How NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman led the league out of crisis to revive women’s soccer

Business

Jessica Berman, commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League, speaks during a panel on women’s professional soccer at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas on Feb. 10, 2024.
Omar Vega | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

At 16 years old, Jessica Berman was one of those rare teenagers who knew exactly what she wanted to do in life: lead a professional sports league.

Nearly 30 years later, the New York City native has not only achieved her dream — becoming the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022 — but she’s helping to pave the way for a new generation of women in sports.

Berman told CNBC the league is at “pivotal and transformative” inflection point. “This is a movement where the world is recognizing the value of women and the value of investing in women and girls,” she said.

Berman, who was named to CNBC’s inaugural Changemakers list, began her career as a labor and employment lawyer at the Proskauer Rose law firm following internships at the National Hockey League and in college sports. She helped to negotiate the end of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout with a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players.

She spent the next 13 years rising in the NHL ranks, holding positions ranging from vice president of community development to deputy counsel for the league, working alongside Commissioner Gary Bettman.

In 2019, Berman became the first female deputy commissioner of a men’s professional sports league, joining the National Lacrosse League. Less than three years later, she was tapped to run the NWSL and tasked with turning around an organization in crisis.

Taking the field

Berman took the helm at the women’s soccer league after allegations were made of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct across several teams.

Just months after Berman was named commissioner, findings were released from a yearlong independent investigation, led by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, which found systemic abuse in the NWSL. The league had failed to put into place basic measures for player safety, the report said, and had fostered a “culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation.”

Berman issued an apology and committed to making changes to create a safe and positive environment for players, staff and fans and to rebuild trust in the league.

Over the course of 2023, Berman worked to transform the culture of the league and to supersize its business at a time when women’s sports are seeing unprecedented growth.

Berman helped to improve players’ contracts with the league’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement, which included advancements for compensation and working conditions. She also brought the first-ever million-dollar prize pool to U.S. women’s soccer.

She cleaned up the league’s personnel, issuing lifetime bans on four former coaches over their roles in the misconduct detailed in the Yates report and fining the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns teams $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively.

She’s also lured big-name investors, selling them on her new vision for professional women’s soccer.

Hollywood A-lister Natalie Portman and all-star athletes Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Patrick Mahomes, Eli Manning, Kevin Durant and Carli Lloyd are just some of the names with equity stakes in NWSL teams.

Sofia Huerta #11 of Seattle Reign takes on Delanie Sheehan #17 of NJ/NY Gotham FC during the second half of the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League Championship at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, Nov. 11, 2023.
Ben Nichols | ISI Photos | Getty Images

Today, Berman said, business is booming and the league has never been stronger or more financially sound.

NWSL in November announced a landmark media rights deal with four major streaming and cable partners, worth $240 million over four years, or 40 times the size of the previous deal. The agreement greatly increases the league’s reach and distribution to new audiences.

“This is the beginning of our future,” Berman said at the time. “These partnerships fundamentally change the game for our league and the players who take the pitch each week.”

On Monday, the NWSL announced an expansion of its partnership with Amazon, naming the company as its exclusive retail sponsor. As part of that deal, the e-commerce giant and streamer will feature an NWSL merchandise shop, and the league will migrate its digital archives of historical behind-the-scenes footage and interviews to Amazon Web Services cloud storage.

Amazon Prime will stream 27 matches this season, which kicks off Friday.

And fans have been packing the stands: The league announced record-breaking attendance for the 2023 season, with more than 1.49 million fans attending an NWSL match, a 32% increase from the previous year.

Under Berman, the league has expanded to 14 teams from 12, with an additional two teams scheduled to take the field in 2026.

Just a few years ago, NWSL teams were valued at about $2 million on average; today, the average team is worth $66 million, according to Sportico. Leading the pack is Los Angeles’ Angel City FC, now valued at $180 million, making it one of the most valuable women’s teams in the world, Sportico said.

The fundamentals

Berman said the thing that makes her most proud is the validation she’s gotten from the people who have been working for decades to change the narrative about women’s sports.

“Seeing how current and recently retired players have really embraced what we’re building — those are the people who carry the authenticity of this game — has really fueled my energy and excitement about what we’re building in the future,” Berman said.

Berman also acknowledges the “army of people” who have helped scale the league’s impact.

“There’s a lot of female empowerment that I feel on a daily basis being surrounded by such incredible leaders and athletes who have worked tirelessly to get to this point,” she said.

She’s also particularly proud of giving her two young boys a front-row seat to history.

“They’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices along the way of my career,” said Berman, who frequently travels as part of her job. Berman said her boys have become personally invested in the league after getting an up-close view of their mom’s work — both the successes and the challenges.

“It makes the whole thing feel so much more meaningful because I can actually see the benefit of what I do on a daily basis for work impacting them positively in their lives,” she said.

Berman credits her success to hard work, ambition and being her “authentic self.” She said while growing up, her psychologist mother instilled in her a sense of self-awareness that’s been key in her career.

And despite the demands of leading a professional sports league, Berman said she makes sure to prioritize taking care of herself — whether through time with loved ones or her three dogs, or through exercise such as running or yoga — which she said makes her a better commissioner.

“It gives me the energy to offer to everything else that I’m doing in my life,” Berman said.

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