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Alyse Lahue Talks Coronavirus, NWSL Return

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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.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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