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NWSL appoints Lisa Baird commissioner, interest in expansion said to be high

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Any chance a California team is finally coming?

Team USA WinterFest Presented by Hershey’s Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOC

Big news in the NWSL last week, as the league appointed Lisa Baird commissioner. She’s taking over the top league executive position after working at New York Public Radio, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the NFL and a series of internationally-known Fortune 500 companies.

Baird begins her position next week, and her background in business, sports and sports business has led to initial reviews being positive about her resumé. Time will tell, but here’s hoping she can help develop the league’s growth.

The NWSL is entering its eighth season of existence this year, and from a local perspective, one cold fact remains true: There is no team in California. Not just Los Angeles, from the hippie woods in NorCal, to the border with Mexico, there’s no pro first-division women’s soccer team in this state.

WIth the league playing with nine teams again this season, with Louisville set to kick off in 2021, how is the expansion picture looking for the league with the new commissioner coming aboard? No surprises that Baird did not have many specifics when asked about it during a conference call with reporters last week alongside Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler.

“You know, it’s too early for me to comment on that, but I think I’m going to just reinforce two things Arnim said that I believe,” Baird said. “...It’s having a passionate and committed group of owners that want to grow the women’s game in the United States. That to me is the first and most important aspect of it. Whether they are independent owners, or connected to another professional club or MLS or whoever in the United States.

“But I will say this, it was something I learned at the NFL, there’s a real power in a diversity of ownership and their perspective. I’ve only been interacting with the current owners for a short time, but I’ve been very impressed with the fact that an independent owner who’s been a longtime owner in the league can have an incredibly powerful impact, in the same way that someone who’s associated with [a] pro [team] because they bring a diverse point of view, and they’re all united with a common love and passion of the game, and a common purpose of growing it. Again, I’m going to be meeting with owners, and spending a lot of time with them in the early days of the season and I’m sure I’ll develop my own point of view soon enough. But right now I’m in listening mode.”

Fortunately, Whisler offered some more details about the current expansion scene, although he did not specify any potential expansion markets or interested ownership groups inquiring about buying in.

“Just one more word about expansion: We’re very aligned as a board and some of this has been said publicly — we believe 14 teams is a pretty good near-term target from a competitive parity standpoint. We’re not sure how far we can go beyond that, and how fast, but we’ve slow-walked things a little bit, to make sure the new commissioner, Lisa, can be in place and with us. But I will say, we’re at 10 teams, Louisville’s announced, will play next year.

“And the four to go, I can tell you, that’s going fast and we have far more teams that want in than spots available. We have a lot of discussions going on and a lot of decisions about geography, the type of owner, the long-term commitment and what it means to be a long-term committed owner. But it’s a really bright, exciting time, from broadcast, to expansion, to what we think we’re going to be able to do to improve compensation and other player amenities that keep us at the forefront of the global women’s leagues. It’s a very exciting time and we’re thrilled to have Lisa in place to weigh in early rather than inherit some things.”

If you’re particularly wondering where LAFC fits in all of this, that’s a good question. After plenty of chatter around the time the men’s team launched in 2018 that NWSL was coming, winks and nudges and such have dried up. A grassroots movement is underway to lobby support for a team in Los Angeles, and they’re doing a good job so far of building that popular momentum to hopefully tip the balance, for LAFC or some other owner. They paid for a Mia Hamm cameo recently to see what she would say about LAFC getting into NWSL, and the LAFC co-owner said positive things, as she’s done all along:

But that’s the lay of the land for now — expansion talks are heating up, a league owner claims more than four groups are interested, but specific locations are not known. You would think California has to be in the mix for one, possible two of those teams, but you know, we’ve been disappointed before on this front. We’ll keep you posted.

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