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Q&A: NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman on possible expansion to Boston, league success, and more

Jessica Berman became commissioner of the NWSL in March 2022.Kevin Winter/Getty

Qualified investors were already “knocking on our door,” according to Jessica Berman, when she became commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League in March 2022. An expansion process soon started, with 82 candidates winnowed to two — Bay Area (Calif.) and Salt Lake City — that are set to join the league’s current dozen teams next season.

Two more teams are expected for the 2026 season, and a group of Boston investors — with their eye on refurbishing White Stadium in Franklin Park — is believed to be high on the short list for one of those teams.

Berman, the former deputy commissioner of the Professional Lacrosse League and NHL deputy general counsel, spoke about Boston’s bid and what goes into the expansion process in an interview edited for brevity and clarity.

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On bringing an NWSL expansion franchise to Boston:

“No specific news to report, but happy to recap where we are, which is ‘in process.’ We’re certainly hopeful and excited about the possibility of making this a reality. We believe Boston is an incredible sports market and has a unique fan culture and identity as it relates to supporting their local teams — and I can say that as a New Yorker, with respect.

“I’ll speak in the micro as it relates to Boston, that the NWSL in particular really is a magnet for those types of avid, rabid fans who really embrace the NWSL into their identity as a member of the community.

“So, for all those reasons, we’re excited about the future, and we look forward to the time when we can be more definitive.”

Anything else missing from Boston’s bid besides firming up where they’ll play and practice?

“I can’t really comment on the specifics until we’re at a place where we can make an affirmative announcement.”

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Is there a timeline on announcing the next two teams?

“No particular timeline right now; we’re working hard to get to the finish line. You’ll be one of our first calls.”

What makes for a successful NWSL ownership group?

“There’s two parts to the ownership. The first is the financial wherewithal, the second part is the willingness to invest, and that’s a more qualitative analysis. Do they see it as a business? Are they going to invest in it like a business?

“It’s a really important element, because you can have all the money in the world but if you think of it as an afterthought or don’t believe in the future growth potential of this league, then it’s probably not the right fit for the NWSL.”

How important or not is having female-led ownership?

“I think it certainly adds to the authenticity of the brand narrative of the NWSL. I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement for us. We have plenty of men who are invested in our league and believe in the future.”

Savannah DeMelo of the NWSL's Louisville team went on the attack in a game this spring.AJ Mast/Associated Press

How vital is it for a team to have a world-class stadium and training facility?

“It’s absolutely imperative, particularly as we think about bringing new teams into the league, because we want to set our standards not just for where we are today but where we know the league is going.”

How important is media coverage to a successful NWSL team?

“I actually believe that people are craving local coverage and local information more than they did five years ago. This is more anecdotal, I don’t necessarily have data to support it, but just visiting as many markets as I do on a regular basis, talking to supporters groups, or taxi drivers, or waiters and waitresses, when you ask people like, ‘Where do you get your information?,’ the feedback I hear is the local news, the local newspaper, and I don’t think that was the case 5-10 years ago. I think it’s actually a resurgence of people craving local connectivity to their communities.”

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Why did the NWSL launch its formal expansion process?

“So that we could wrap our arms around the full landscape and understand all the different constituents who had what clearly appeared to be pent-up demand for women’s soccer and the NWSL, in particular. Through that process, we actually had 82 groups that expressed interest, and 62 who ended up signing [non-disclosure agreements] and engaged in a mutual due diligence process that lasted several months.

“That process culminated, and a group of finalists went into a deeper due diligence process, meeting with our board, engaging in site visits, engaging more deeply with the local community and constituents who would be on hand to support the launch of a team. And as you know, we announced last month that team No. 14 would be in the Bay Area.

“I look at it as a running start for the future. When we formally open and launch our next expansion round, we will invite others into the process. We expect that process to launch later this calendar year.”

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Do you expect the trend of celebrities and athletes in ownership groups — Angel City is a prime example — to continue, and is it even important?

“I think it’s important to the extent it’s authentically interwoven into how the team is acting on its strategic priorities. I think the reason we’ve seen Angel City tap the success it has with the high-profile nature of some of their investors is because those high-profile celebrities and athletes are authentically engaged. They are showing up at games, and that’s why you see it resonating with sponsors, with fans, and with players.”

Goalkeeper Brittany Isenhour of Angel City kept her eye on the ball in a game in April. Ronald Martinez/Getty

Can an NWSL franchise thrive in a city with a heavy professional sports scene?

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in 25-plus years in professional sports, there is no recipe or right answer to that question. I think this is the nuance and challenge of professional sports, which is that it really comes down to, in my experience, a much more qualitative analysis about how the team is being stood up and whether the team is being built with the right priorities that allow for the community to genuinely believe that it is a community asset.

“I think Angel City is a great example of that. People said and believed that, on paper, there wasn’t room for another professional sports team in LA, yet, somehow, the launch of Angel City defied all of those projections. They have 16,000 season ticket-holders who have committed to going to every single game of the season, and I think a quantitative analysis by a consultant would have told you that there’s no room in the market for another team.”

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Read the Globe’s reporting on the NWSL

Boston Globe Today: Sports | June 23, 2023
Watch today's full episode of Boston Globe Today: Sports from June 23, 2023

Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com.