Lisa Baird was announced as the NWSL commissioner on Feb. 27, 2020. She knew she had big shoes to fill after multiple teams drew sell-out crowds and the league ultimately achieved a 70% increase in attendance during the 2019 season under Amanda Duffy’s watch.
Baird was ready. Then COVID-19 struck.
Just three weeks into her new position as NWSL commissioner, Baird was forced to cancel the league’s 2020 schedule.
Following the league’s cancellation were sources saying COVID-19 would send women’s sports out of business entirely. Women’s sports has long lacked the support of sponsorships, investments, coverage and partnerships, so a year-long hiatus on top of that could have been detrimental to the league’s growth.
But Lisa Baird tightened her ponytail, stood from her seat and led the NWSL through the most successful year they have ever had.
The league saw nearly a 500% increase in viewership in 2020 while most major men’s leagues, including the MLB, NHL and NBA, experienced decreases in viewership.
Baird began the season with the Challenge Cup, officially making the NWSL the first professional league to start back up in North America. There were no cases of COVID-19 in the tournament that ran from Jun. 27 to Jul. 26. The first-time commissioner courageously and successfully led the charge for all American sports leagues and teams, men and women’s, through what was entirely unprecedented.
The Challenge Cup final was aired on CBS and drew a record-breaking 653,000 viewers. The tournament’s opening game brought in 572,000 viewers, a record at the time.
Thanks to the viewership success of the Challenge Cup, the Fall Series became possible. Baird saw a scheduling window open when college football was delayed and sat down with CBS to find a way to get her players back on TV. CBS came to the agreement to air one game a week on their television network.
The success of the NWSL this year has attracted Secret, Proctor and Gamble, and Google to join the league for 2021. Businesses are beginning to realize the NWSL is one of the most valuable commodities during these unstable times.
Baird has said that the league’s plans are still in the works for 2021. With the leadership and success she’s shown through 2020, it’s safe to assume next season will be just as exciting as, if not better.
Featured photo courtesy of Matthew Levine/NWSL.