Home Business How NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman led the league out of crisis

How NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman led the league out of crisis

by SuperiorInvest

Jessica Berman, commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League, speaks during a panel on women's professional soccer at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas on February 10, 2024.

Omar Vega | Getty Images Sport | fake images

At 16, Jessica Berman was one of those few teenagers who knew exactly what she wanted to do in life: run a professional sports league.

Nearly 30 years later, the New York City native has not only achieved her dream (becoming commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League in 2022), but is also helping to pave the way for a new generation of women in the sport.

Berman told CNBC that the league is at a “fundamental and transformative” turning point. “This is a movement where the world recognizes the value of women and the value of investing in women and girls,” she said.

Berman, who was named to CNBC's inaugural Changemakers list, began her career as a labor and employment attorney at the law firm Proskauer Rose after holding internships in the National Hockey League and college sports. She helped negotiate an end to the 2004-2005 NHL lockout with a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players.

She spent the next 13 years rising through the ranks of the NHL, holding positions ranging from vice president of community development to deputy league advisor, working alongside commissioner Gary Bettman.

In 2019, Berman became the first female deputy commissioner of a men's professional sports league and joined the National Lacrosse League. Less than three years later, she was appointed to lead the NWSL and was tasked with transforming an organization in crisis.

Taking the field

Berman took over the women's soccer league after allegations of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were made across multiple teams.

Just months after Berman was named commissioner, the results of a year-long independent investigation, led by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, were released that found systemic abuses in the NWSL. The league had failed to implement basic measures for player safety, the report said, and had fostered a “culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation.”

Berman apologized and pledged to make changes to create a safe, positive environment for players, staff and fans and to rebuild trust in the league.

Throughout 2023, Berman worked to transform the league's culture and grow its business at a time when women's sports are experiencing unprecedented growth.

Berman helped improve player contracts with the league's first collective bargaining agreement, which included advances in compensation and working conditions. She also brought the first million-dollar prize pool to American women's soccer.

She cleaned up the league's staff, issued lifetime bans to four former coaches for their roles in the misconduct detailed in Yates' report and fined the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns teams $1.5 million and $1 million. dollars, respectively.

It has also attracted big-name investors, selling them its new vision of professional women's football.

Hollywood star Natalie Portman and star athletes Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Patrick Mahomes, Eli Manning, Kevin Durant and Carli Lloyd are just some of the names with equity stakes in NWSL teams.

Sofia Huerta #11 of Seattle Reign faces Delanie Sheehan #17 of NJ/NY Gotham FC during the second half of the 2023 National Women's Soccer League Championship at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego on November 11, 2023.

Ben Nicols | ISI Photos | fake images

Today, Berman said, business is booming and the league has never been stronger or more financially sound.

NWSL announced a landmark media rights deal with four major streaming and cable partners in November, worth $240 million over four years, or 40 times the size of the previous deal. The deal greatly increases the league's reach and distribution to new audiences.

“This is the beginning of our future,” Berman said at the time. “These partnerships fundamentally change the game of our league and the players who take the field each week.”

On Monday, the NWSL announced an expansion of its partnership with Amazon, naming the company as its exclusive retail sponsor. As part of that deal, the e-commerce giant and the streamer will operate an NWSL merchandise store, and the league will migrate its digital archives of interviews and historical behind-the-scenes footage to Amazon Web Services cloud storage.

Amazon Prime will stream 27 games this season, which begins Friday.

And fans have been filling the stands: The league announced record attendance for the 2023 season, with more than 1.49 million fans attending an NWSL game, a 32% increase from the previous year.

Under Berman, the league has expanded from 12 to 14 teams, with two additional teams scheduled to take the field in 2026.

Just a few years ago, NWSL teams were valued at around $2 million on average; Today, the average value of a team is $66 million, according to Sportico. Leading the pack is Los Angeles-based Angel City FC, now valued at $180 million, making it one of the most valuable women's teams in the world, Sportico said.

The basics

Berman said she is most proud of the validation she has received from people who have been working for decades to change the narrative around women's sports.

“Seeing how current and recently retired players have really embraced what we're building (those are the people who carry the authenticity of this game) has really fueled my energy and excitement about what we're building in the future,” Berman said.

Berman also credits the “army of people” who have helped scale the league’s impact.

“I feel so much female empowerment every day being surrounded by such incredible leaders and athletes who have worked tirelessly to get to this point,” she said.

She is also particularly proud of giving her two children a front-row seat to history.

“They've had to make a lot of sacrifices throughout my career,” said Berman, who travels frequently as part of his job. Berman said her sons became personally involved in the league after seeing their mother's work up close, both the successes and the challenges.

“It makes all of this seem so much more meaningful because I can really see the benefit of what I do every day at work, positively impacting their lives,” he said.

Berman attributes his success to hard work, ambition and being his “authentic self.” He said that while growing up, his psychologist mother instilled in him a sense of self-awareness that has been key in his career.

And despite the demands of leading a professional sports league, Berman said she makes sure to prioritize self-care, whether it's spending time with her loved ones or her three dogs, or through exercises like running or yoga, which, According to her, it makes her a better notary.

“It gives me the energy to bring myself to everything I'm doing in my life,” Berman said.

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