The National Women’s Soccer League has received significant outreach from international clubs following the recent takeover of member franchise Reign FC by OL Groupe, it has been revealed.
Last month, OL Groupe, the parent company of French women’s soccer team Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, acquired a 89.5-per-cent stake in Reign FC, which is based in Tacoma, Washington. Bill Predmore, Reign FC’s former investor-operator, will hold 7.5 per cent of the share capital, while former National Basketball Association star Tony Parker will hold a three-per-cent stake.
As such, OL Groupe has become the first international majority owner of an NWSL team.
Arnim Whisler, the Chicago Red Stars owner and NWSL executive committee member, revealed that the takeover has furthered international interest in the league.
“We have been excited to talk with international clubs for a while. OL Groupe certainly added some additional fuel, we got calls immediately from other clubs around the world,” Whisler said. “I think we’re stronger with great owners, no matter where they come from. We’re looking for a rich, diverse and passionate group of owners, and it’s been great to see the international discussions pick up.”
Whisler was speaking on a conference call with reporters to introduce the appointment of veteran marketing executive Lisa Baird as the new NWSL commissioner.
Baird was most recently chief marketing officer at New York Public Radio. Prior to that, she held the same position for the United States Olympic Committee for nine years. Earlier in her career, she was the National Football League’s senior vice president of marketing and consumer products.
Baird, for her part, said she was keen to expand the league’s international reach. “I think we can be a league that has global appeal and I will certainly be leveraging my relations that I’ve built over the decades in the Olympic movement to advance our prospects,” she said.
A team from Louisville, and possibly Sacramento, will join the NWSL in 2021. Whisler said the league is looking to grow to 14 teams in the near future and that expansion plans were “slow-walked” to involve Baird in the process. He added: “We’re at 10 teams, Louisville is announced, and the four to go…are going fast and we have far more teams that want in than we have spots available.”
Baird officially starts her position on March 10 and will be initially based in New York, rather than the league’s headquarters in Chicago. She will make frequent trips to NWSL HQ, however.
“I think New York is a very important market…not only is there easy access to a lot of sponsors here because they travel here, it’s just easy meet with a lot of people [in New York]. We’ll just have to wait and see about any long-term announcements about headquarters,” she said.
Baird intends to visit and attend games in each market this year, to meet with team owners and their staff. She also plans to meet with the leaders of the NWSL Players Association and other stakeholders in the women’s game in the US.
Baird and Whisler refused to comment on any reported media-rights deals with CBS or streaming platform Twitch. Baird, though, is highly confident of securing additional corporate partnerships for the league, from both national and global companies.
“We’re at a time in the momentum of this league where not only the passion of the fans but also the purpose of women’s sports and women’s soccer is ripe for being a platform for companies’ communications and their purpose in the landscape,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to have to do a lot of persuading of sponsors that creating a partnership with the league is the right one for what they want to do.”
The NWSL is planning to operate independently of the United States Soccer Federation, a process which has been delayed until at least 2021. On the relationship with US Soccer, Baird said she was pleased the management agreement was extended for another year as “it provides some stability and it gives me a chance to work with the owners on the growth trajectory financially for the year.”
Whisler hailed Baird’s appointment, saying that she gives the league’s team owners “confidence”.
Of the interview process, Whisler revealed: “Lisa went that next level. We all knew that she had the Rolodex and the relationships…but somehow in the middle she had turned the tables and was interviewing us. She was the only one to get out of us what success meant and we all had to do it and take turns at it. So it’s not just a résumé, I think a commissioner in any league succeeds or fails in their ability to align group of sometimes billionaires to a common purpose. We believe Lisa has that ability.”
Baird specifically indicated that her plans are to grow the fanbase and audience, specifically creating deep relationships with supporters; grow the profile of the players; continue league expansion which will be “strategic and measured”; and secure financial growth, including new commercial partners and media-rights deals.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when [I say] I feel like this is my dream job…to be at the helm of the league with so much growth potential [and] to be at the helm in women’s sports at this moment in time,” she said.