Baird thrives as NWSL commissioner despite challenging times

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              FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2017, file photo, then-U.S. Olympic Committee chief marketing officer Lisa Baird speaks about the Team USA WinterFest for the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, at Yongsan Garrison, a U.S. military base in Seoul, South Korea. Baird assumed her new role as commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League on March 10. Two days later, she shut down the league because of coronavirus. It's certainly not the way she imagined her first 48 hours on the job would go. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)
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Lisa Baird assumed her role as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League on March 10. Two days later, she had to shut down the league because of the coronavirus.

It’s certainly not the way she imagined her first 48 hours on the job would go. Or the past three months, for that matter.

“I can’t think of another industry that shut down so resolutely and so quickly. I think we just got it that this was not going to be a week event or a 10-day event, this was going to be something where we all had to create our own new playbook,” she said. “And that’s what we’ve done over the last three months. We’ve been slowly, scrupulously, detail by detail, building together our playbook for the NWSL.”

Despite the shutdown, and after only some 90 days in her new role, Baird has already made a major impact on the league.

She is currently in Utah, where the league will stage its Challenge Cup tournament over the next month. The NWSL is the first professional team sport in the United States to return to the field amid the pandemic.

Players and team staffs will be sequestered for the duration of the event and games will be played without fans. But the plan to return has already hit a snag, with the Orlando Pride withdrawing this week because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Baird realizes a lot of eyes will be on the NWSL and whether the league can pull it off.

“We’re being so careful and cautious because we want this to go well. Nothing’s going to make me happier than when that cup is handed over and we have health and safety and an exciting tournament. Big ratings on TV. You know, just having the press covering us right now is huge for the profile of the league. It’s going to help us recruit the right players in the future, and sign on sponsors that we need,” she said.

Baird was the longtime marketing chief at the U.S. Olympic Committee, known for branding the U.S. Olympic squad “Team USA.” Before joining the NWSL she most recently spent more than a year at New York Public Radio.

The NWSL, which launched in 2013 and is the longest-running professional women’s soccer league in the U.S., operated without a traditional commissioner for several years before bringing Baird in. It was already seeing an upswing in interest following the United States’ victory at the World Cup last summer in France. Budweiser joined the league as a sponsor following the tournament and attendance rose 22% over the previous year.

Baird seized on the momentum, scoring a television contract with CBS and a streaming agreement with Twitch. Then came a flurry of deals with national sponsors. Verizon came aboard last month and a partnership with Google was announced Friday. Procter & Gamble and Secret are sponsoring the Challenge Cup.

That’s typical of Baird, who before she joined the USOC was senior vice president of marketing and licensing for the NFL, landing first-time deals with Nike, Under Armour and Fanatics. At the USOC, Baird cut about $1 billion worth of deals over nearly a decade.

She jumped at the chance when she got the call about the NWSL position. One big drawback since taking over is that she hasn’t been able to shake the hands of the players, or even meet them in person. She won’t even be able to present the Challenge Cup winner with the trophy.

“I can wave. Maybe I can socially distance. Even the little things that you would think would be so exciting to do — usually the commissioner gets to hand the cup to the athletes on the field — I don’t think I’ll be doing that,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things you want to get excited about in a tournament.”