Alyse Lahue Talks Coronavirus, NWSL Return


Alyse LaHue is the general manager of Sky Blue FC of the NWSL. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about how she’s managing her front office in the midst of a pandemic, the potential for the NWSL to return this summer, and the impact of coronavirus on the world of women’s sports.

How did your front office react to the initial outbreak of the virus? 

From day one, we knew we were going to need to figure out how to make a community with our fans and engage them digitally. As the pandemic hit, we all learned how to use Zoom really quickly and how to interact as a staff. And I just told everyone, “From this day forward, you all have new jobs. Your job is now digital. So you have to see with new eyes, you’ve got to think with a new brain. If you were in sales before, we’re really not selling anything right now. Sponsorships are on hold. Now is about interacting with the community, trying to put a smile on people’s faces.”

How has your team adjusted to working in a virtual office?

We knew we had to figure out how to innovate in the digital space, and everybody was on board, which is all I can ask for my staff. This doesn’t work if I don’t have them. We use the term “nimble” a lot. We try to remain nimble at all times, in terms of pivoting and shifting quickly. And the staff is always willing to shift quickly with me when I ask, and I think their willingness to do so is the reason we’ve been successful.

I think one bright spot of this whole thing is when you get your back up against a wall, you have to innovate and you have to think in a different way, and that’s what I’ve challenged our staff to do during this time. What’s the thing that’s never been done before? What are the things other sports teams aren’t thinking of, and why not us? I don’t care about the history, I only care about where we’re at now and where we’re going, so why not us? Let us figure out the new way of doing things.

You mentioned community. Why is that a focus, and how are you building community in the midst of a lockdown? 

Going into this season, we knew we wanted to develop a sense of community around the team. That was one of our big key words, and we decided we weren’t going to let the pandemic change that. Right now, keeping that sense of community means finding as many ways as we can to interact online, whether with our season ticket members or with the greater women’s soccer community.

And we’ve taken an approach with our players that’s really person first, player second. Obviously we’re trying to do the best we can with training and online yoga sessions and watching film and all of that, but we’re also just having casual coffee chats, and we’ve had a weekly webinar with different folks who are experts in various topics. We’ve had a nutritionist, and last night we had a sports psychologist. Next week we have somebody from the Yale School of Management talking about entrepreneurship. So we’re trying to activate their brains as well during this time, and again, take a people-first approach to this, which I think is important. Because mental health is obviously something that must be weighing on everybody. I know it’s weighing on me.

I’ve seen the way it weighs on the players, and so I think the most important thing that we can do as a club at this time is to be a support system for them. It’s less about worrying about their fitness levels and more just caring for each other. Just having that empathy to know that this is a really difficult time.

I think that’s really important and I’m happy you’re making that commitment. What is your sense of the state of the league at the moment? 

I remain optimistic, which is hard to do sometimes during this — I’m not going to lie about that. Because we don’t know for certain what will become of the league. But as a league, I think we’ve gotten really creative in thinking through what the contingency plans could look like for the season. Obviously we want the players to stay fit, because a time could come when we can get back out to training and then hopefully get back to playing games again. But that’s a big unknown right now.

And I think that goes for all of society, there’s so many unknowns right now. So again, I remain optimistic about what our season could look like, but we don’t know the timing of when it’s going to happen. Our players will do the best they can to stay fit and we’ll provide them as many tools as we can. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure everybody mentally is holding on during this time and that has to stay at the forefront of our minds.

It was reported today [April 30th] that the NWSL is looking to bring players in starting on May 16th. What can you say about this development? 

Yeah, I mean that’s been a roving target. It’s moved three or four times in terms of return to full training. We’re under indefinite shelter-at-home orders in New Jersey, so I don’t presume by May 16th that we’re just going to be able to return to outdoor activities in a large scale way.

Our league has relied on a medical task force to provide them the best advice during all this. These are experts from the medical community, so we’ve really relied on them to provide us insight into the best way to return to training. And there’s a lot of talk about phased-in training which you’ve seen in some places in Europe, where it’s not going to be the full team just hopping back on the field again, but maybe starting with small groups, individual groups spaced out within the field.

So there’s a lot of unique and innovative things on the table to try to get the players back out there. Again, I think it’s more for their own mental health to be back out there playing, but it’s got to be done in a safe way. And I appreciate that our league has not tried to rush this in any way because there’s so many factors at play here that you have to navigate.

Obviously the pandemic is bad for everyone and for all sports, but there’s also been a lot of talk around how it is particularly bad for women’s sports. What are your thoughts on the topic?  

I put out a weekly women’s sports business newsletter every Wednesday, and yesterday I was overwhelmed by the amount of content that was in there. I had people texting me like, “Holy cow! The newsletter is long this week.” And I was thinking as I was going through the news, the thing that sucks is so much of it was asking, how are women’s sports going to survive? And I actually contemplated, like, “Should I include this or not? I don’t want to read this.”

For somebody that works in women’s sports, I want to be optimistic and not have to think about those things. But it is a reality. And for women’s clubs that are tied into men’s clubs, it’s kind of the easy thing to chop off, right? You can just cut those expenses or cut the women’s team entirely. And I think there’s a lot of fear around the world right now of that happening.

But look, we’ve existed off of 4% of media attention for a very long time, so I don’t think that’s going to dramatically change with a pandemic. It’s not going to increase, and how can it dramatically decrease? We’re already in the media basement. There’s nowhere else to go. So from that standpoint, I think it’s much ado about nothing. I’m not worried about media coverage right now.

The thing that keeps me up at night is certainly thinking through the situation from a financial perspective. I do believe the fans will be back. They’re going to support us, and our season ticket members have been incredible through this time. But I worry about sponsorships. I do. That’s a really big financial piece of the puzzle for us, so that one keeps me up at night. But I do believe companies are going to be looking for unique and strategic ways, especially digitally, to interact with consumers, and I believe I’ve put my club in the best position possible to capitalize on that through all the connections we’ve made with the community during this time. So that’s really all I can do, is stay optimistic and do the best I can to set the stage for the future.