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Volume 23 No. 17
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Closing Shot: Rising To The Challenge

While other leagues prep for their return, the NWSL rolls into the final stretch of its Challenge Cup, eager to put an exclamation point on the event.
The 23-match tournament wraps up Sunday at Utah’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
Photo: getty images
The 23-match tournament wraps up Sunday at Utah’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
Photo: getty images
The 23-match tournament wraps up Sunday at Utah’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
Photo: getty images

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird referred to the final results of the Challenge Cup’s group stage as “chaos,” which included a four-way tiebreaker following the preliminary round.

 

“I could not have written the group play better,” said Baird, whose NWSL was the first U.S. pro team sport to return to play amidst the coronavirus pandemic, beginning on June 27.

After one of the league’s nine teams — the Orlando Pride — withdrew from competition on June 22 following multiple staff members and players testing positive for COVID-19, the rest of the event has gone as planned.

With the Challenge Cup, there’s also been a personal element for the longtime Olympic executive. Inside the bubble, her 20-year-old daughter and rising Colgate junior, Caroline, is working as an unpaid intern and operating the ninth camera for CBS.

Since mid-June, Baird and her staff have called Utah home as they now head into the home stretch of the 23-match tournament, which concludes on Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium. 

“The fact that live team sports were back, not just women’s sports but all of sports, that was pretty exciting,” Baird said of the opening match, which saw players from the Portland Thorns FC and North Carolina Courage take a knee during the national anthem as they wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts. 

“The players were really aware of their moment. What our players did with that first game and their support for Black Lives Matter was really momentous and emotional. It was a strong statement in support of social justice.”

The inaugural match on CBS exceeded 500,000 viewers, marking the first time a women’s club-level match aired on broadcast television. Since then matches have shifted to the CBS All Access streaming service, but the final will also be on CBS.

Baird said she’s been juggling a number of responsibilities, including “stakeholder management” and regularly communicating with owners who aren’t present on-site, preparing for everyone’s departure from Utah, and planning for the 2021 season, including next year’s expansion draft with Racing Louisville FC joining the league. 

When asked what grade she’d give herself and the NWSL thus far for the Challenge Cup, the first year commissioner said she’d wait until after the tournament and once “the health of all of the players and staff is secured.” Still, she said there’s one area she’d like to focus on in the week before the championship. 

“If there’s one thing I still want to achieve with this tournament, it’s really raising the engagement and viewership with us worldwide,” said Baird. “When we’re getting into the quarters, semis and finals, that’s where we really want to hit it out of the ballpark in terms of audience.”