(CBS Local/CBS Chicago)- 2020 has been an eventful year for the National Women's Soccer League and first year commissioner Lisa Baird. The league was the first professional sports league in America to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic when it held its Challenge Cup in Utah that drew in record audiences. Now, the league returns to CBS, CBS Sports Network and CBS All Access for its fall series.
With the fall series starting up on Saturday on CBS with a 1 pm EST/PST matchup between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit, Baird is excited by what the league has put together and the excitement it has generated.
"We just generated a lot of excitement for our league and for our players. That has been one of my goals is make sure that we're building the reach, awareness and the excitement for our league and our women," said Baird in an interview with CBS Local's Ryan Mayer. "We always wanted to come back. Our players want to practice, they want to train, they want to play. They have long-term career interests her. They just want to do it safely. That's where we really need to be careful. There was no sign that they didn't want to train. They just wanted to do it and play games safely."
In order to achieve that level of health and safety for the fall season which will consists of 18 matches over the course of seven weeks, the league has gone to a pods format with three teams that are close regionally playing each other to limit the amount of travel necessary. For Baird, it also provides an opportunity to develop some regional rivalries that can even further grow the league.
"It's not a bad idea to do ongoing, play in little conferences. I don't think we intended that from the outset. But, I think as we look at bringing new teams in, we'll be looking to build something along conference lines or not, we'll have to think about that," said Baird. "With L.A. coming in, that is something that when you look at the more established leagues, you know, everybody in our league aims for North Carolina but, you know there's some great rivalries here. We have Portland Seattle set up and Washington-New Jersey is a really good rivalry. And our final game will be Orlando-North Carolina and I love that matchup because Carolina is always a really competitive team and they want to do the best they can and are a multiple championship team. But then you have Orlando Pride and those girls are anxious to get back and playing competitively so I'm really happy those matchups worked out really well."
Speaking of the Los Angeles franchise, the team drew a lot of buzz when it was announced earlier this summer and has some big names behind it in the ownership group. But, just as important it has a leader in Julie Ehrmann who Baird says has the exact kind of vision the league needs on a pair of important angles.
"I'll give a shoutout to Julie Ehrmann, she's been the president of this and she's been passionate about women's empowerment and football. She really has the right seasoned vision for what we need to do on those two angles. We're really excited to see the soccer program they build because it got a lot of buzz," said Baird. "I think it caught a lot of people's attention. My phone has been ringing off the hook and social media has been full of people talking about wanting an NWSL team to come to their city."
While the interest in new franchises has been high, Baird stresses the importance of thoughtful expansion with regards to ownership, facilities, and connection with fan bases in local communities. That last point is an important one for another aspect of the league's continued growth as a leader on social justice issues. Baird says that she was proud to see the players take a stand to support Black Lives Matter during the Challenge Cup and do so with grace and grit. As the league moves forward, she doesn't want the messages from the players to be lost and says she views the league as a symbol of unity with its communities.
"As we go forward in this time, what I am called to attention of is how important it is to show unity with our communities. It just tears at everybody's heart to know that we're going into what could be a divisive time in this country," said Baird. "We're looking to help our teams shine a light on those partners and programs in their communities that are making a difference. And bringing us together. We are a very diverse league and we are proud of that diversity of all of the members of our league."
The NWSL fall series begins Saturday, September 5 with a matchup between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit live on CBS at 1 pm EST/PST. The full schedule for the fall series of games can be found here.
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