With the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC kicking off the NWSL Fall Series for a national audience on CBS, league commissioner Lisa Baird spoke with media present to cover the game at Segra Field yesterday afternoon. Following a brief chat with the Spirit Squadron just outside of the stadium, Baird took questions about getting the Fall Series off the ground, planning for next year, and the league’s interactions with both the NWSL Players Association and the Black Players of the NWSL.
Baird, who officially started in her role just as Covid-19 began to change American society in so many ways, described her first six months on the job as “a whirlwind.” It’s easy to see why she’d choose that description: Since being named commissioner, Baird has had to cancel the regular season, implement safety protocols for a new virus to protect players and staff, create and execute the successful Challenge Cup, improve the league’s stable of sponsors, navigate a promising broadcast set-up with CBS and Twitch, and get the Fall Series going.
“It’s hard to have that perspective yet,” said Baird on the idea of looking back at everything the league has dealt with in 2020. “We’re at our first game kicking off the Fall Series. It’s not over and we’re trying to take advantage of opportunities, but be conservative in our safety and medical protocols. And also, you know, make sure that we’re doing the right thing for our player group and our owner group. So I haven’t got the perspective yet.”
“What I do have is the appreciation for my staff, the team owners and the team staffs, who can pull something like this off in a week,” added Baird. “And ultimately the players who...you know, they want to play, but they challenged me to be a better commissioner. And I appreciate that. Sometimes it’s tough, don’t get me wrong. But I really appreciate that.”
Baird said that the NWSL knew they had to give players some time off after the grind of the Challenge Cup, which involved a bubble environment far from home for most players, and repeated games played on turf on short rest, and said that the Fall Series came together very quickly.
“We were talking at the owners’ meeting in July, about what our fall plans were and you know, that was July 21. We [knew] we wanted to give the players a break,” said Baird, but beyond that the league and teams entered the planning phase with open minds. “[Players] came back to training around August 15, and we were kind of shaping our plans by August 15.”
Baird paid tribute to everyone involved in getting the Fall Series going on such a tight timeline. “If we didn’t have the most dedicated, passionate staff that work incredible hours, if we didn’t have team staffs and team owners that were willing to go the extra distance and figure out some thorny problems, and we didn’t have the players, who really felt like they were not only doing the right thing for the sport, but were challenging us to do the right thing by them as a community, none of this would have happened.”
The opportunity to have games on national television was also a significant factor. Baird referred to the NWSL’s deal with CBS “a game-changer,” but also noted that there was an element of good fortune in simply being ready to go.
“That’s one of these magical circumstances where we were ready with our medical and safety protocols,” said Baird. “We had gotten through our discussions with the [NWSL Players Association], because our collaborative discussions with the PA all along had been a backbone of what we’re doing. And then CBS came to us with this opportunity, and we were very quick to take it.”
Baird said the NWSL’s Fall Series, which involves play in regional groups rather than nationwide travel, started with the concept of adapting the medical protocols that worked for the Challenge Cup to a template that doesn’t involve a bubble. “I wasn’t really looking at other leagues. I was much more focused on, could we put together the safety and the medical protocols that would allow us to do what we want to do not in the bubble?”
Baird also pointed out that, with the stop-start nature of training and games this year, there’s an added player safety benefit of smaller regional pods, which keep travel time low and still allow the league to have games on a regular basis. ”That’s where the pod idea came up, which helps us minimize travel and that’s also got other health benefits, right? So, you know, not a lot of time traveling, and you can get there [quickly].”
Owing to their own stated interest in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the Spirit placed a Black Lives Matter banner right at midfield. With the recent first public statement from the Black Players of the NWSL and both squads coming together to make a public, player-driven statement before the game, the issue of racial justice and demanding an end to police brutality against Black people across the country was a major story on the day.
Here’s a look at the Spirit players’ shirts. The front says Black Lives Matter and on the back each player chose a phrase that means something to them. I believe you’ll see more on players’ social media soon. pic.twitter.com/bKKWCgfVji— Emily Olsen (@EmilyTOlsen) September 6, 2020
Asked by Black and Red United about the league’s interactions with the Black Players of the NWSL, Baird said that it began with individual talks in Utah during the Challenge Cup. “That was when the players came to me with the Black Lives Matter effort. We were fully supportive of that, and we wanted to collaborate,” said Baird. “I think we understood the responsibility of being the first team sports [league] back, and how we could use our platform. And when you look back at it, Black Lives Matter is the most, the biggest and most important movement in the United States... As we move forward, I think it’s gratifying to me that our players got a chance to help make it the biggest movement that’s ever happened in the United States.”
Baird said that the next step will involve building personal relationships with the leaders in the Black Players of the NWSL. “What will come next is me talking more to them [as a group] and Midge [Purce] and Sarah [Gorden], and you know, Jessica [McDonald], and Lynn [Williams]. I really want to get to know them better. And again, it goes back to listening and finding where is it that we can make a difference.”
The league’s recently announced Community Shield program was not explicitly created to make that kind of difference, but Baird said she sees an opportunity for that program to become a tangible way for the NWSL to take action. “Frankly, I think the Community Shield program, to shine a light on programs and businesses in local communities, that can make a difference. I think teams and players really get behind that, because now we have to [take action]... You’re gonna see evidence that we’re really going to get behind [the idea of], how do we make our communities where we live and work and play better?”
The league is also working on deepening their bonds with the NWSL Players Association, which came up throughout Baird’s comments. “I think [the NWSLPA is] characterized by these three things: Honesty and transparency. Even though there are times when we’re not gonna agree, we always look for, ‘what’s that common objective?’ So where’s the common ground for us, as a league and a PA, because there are going to be areas where we disagree. And the third thing is listening. You’ve got to listen, and I mean that to me is the best skill that a commissioner can have. Because oftentimes, you know, what’s said the first time, you have to probe into it and really understand. And that’s on both sides.”
As for her plans for the NWSL for next year and beyond, Baird said the league has not yet hammered out the details on both the structure of the season — which remains in question due to the lack of clarity on what will and won’t be safe — and how the league will conduct the draft. “We have a lot to contend with, in terms of an ever-dynamic environment, things like the college draft, things like how we’re going to work on different rules. So that’s the real work of the competition committee, my head of soccer operations, Liz Dalton and her team, and that work needs to take place before we figure out and commit to a schedule next year.”