Apr 26, 2022 - Sports

Jessica Berman takes NWSL reins

nwsl commissioner jessica berman

Courtesy: NWSL

Jessica Berman began her four-year term as NWSL commissioner last week, fulfilling a lifelong goal. That's right, Berman didn't dream of becoming an athlete, or an owner, or a GM — she dreamed of becoming a commissioner.

"I was interested in collective bargaining for a long time, believe it or not. This is literally what I wanted to do from the time I was a teenager, so I intend to make the most of it."
— Berman

Why it matters: Berman, 44, takes the reins at perhaps the most important moment in the nine-plus-year history of the NWSL, which is entering a new era of player empowerment while still reeling from a season of reckoning.

  • In February, the NWSL and its players' union signed their first-ever CBA, which will transform everything from minimum salaries and free agency to off-field benefits and revenue sharing.
  • The USWNT's $24 million settlement with U.S. Soccer will also impact the NWSL, given how many USWNT players are in the league — and what their equal pay fight means more broadly.
  • The league is also at the center of the undeniable growth happening in women's sports, and its newest club — Angel City FC — will debut this year amid lots of buzz.

Context: Berman joins the NWSL after two-plus years as deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League. Prior to that, she spent 13 years as an executive for the NHL.

🎙 Interview: I spoke with Berman on her first day last Wednesday, which was extremely relatable: She was working remotely from her home office in New York, a converted bedroom. No fancy office surrounded by assistants taking notes — just her 11-year-old son home early from a half-day at school.

Some highlights from our conversation...

How did your job at the NLL prepare you for this role?

They're both emerging properties, which allows for more risk tolerance and innovation, while continuing to respect history and tradition. Both also have owners who [own teams in multiple leagues], so I'm super conscious of that situation and the opportunities and challenges that exist.

What is the primary role of a commissioner? An extension of the owners? A steward of the game? Something else?

It's so multi-faceted ... but I think the primary job of the commissioner is to preserve and elevate the value of the league, which requires some decisions that may not make you so popular.
The hope is that by building relationships and [being clear] about your vision, people understand your why. You won't always convince everyone, but it's my job to make those hard decisions and help people understand the context.

Coming off last year's scandal-ridden season, how do you show players that changes are being made? And how do you plan on building a bridge with the union?

My approach will be one driven by listening and learning. [We must] acknowledge the issues of the past in order for our players to feel comfortable that we as a league, and I as a commissioner, fully recognize how that impacted their experience.
As for building a bridge, I believe it has to be done both formally — meaning scheduled — and informally. [NWSLPA executive director] Meghann Burke and I have had a standing call every Monday for the last six weeks. Informally, I think we've exchanged three rounds of texts today.
So it's really both elements, and her and I knowing that we can pick up the phone at any time and throw our heads together to work towards the same result, which is doing everything we can to grow the NWSL.

Looking ahead: The 2022 NWSL regular season kicks off on Friday, with the Challenge Cup semifinals and finals taking place next week.

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