DURING HER FIRST WEEK on campus in the fall of 1979, Lisa Baird attended an open tryout for the women’s volleyball team. “I got cut immediately,” she says, but she did go on to play club volleyball, and ultimately found her passion for sports. This March, she marks the one-year anniversary of her hiring as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League, where Baird ’82 Lib, ’84 MBA Bus is charged with guiding the top U.S. women’s pro league amid an unprecedented challenge.
Two days after starting the job last March, Baird suspended the NWSL season in the face of COVID-19. Three months later, the NWSL became the first U.S. sports league to resume competition. It conducted two shortened tournaments in the summer and fall, without canceling a game or reporting a positive COVID test among players, coaches, or staff. The league plans a full season in 2021.
The NWSL—whose rosters currently include six former Nittany Lions—set viewership records in 2020, with a domestic television audience nearly 500% larger than the previous season. Mark Jones, with whom Baird worked on the U.S. Olympic Committee, calls Baird “brave, bold and relentless.”
At Penn State, Baird says, “I developed confidence.” A member of the inaugural University Scholars Program, she went on to work in marketing and advertising at Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and IBM, among others, before joining the NFL in 2005 as senior vice president of marketing and consumer products. Stints at the USOC and New York Public Radio followed; now, she says, “I have my dream job.” She says she wants to make the NWSL “the most successful sports league in the world.”
That success isn’t only measured by TV ratings and tweets. Unlike the WNBA, the NWSL isn’t connected to a wealthier men’s league; because of that, Baird says, “people see us as a true symbol of empowerment.”