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Interim CEO Marla Messing on how the NWSL will move forward

(Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Marla Messing has been appointed the interim CEO of the NWSL, the league announced Monday.

Soccer fans will likely recognize her as the president and CEO of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. More recently, Messing served as the CEO of United States Tennis Association Southern California from 2019-21, as vice president and executive director of the 2024/2028 Los Angeles Olympic and Paralympic Bid Committee and as consultant to Los Angeles FC and Barcelona in 2018.

Messing met with reporters on Wednesday to talk about her role, how she got to the NWSL and what kind of league she plans to build in the aftermath of a widespread reckoning over abuses of power and player protections and rights. What follows are her responses to several important questions about the league’s future.

What inspired Messing to return to the soccer scene

I was part of an inflection point in the sport of women’s soccer, and since the 1999 World Cup, the growth in popularity of the game — certainly at the national team level — has been even beyond what I expected. To see the various leagues, including the NWSL, and also the leagues around the world, really begin to invest in women’s soccer has been incredibly rewarding to me.

So, when the events or the disclosure of the events that happened recently came to light, I was very interested in stepping in to help. This is something I care deeply about, and if I can help be a catalyst for change, then you know that’s something that means a lot to me.

How she became the interim CEO

Given my history in the sport of soccer … Cindy Cone of U.S. soccer reached out to me and I believe reached out to the executive committee of the NWSL … to put my hat in the ring for the position. So it was suggested by her and then I met with the executive committee, and I know they met with other people and considered other ways of handling this, but ultimately they selected me.

What her role looks like as interim CEO

In some respect, I will be acting in the same way a commissioner would. I will be part of the board of governor meetings and I would be working closely in collaboration with the board of governors too achieve the things we want to achieve and I will be managing the league office … establishing policies for clubs and our teams to be following. That will be my responsibility, as well.

On the possibility of her role becoming permanent

We have a lot of issues, a lot of challenges, but right now my mandate is to move over the investigations, to make sure institutional change happens, and to run the day-to-day operations of the league. Frankly, that is what I’m focused on. I want to be successful at accomplishing those things on behalf of the players in the league, and everything else, time will tell.

Why she is the best candidate for the position

I don’t know that I was the best candidate for the position. I was the candidate that was selected for the position But look, I think that my history in the sport of soccer and, in particular, around the Women’s World Cup, my legal background, my willingness to jump in right away and work tirelessly to try to accomplish what we need to accomplish, and probably my relationship with some of the players, mostly from 1999 – people like Cindy Cone and Julie Foudy and Kate Markgraf, all of whom I’ve spoken with … I guess ultimately what I was able to convey to them, to the executive committee in the several phone calls and video calls I had with them, they must have found me compelling and someone who could achieve the goals that they would like to achieve.

Her communication style with players

There have been some issues around transparency and I feel really good about the relationship Meghann [Burke] and I have started to build. I’ve known Becca [Roux] for a while now, so I feel really good about that relationship, too. It’s my plan to be transparent with them and honest and direct and I expect the same coming back to us at the league, so I’m committed to that. I know it’s something that perhaps hasn’t happened in the past, but I look forward to making that change.

How diversity and inclusion fit into her plans

Absolutely that has to be a priority. We want the league to reflect the makeup of our players and, frankly, the makeup of the community we live in, so absolutely it’s a priority and we have to start thinking about what types of policies we put in place to make sure that we’re making progress in that area.

Whether she’s had any dialogue with the Black Women Players Collective

I have not had any dialogue with them candidly. My dialogue’s been primarily with Meghann and the NWSLPA, with Becca Roux and the U.S. women’s national team, and I’ve been trying to meet my staff, meet the owners and the members of the board of governors and talk to people I know in the soccer community who I think have a good perspective on what’s happened and and how it can be remedied. But, for sure, I am committed to speaking with the Collective and starting to get out and actually talk to current players as much as possible.

What she would say to players during this transition

I think our players deserve as much or more support from the fans today as they did a couple months ago. I’m not trying to make any pitches, but I think our players are just incredibly deserving of the support they receive from their fans and I hope that the events or the disclosure of the events that happened don’t diminish that at all. I think actually it would be acting almost in the opposite direction of what the players really deserve and need right now.

The possibility of an NWSL rebrand

Let me just be crystal clear: Our first objective is to get our house in order and to make sure that we are meeting the minimum standards of a professional league and addressing the issues that the players want and deserve us to address. If we can accomplish all those things and then take the opportunity with the 10th anniversary of the league coming around in January, to do some kind of rebrand to celebrate that 10th anniversary, we will. I just don’t want anyone to think I’m committing to that because we have higher priorities right now, but if we can do something, we will and it would be an amazing way to celebrate the league.

Whether she’s been actively involved with collective bargaining agreement negotiations

There is a committee of the board that has been engaged in the CBA negotiations. I am just starting to get sort of engaged in that process, but I haven’t been these past few days and I don’t really have a sense of the timing. I just think I don’t have enough information at this point.

How the NWSL’s investigations will correspond with FIFA and U.S. Soccer’s investigations

The NWSL and the NWSLPA will be collaborating on the single investigations, so instead of two there will be one. That certainly cuts down on some of these issues. The coming to them early will also coordinate with U.S. Soccer’s investigation.

In terms of FIFA and any other investigations, candidly we have not heard what their plans are.

In terms of timing, it’s going to take some time for these investigations to be completed and to be completed in the right manner. I think it’s going to be three, six, nine months and we don’t know exactly until they begin to uncover the facts, so that’s probably about all I can say about timing right now.

The current ownership situation with the Washington Spirit (who were given a two-week window to select a new owner but haven’t announced anything)

Steve Baldwin has publicly stated that he intends to sell the team and we have been involved in serious discussions about him selling the team. So even though we had given him 14 days to respond to us, we have laterally extended that period of time because we’re very hopeful that a sale will take place forthwith.

Thoughts on whether the team should be sold to Y. Michele Kang

I would say, generally, I have the goal to have an owner in Washington, D.C. that the players like and respect and that the players feel has their best interests at heart. Whether that’s Michele or somebody else, I can’t really say. Obviously, Steve Baldwin, it’s up to him to sell the team. The league does have approval over that sale, so we will be watching it closely.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern at Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.