The National Women's Soccer League has a brand new commissioner. The league on Wednesday announced the hiring of Jessica Berman as its new leader on "CBS Mornings." Berman will oversee league operations and serve her four-year term as commissioner beginning April 20.
Berman joins the NWSL after two-plus years serving as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs at the National Lacrosse League. Prior to her time with the NLL, she spent 13 years with the National Hockey League, first serving as vice president and deputy general counsel before becoming vice president of community development, culture and growth and executive director of the NHL Foundation.
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"Well, I'm very aware of the fact that I don't look like the other people that work in the sports industry," Berman said on "CBS Mornings" in response to being one of the few female commissioners in the sports sphere. "When I was offered the opportunity to be the first female deputy commissioner of a men's sports league [NHL], I went to my family, my children, and I said 'Can we do this?' Because I knew it was going to be a huge sacrifice. And it was actually my older son who said to me 'You're a pioneer, you have to do this, mom.'"
The announcement comes after a tumultuous 2021 NWSL season that saw falling out of ownership groups and controversy surrounding head-coaching terminations either for cause, toxic behavior or harassment. Headlines shadowing the league included allegations of sexual misconduct by former head coach Paul Riley stemming from 2015. Reporting and mishandling of the allegations led to the resignation of former commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine as the league faced a long period of reckoning with plenty of changes ahead.
"First of all, the health and safety of our players is the upmost priority -- both emotionally and physically," Berman told "CBS Mornings." "I'm fortunate that I'm walking into a situation where over the last six months things have really stabilized under the current leadership and the board, and we're now working in conjunction with the players association and all the players to handle the investigation and make sure that we put forward the type of league that every player feels proud to play in."
The league had been in search for a new NWSL commissioner since Baird's October resignation, with board of governors and interim-CEO Marla Messing leading the charge. Messing was hired by an executive committee late in the 2021 season, and has been in charge of day-to-day operations through the offseason. Messing will continue her oversight of the league until Berman steps in and will remain involved as a senior adviser to commissioner Berman for a transitional period until May 31.
"I'm honored to be the next commissioner of the NWSL and grateful to the owners for their confidence in me," said Berman. "Working on behalf of -- and in partnership with -- our players is my number-one priority. Having been involved in professional sports for many years, I know how critically important a genuine partnership with players is for us all to be successful and continue to grow."
A search committee composed of the board of governors and a player-led committee helped make this hire possible. Berman's introduction to the league comes with one of the most in-depth searches for a commissioner since the inception of NWSL in 2013 -- and it's the first to include a player's committee involved in the interview processes for the role. These were part of the demands made (and met) by the NWSL Players Association in wake of recent controversy. The union also recently agreed to a first-ever collective bargaining agreement in early February, which features free housing, transportation, fully-vested 401(k) contributions, health, life and disability insurance. Additionally, eight weeks of parental leave -- whether for birth or adoption -- and up to six months of mental health leave. Free agency will also come to the forefront depending on the years of service time for each player.
"We share players with the [U.S.] women's national team, so we couldn't have been happier that they were able to resolve their dispute with U.S. Soccer Federation, and it really paves the way for us to move forward because, of course, equal pay for equal work is something we all can subscribe to," Berman told "CBS Mornings" in response to the recent USWNT settlement. "In our league, we actually also just reached an agreement with our players association with a new collective bargaining agreement which really sets the standard for all of our teams to follow. My background is that I'm a labor lawyer, so I'm a firm believer in the partnership that exists in our union. I'd like to say that it's a marriage that you can't get a divorce. We have to work together, and that will be my priority moving forward."
Players involved in the search for the new commissioner included Crystal Dunn, Kaylie Collins, Jane Campbell, Bri Visalli, Nicole Barnhart, Emily Menges, Tori Huster and NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke.
Board of Governors included representatives of five clubs: Angela Hucles (Angel City FC), Mike Golub (Portland Thorns FC) Chris Long (KC Current), Sophie Sauvage (OL Reign) and Mark Wilf (Orlando Pride). The league currently expanded to 12 clubs for the upcoming 2022 season, and Sauvage was part of the executive committee that named Messing as interim-CEO.