(CBS Local / CBS Chicago) – 2020 was a busy year for the Women's National Football 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, which drew a record crowd. Now the league is returning to CBS, CBS Sports Network and CBS All Access for their fall series.
With the Fall Series kicking off Saturday on CBS with an EST / PST match between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit at 1:00 p.m., Baird is thrilled with what the league has put together and the excitement it has generated.
“We just created a lot of excitement for our league and for our players. That was one of my goals to make sure we increase the reach, awareness and excitement for our league and our women, "Baird said in an interview with Ryan Mayer of CBS Local. “We always wanted to come back. Our players want to practice, they want to train, they want to play. They have long-term professional interests in them. They just want to make it safe. We have to be really careful here. There was no sign that they didn't want to exercise. They just wanted to do it and play safely. "
To achieve this level of health and safety for the fall season, which consists of 18 games within seven weeks, the league has chosen a pods format with three teams playing close together regionally to limit the number of games necessary to travel. It also provides an opportunity for Baird to develop some regional rivalries that can expand the league even further.
“It's not a bad idea to be in small conferences on an ongoing basis. I don't think we intended that from the start. But I think if we try to get new teams we will try to build something along the lines of the conference or not, we have to think about it, "said Baird." When LA comes in it's something that, if you look at the more established leagues, everyone in our league is headed for North Carolina, but you know there is some big rivalry here gives. We set up Portland Seattle, and Washington-New Jersey is a really good rivalry. And our last game is going to be Orlando-North Carolina, and I love that matchup because Carolina is always a really competitive team and they want to give the best they can and are a multi-championship team. But then you have Orlando Pride and these girls are eager to come back and play competitively. I'm really glad that these matchups went really well. "
Speaking of the Los Angeles franchise, the team caused quite a stir when it was announced earlier this summer and has some big names in the ownership group. Just as important, however, is that Julie Ehrmann has a leader who, according to Baird, has exactly the vision the league needs from two important angles.
"I will greet Julie Ehrmann, she was the president of it and she was excited about the empowerment of women and football. She really has the right vision for what we need to do in these two angles. We are very excited about the football program that they create because it got a lot of buzz, "said Baird." I think it got a lot of people's attention. My phone rang and there was a lot of talk on social media about an NWSL team coming to your town. "
While interest in new franchises has been strong, Baird emphasizes the importance of well-designed expansion in terms of ownership, facilities, and connection to fan bases in local communities. That last point is important to another aspect of the League's continued growth as a leader in social justice issues. Baird says she was proud that the players took a stand during the Challenge Cup to support Black Lives Matter, and did so with grace and determination. As the league evolves, she doesn't want the players' messages to be lost and says she views the league as a symbol of unity with its communities.
“During this time I am made aware of the importance of showing unity with our communities. It is just a tear in everyone's hearts to know that we are in what could be a time of divide in this country, ”said Baird. “We want to help our teams shed light on the partners and programs in their communities that are making a difference. And bring us together. We are a very diverse league and we are proud of the diversity of all members of our league. "
The NWSL Fall Series kicks off Saturday, September 5th with a matchup between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit live on CBS at 1pm EST / PST. The full schedule for the fall series can be found here.