I have been following the recent travails of the NWSL and find familiar parallels that another women’s sports organization, the LPGA, experienced a little more than 10 years ago. I spent almost seven of those years on the board of the LPGA, including several as its chairman during that challenging period, and see multiple similarities to the current NWSL dilemma.
In 2010, the LPGA was encountering serious issues caused in large part by a management group that had lost the confidence of its players. The tour was in some peril and desperately needed new leadership and a reconfiguration of its governance. With a reconstituted board and a new commissioner, Mike Whan, the experiences of the LPGA could serve as a case study that the NWSL might want to explore as it moves forward in addressing its own internal crisis.
The recent demands by the NWSL players to their leadership is similar to the lack of confidence the LPGA players experienced with their commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, that subsequently resulted in her ouster. Both Lisa Baird and Bivens have significant business credentials and on the surface seem capable of running their respective organizations. But managing a professional women’s sports organization requires a set of sensitivities to the inordinate struggles of these athletes and the inequities they have encountered in recognition and support of their achievements.
There are lessons from the LPGA experience that might provide a pathway for the NWSL. The first and most important should be an understanding of your athletes and taking the time to ensure that the players have meaningful input in the decision-making process. This requires a high degree of transparency and a lack of ego that is often missing from management. It is a path that ensures the players have confidence in management and feel they have significant input. On the LPGA board, the players command a majority of the board seats while the independent members provide a set of business skills to assist the players and the commissioner in accomplishing the objectives of the tour.
It is a bit naive to suggest that a league like the NWSL, with team ownership, structure the same board configuration as the LPGA. However, a meaningful player presence on any executive committee would go a long way in establishing a constant and fruitful dialogue.
The NWSL should have a bright future as female athletes continue to gain public recognition, and corporations realize that an investment in women’s sports makes good business sense. It is not about short-term solutions, but long-term commitments in support of these gifted athletes that will result in a positive ROI. The crises can and should serve as the foundation the players and owners of the NWSL need to establish a template for moving forward.
Mike Trager is chairman at The Trager Group.
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