The National Women's Soccer League will ring in the 2023 regular season on Saturday. It has been 147 days since the 2022 NWSL Championship final, and all 12 clubs have been navigating preseason training and scrimmages. All teams will compete in the opening weekend, kicking off March 25, and fans can watch matches across Paramount+ and CBS Sports Network.
NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman spoke with the media to provide updates on the state of the league ahead of the upcoming regular season. The league hired Commissioner Berman in March 2022 and officially stepped into the role of her four-year term on April 20. The Commissioner provided an update on several items that are in progress and other goals that she and the league are proud of.
Here are four things to know from the press conference:
VAR is officially in NWSL for opener
One key investment for the league will be the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) into the upcoming regular season starting with week one. Commissioner Berman introduced the concept in a league address late last season, citing a need for a better overall production value that directly ties into more accurately officiated matches. VAR has been utilized in the women's game on the international level when it was first introduced in the 2019 World Cup and throughout major domestic club finals. It has never been used in a full weekly regular season format for women's first-division domestic clubs.
"We are implementing VAR," she said. "This is a really big deal. Not just because we know that we have to and are committed to elevating the quality of officiating in our game, [but] that it requires significant investment and our board has authorized that investment. But also because we are the first-ever women's professional league to commit to investing in VAR for the professionals and we're really proud of that."
Better production value from the league has been a point of concern as valuations continue to rise for its players and clubs. The commissioner believes the introduction of VAR, which includes implementing several new cameras, will lead to a better overall production value. VAR has been tested during NWSL preseason, and in the build-up to a World Cup year, it is arriving in the league at a crucial time.
"Surprisingly, for me, at least in my conversations on my listening tour with players, [production value] was one of the most concerning issues from the player's perspective. They really felt that it needed to be a priority for the league to invest in broadcast production and for the game itself to be showcased in a way for fans to be able to appreciate their athleticism and how great the NWSL is. That was a consistent theme in almost every team of players that I spoke with," Berman said.
"We're really looking at this next season as preparation for more offerings and a larger stage, and certainly, the expectation with a larger audience will be higher production quality, and so we felt it was the appropriate time to take those next steps."
Berman stepped into the commissioner role with a league that had unfavorable headlines after a tumultuous 2021 season now known for the unveiling of multiple scandals. The last two years were consecutive seasons highlighted by league-wide investigations brought on by several reports of past player experiences. Allegations of sexual misconduct, racism, and verbal and emotional abuse led to in-game player demonstrations.
The commissioner was hired as investigations were ongoing and as collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the league and NWSL players association entered the final stretch. She committed to a "listening tour" that took her across the country to NWSL markets and around the globe. In between league investigations and CBA negotiations, the league has made some strides.
NWSL human resources has already visited all 12 clubs and implemented player survey feedback. Monthly webinars with NWSL chief people and culture officer Lauren Lopez are taking place to increase league visibility among the teams. The league has also required every club to have its own HR representation and a club player safety officer among the various culture change work that the league is tasking clubs with.
"That player safety officer is going to be required. And there is a job description with very clear requirements of what they will be responsible for, and reporting mechanisms to the league on some key areas that we've identified that are necessary outside of the context of an individual complaint," Berman said.
With a historic CBA signed last season, the league is now stepping into year eleven and is ready to take a critical step forward as they carry the knowledge of their previous decade of operation with player safety still a pillar of the league's core beliefs.
"We know that a lot of the history of what's held this league back and prevented us from reaching our potential is a lack of investment...I'm just so proud of the league, our board of governors, and our teams, and the way that we're beginning to invest in ourselves that has shown up in our staff experience [and] our player experience," she said.
The league has officially moved into offices on Madison Avenue in New York and has doubled its league office staff with new executive positions including Julie Haddon as chief marketing officer, Tatjana Haenni as chief sporting director, and Bill Ordower as chief operating officer and chief legal officec. Execute fires also included former NWSL player Carlin Hudson as the league's Director of Strategy, new Chief Financial Officer Celine Perrot-Johnson, and Maureen Raisch as Creative Director.
"From a staffing perspective, there have been multiple teams that have doubled and tripled their investment in their staff. And we know and we've shared that we've doubled the number of staff that exists at the league office to be able to support all of the new initiatives that we're working on and many of which have already been implemented," Berman said.
Increase in tickets sold
With a decade of operation behind them, the NWSL is no longer looking at this World Cup from the tired old-guard perspective of a mere "audience bump" but as a chance to be considered the standard moving forward. While some clubs in past have looked to the World Cup as a chance to capitalize on the momentum of the biggest international tournament in the world, the league is already establishing fan interest in the turnstiles ahead of opening weekend.
Ahead of the upcoming season, Berman announced that there is currently a 20% increase in season ticket holders from last year. While market-specific data hasn't been revealed yet, the introduction of two clubs in California has helped with record-breaking sellouts in Los Angeles and San Diego during the 2022 season.
"We're up 20% in season ticket holders on a league-wide basis. And we've already surpassed the number of sales for opening weekend and we still have five days to go," she said. "Hopefully with all the media that will come out of today's press conference and everything that's coming this week -- we know that that will just continue over the next five to six days. So we're excited to break some records."
New ownership and expansion
Both the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars are in the process of finding new owners. Both Merritt Paulson (Portland) and Arnim Whisler (Chicago) announced in late 2022 that they would begin the process of selling their majority shares. Both owners were named countless times in several investigative reports conducted by third parties commissioned by U.S. Soccer, NWSL, and the NWSL Players Association. Commissioner Berman gave no concrete deadline for the sale process.
The league has been transparent about the ongoing and open timeline ahead of an expansion year. Berman has stated that the potential relocation of teams is an absolute last resort. Utah Royals were recently announced as a new expansion side in 2024. The Bay Area and Boston have been reported as near-future expansion sides. The commissioner also revealed there are no conversations about relocation and is confident new owners in each founding market will be the "right owners" for the league.