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Jessica Berman wants to earn players’ trust as NWSL commissioner

(Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

New NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman knew she wanted to work in sports from the time she was 16 years old. Sitting beside a fan in a suit and another in jeans and a baseball cap at a New York Islanders game, Berman watched as the crowd erupted and the fans hugged each other after an Islanders goal.

Following the game, she asked the two people if they knew each other. They did not.

“The only thing that united them in that moment was their love for the Islanders, and I decided I had to work in sports,” Berman said Wednesday during her introductory press conference with the NWSL. “That moment was the moment I decided that sports has a platform that is unique among other cultural elements, and I think at this time, in this moment, women’s sports has that perhaps more so than any other sport.”

When Berman steps in for five-month interim CEO Marla Messing and begins her new role on April 20, she plans to foster the same level of unity she saw that day at the Islanders game. Her first priority is to form a strong relationship between the league and the NWSL Players Association. After a year in which multiple coaches were fired amid abuse allegations, an owners dispute dragged out publicly for months and players criticized the NWSL front office for a lack of transparency under former commissioner Lisa Baird, Berman knows the league has a lot of work to do to earn back players’ trust.

“I like to think that everyone has a superpower,” she said. “My superpower, I believe, is building consensus and really listening and learning and trying to understand different people’s perspectives.

“I would really want to seek to understand and learn the context of what is the underpinning of any of those challenges and then work to figure out solutions. I believe that working together with all the stakeholders, we can combat almost anything.”

The former NHL executive said she isn’t afraid to push back on the NWSL owners and to stand up for what the players want. In fact, she believes that mindset is why she landed the job, since players played a key role in the search and hiring process.

“Consensus-building doesn’t mean everybody always gets what they want; it means that they understand the context and the rationale for why we need to make a particular decision,” Berman said.

Berman has learned how to lead through adversity during the 13 years she spent at the NHL and the two and a half years she served as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs of the National Lacrosse League. Before joining the NLL, she had a front-row seat to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s communications with the board of governors, an experience she believes has prepared her for this next challenge.

“That’s the job of the commissioner: to help the teams really understand and the board to really understand the broader context for why and how decisions are being made,” she said.

Berman will serve a four-year term as commissioner, but she’s intent on building trust with the players now while there are no outstanding urgent tasks, such as the collective bargaining agreement the league and NWSLPA ratified on Jan. 31.

Just as she does at 10 a.m. every Tuesday in the National Lacrosse League, Berman will set up standard meetings where NWSLPA representatives can bring forward issues or questions. She and NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke have already arranged weekly calls.

“Those are the things that, in my experience, build trust,” Berman said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to agree, doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to reach solutions at every turn, but we will have discussions openly and transparently. We will be professional and respectful.”

If there’s ever a need for a neutral arbitrator in discussions, Berman will make that happen — whatever it takes to help the NWSL and Players Association maintain a relationship, she said.

When asked about the league’s relationship with Black Women’s Player Collective (BWPC), a non-profit created by the Black players in the NWSL to advance opportunities for Black girls in sport, Berman referenced her personal background. Growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. sparked Berman’s “obsession,” as she calls it, with breaking down barriers and recognizing privilege.

“This is an area I’m interested in, focused on, always wanting to learn, make sure we’re informed by subject matter experts,” she said, adding that she spoke to BWPC board member Midge Purce on Tuesday about diversity in the league.

The Players’ Commissioner Search Committee included Burke, Crystal Dunn, Kaylie Collins, Jane Campbell, Bri Visalli, Nicole Barnhart, Emily Menges, Tori Huster. They didn’t have the authority to make decisions about candidates, but their opinions were taken into consideration.

“Hats off to the union for requesting [involvement] and to the Board of Governors for agreeing to have them be part of the process and have a seat at the table,” Berman said.

She met with the PA player representatives during two separate calls: one with the east group and the other with the west. Those conversations gave her a better understanding of their expectations are and how they envision working together going forward.

“It actually helped me to feel confident coming into the position,” she said.

After answering their questions — which Berman said were thoughtful, engaging and passionate — she had the opportunity to ask some of her own, allowing her to dig into how the players believe the league can move forward and the ways in which they want to see that happen.

“I appreciate the enormity of the task at hand,” she said. “I would only really do it if I felt like I had the tools and the skill set to come forward and help this league to achieve its success.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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