NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is encouraging the league to be ‘long-term greedy’

National Women's Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman
Courtesy of NWSL

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Michelle Obama launches a new food and beverage brand, Kamala Harris sits down with A.I. leaders, and Fortune leadership fellow Paolo Confino interviews NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman on the league’s growth prospects. Have a relaxing weekend.

– ‘Long-term greedy.’ Many people are passionate about women’s sports. And passion is great, says National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman—but it’s not enough. 

The commissioner is on a mission to convince the right investors to back the league, for the right reasons. Berman, a former deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, who became NWSL commissioner in April of last year, says the league’s principal objective is to find the right commercial partners—which she defines as sponsors, investors, and broadcasters—to “transcend the mainstream” and become an everyday staple in American sports fans’ lives. In 2022, the NWSL saw a reported 87% increase in sponsorship revenues and, according to one executive, a 25% increase in season ticket holders. The league currently has 12 teams, up from 10 in 2021, with plans to add two more in 2024. “Do you think of women’s soccer and women’s sport as a business or are you here because you have a daughter or granddaughter?” Berman says. “Because [the latter is] not going to be enough to drive the future of this business.”

An investor like Alexis Ohanian is a prime example, she says. The Reddit cofounder was so impressed with the atmosphere at a World Cup game in 2019 that he decided to invest in an NWSL team, having never even heard of the league before then, according to ESPN. His passion for women’s sports and sharing the experience with Olympia, his daughter with Serena Williams, was only part of the equation. 

Berman has already notched some big wins.

In April, the NWSL announced a record $53 million expansion fee for a new team in the Bay Area, which counts former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg as an investor. Los Angeles’ celebrity-backed Angel City FC, meanwhile, could become the first women’s sports team valued at $1 billion. “There is no fundamental reason why a women’s soccer league like the NWSL can’t be as successful as the NBA,” Berman says. 

National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman
Courtesy of NWSL

Berman hired former NFL executive Julie Haddon as the league’s first-ever chief marketing officer in August. Haddon estimates that there are currently a mouthwatering 54 million potential NWSL fans in the U.S.  

Another major upside for the league is the promise of a new, more lucrative media rights deal. The NWSL’s current agreement with CBS, for a reported $4.5 million over three years, is set to expire at the end of the current season. (The NWSL declined to confirm the value of its current deal.)

In a savvy move, Berman and her team signed a series of one-year international broadcasting deals with DAZN in Europe, Brazil, and Japan; Tigo in Central America; and TSN in Canada, which are all set to expire at the same time as the CBS contract. The hope is that demonstrating interest in the NWSL overseas will beef up the league’s leverage heading into negotiations. 

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out how much interest there is already in the NWSL [abroad],” Berman says. “In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been that surprising, because we know that soccer is the global game.” 

For the new media rights deal, Berman wants the NWSL to be what she calls “long-term greedy,” prioritizing the league’s future over an immediate big check.  

“We really feel like we’re at the infancy of this league’s growth,” she says. “We want to make sure that the decisions we make today will set us up for success in the future.” 

Paolo Confino

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