally like three years ago from around 5 million for Kansas City, to now reciting, you know, $50 million expansion fees, from the Wall Street Journal, of course, or perhaps more. Do you think that this is the league and the teams realizing that they can ask for more?

Berman: I think I attribute all of the increase in investment, whether it’s internal, meaning our board, or external meaning investors, whether it’s minority or controlling owners, expansion, sponsorship, media. I think it all falls under the same conclusion from where I sit, which is an increased focus on process. I think historically, the way the league has approached growth and business has been sort of on its back foot, perhaps because we didn’t have the infrastructure or subject matter expertise or confidence to let a proper process get us to the right result. And I think, if anything, that we’ve learned in the last 11 months that the market will tell us our value, so long as we give it the appropriate opportunity to produce that value. Everything that I’ve seen has validated that. I think through the test and learn, I think we’ll continue to deploy that strategy.

I think you make a really good observation about how that increased level of investment changes the pool of people, which sometimes will require a little more patience, a little more mutual due diligence, a little more sophistication and how we think about modeling and presenting our P&L. With that in mind, we just all need to recognize that the old ways of doing business are probably no longer applicable. We’re not going to close deals in 30 to 60 days. We are dealing with really sophisticated people who appropriately have questions. There’s also the league’s due diligence, and I think the level of sophistication that we’re approaching all of our business transactions with requires a different level of transparency and questions around values alignment and intention of investing and expectations being clear from the beginning. We’re taking these things really seriously and building into our models the fact that there may be expectations that can’t be met if don’t find the right people and that’s OK, we’re in it for for the long haul. And we talk a lot about being long-term greedy. We’re not looking for quick wins, we’re looking for the right wins and we’re looking to build sustainable growth and go from a mentality of surviving to thriving and I think all of that requires a change in mentality, culture and expectations.

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: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Annie Peterson