NWSL gets boost with bonus-pool bump, VAR, expansion and more

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Winners of this year’s NWSL Shield, awarded to the club with the best regular-season record, will enjoy a doubly good payday in October after news Thursday that the National Women’s Soccer League will double the bonus pool from $5,000 to $10,000 per player, thanks to a new multi-year partnership with CarMax.

“This new collaboration is yet another indicator of the steadily increasing value of women’s sports around the world and a testament to CarMax’s enthusiasm towards achieving equity in sport,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement regarding the league’s first official auto retailer.

However, the bonus-pool increase isn’t the only boost the NWSL is getting. On Wednesday, the league announced it will implement Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology for the 2023 season as well as plans to expand to 14 teams by 2024. Additionally, league headquarters will move from Chicago to New York this fall. The slew of news comes after the NWSL’s board of governors met on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

“This week’s meetings have underscored what I have believed from my first day on the job: The NWSL will be the tip of the spear in driving transformational change in the professional sports landscape in this country,” said Berman, who met with media Thursday to discuss the recent announcements further.

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Berman specifically called out the new CarMax partnership as an example of a sponsorship deal the league looks to replicate: “As a league, we are committed to really selling the league with a purpose-driven approach, and that we have every expectation that all of our partners. (We’re) really proud that our partners are all leaning in to not just support investing in the league, but also investing directly in our players. … We believe that that’s the way that the rising tide will lift all boats and ensure that the league is growing sustainably.”

With regard to the investment in VAR technology, while Berman said she was not ready to share specific numbers, she did hope announcing the league’s pledge to implementing VAR for next season demonstrated its commitment.

“Based on the data and everything that I’ve learned over the last two and a half months, it’s clear that instituting and implementing VAR is probably the single most important thing that we could do to improve the consistency and the quality of the officiating,” said Berman. “And we have the support from our board to do whatever is necessary to make that happen. We’ve been doing due diligence on that for the last nine months, and we felt coming out of the board meeting that we’ve done enough research and scoping that we’re prepared to make the commitment.”

The board also outlined the league’s plan to further support and improve officiating, including a commitment to increase investment in the development of league officials, as well as the hiring of investment firm Inner Circle Sports to represent and advise the NWSL in its expansion efforts.

“We are taking a much more proactive approach and partnering with PRO (Professional Referee Organization) to be proactive in how we educate and communicate not just from the league to the officials,” she said, “but also with our internal stakeholders so that we create an open line of communication, to help everybody to understand the process better and to build trust and credibility internally within our ecosystem.”

As for where the league is targeting to locate two new expansion teams, Berman said the league will take into account states where women’s rights have been altered due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade when evaluating cities.

“I think we have to look at that not just from an expansion perspective, but really, even our current landscape,” she added. “It’s one of the things that we’re actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind relative to where we have teams located currently. And what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on?”

The 2022 season featured the debut of both Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC in California, with the Wave leading the current standings with a 6-3-3 record.

Berman wrapped her news conference by sharing her excitement about the NWSL moving its headquarters to New York City.

“I think having a brick-and-mortar space where we can host partners and investors, that is commensurate with the respect we want for people to have for the league and our players, is necessary for us to be in the city where all of the other professional sports leagues are based in-house is very important,” she noted.

Along with its financial commitment to the NWSL Shield, CarMax joins NJ/NY Gotham FC as the team’s jersey partner and auto retailer.