Lisa Baird became commissioner of the nine-year-old National Women’s Soccer League on March 10, 2020. Within days, every major pro sports league had halted play. Though Baird had to cancel the regular season and take out a PPP loan to pay her players and staff, she quickly began planning a monthlong, 23-game Challenge Cup that would use the sports-media vacuum to the league’s advantage.
The tournament-in-a-bubble commenced on June 27, 2020, making the NWSL the first pro team sports league to return. CBS’s telecast of the final notched 653,000 viewers—the highest-rated, most- watched broadcast in the league’s history. Baird built on this success by creating a truncated fall season for NWSL in October, which was aired on CBS, its streaming service, and Twitch. The league ended the year with its domestic TV audience up by nearly 500% and social media mentions up 152%.
“We proved we could create an audience, and we proved we had fan engagement,” says Baird. The 10-team league has been expanding, adding clubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Kansas, last year; San Diego and Los Angeles (with owners including Natalie Portman, Serena Williams, and America Ferrera) will join next year. The league now has an iHeartMedia radio station, which offers live game-day play-by-play audio, and Baird has also been pulling in major sponsors: Verizon, Nationwide, Ally, Mastercard, and Google have all signed on in the past 12 months.
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