The new NWSL commissioner is Lisa Baird, a respected sports business leader who has had tenures as the chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and as a senior VP of marketing and licensing for the NFL, SI has learned.
The league’s commissioner job had been vacant for three years since Jeff Plush stepped down in 2017.
“I’m excited,” Baird, who’s leaving her job as CMO of New York’s WNYC radio, told SI in an interview. “I’ve met most of the owners or reps at this point through what was a pretty rigorous interview and selection process. … I’m really excited about the opportunity and most importantly the leadership on all sides that wants to make the women’s game a real incredible professional sport in the United States.”
During her decade as CMO with the USOPC, Baird worked with U.S. Soccer, which will continue its management of the NWSL for at least one more year. She will meet with U.S. Soccer officials on March 8, the day the USWNT plays Spain in the SheBelieves Cup in Harrison, N.J., at Red Bull Arena.
“I’m excited that [the deal between the NWSL and U.S. Soccer] has been extended for another year,” Baird said. “I worked with U.S. Soccer as a critically important [national governing body] for 10 years, so I have a comfort level dealing with management there. With the year agreement in place, that gives me stability and security, and I have a good level of trust with them to build what is going to be the right partnership for the future.”
Baird said she had been contacted by Nolan Partners, the search firm in charge of the commissioner hiring process, and the more she learned about the job the more convinced she became that she wanted it. Her expertise in her previous jobs has been in building brands and commercial business.
“I think we have a meeting of the minds between myself and ownership: I’m going to spend my time on the commercial side of it and media sponsorship,” Baird said. “That’s an area where I have a lot of experience and good relationships with major companies that are not only strong longtime sports sponsors, but really interested in advancing women’s sports.”
Budweiser signed on as a sponsor for the NWSL after last year’s Women’s World Cup, and CBS Sports is set to announce that it will be the broadcast rights holder starting this year.
“I’m very excited about the potential of media,” Baird said. “When I talk to people about professional sports, the most common complaint I hear from people who are avidly following the game is how are we going to engage with it? I have a lot of experience building brands, building digital extensions of brands, building social communities around the game and rivalries. And that’s an area that I hope I can put my imprint on.”
The 2020 NWSL season starts on April 18 when the Washington Spirit hosts Reign FC at Audi Field. Involved in that game will be USWNT stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle.
“The game and the athletes are elite, so that feels exciting in and of itself,” Baird said of the league. “I mean, these are stars. I’ve been a long advocate for women’s sports in the United States through my time at the Olympic Committee. I feel like not only do we have a clear path for growth, but we have momentum. And I think the experience I bring will help take us to the next level.”