In recent years soccer has finally grabbed a full foothold in the minds of American sports fans, and one of the most prominent leagues for the sport is the National Women’s Soccer League. To learn more about the league, and the strides that one team is taking to inspire women across the country, we spoke with Steve Baldwin, owner of the Washington Spirit team.
ABERMAN: How does a successful IT entrepreneur, a government contractor, become the owner of the Washington Spirit?
BALDWIN: I came to the game really through my daughter. My younger daughter is a player, she currently plays in Europe, and I saw the impact that the game had on her in making really positive impacts in her life. My daughter has seen the world through the game, she’s gotten a great education through it. So, when the opportunity arose to take over the Spirit at the beginning of 2019, I took it.
ABERMAN: Your daughter played clubs sports in school, though, she wasn’t a professional athlete.
BALDWIN: Yes. So, she played here in D.C. locally for the Braddock Road youth club. Then, she spent a few years at the University of Tennessee, she almost went pro out of high school. And then, decided to leave school early to go pro. And now, she’s been over in Europe now for three years.
ABERMAN: The interplay between having a professional league and kids’ sports, there seems to be a very strong vertical integration. What do you think it is about having a professional league that’s important for people who are playing sports as children and young adults?
BALDWIN: I think it gives them a path, or inspires them to a unique opportunity. I think back to when I was a kid, when a pro league for girls didn’t exist in soccer or in basketball with the WNBA at the time. And now through some of these leagues and team sports, girls, as they mature into women, now have an opportunity to continue their passion. I think the real challenge that we have in our league, in our sport, is to raise the economic situation for the players.
ABERMAN: That’s something that was highlighted in the last World Cup, for example.
BALDWIN: Correct. And if you look at the history of the sport, there’s been activism around equal pay pretty much every World Cup. I’m an advocate of our players, and our league actually making more than the men, but I want to achieve it through the market. And I believe it’s really incumbent upon us as owners and as a league to market ourselves differently, sell the excellence in our product, and in doing so, over a period of time, we will achieve the outcome of the minimum salary in our league higher than their male counterparts.
ABERMAN: So, the mission of providing a pathway for women who want to be professional athletes, and being paid fairly compared to their male compatriots, in similar situations, that to my mind is emblematic of the whole issue of equal wages for equal work that’s running through corporate America right now. It strikes me, though, that there’s something else behind this, which is the aspect of providing positive role models. And one of the things I’ve always wondered about is the obligation athletes have. I remember Charles Barkley famously saying, I’m not a role model for your kids, and how people rejected that, and were very unhappy with him. I think he was trying to make the point, don’t be like me, but it fell on deaf ears. Why is it important for young women to have role models, and how are the athletes on your team role models for our young women?
BALDWIN: If you look at women leadership in executive positions in corporate America and government, nearly 80 percent of those women participated in sports growing up. And so, you can establish a direct link between participating in sports, the lessons you learn from sports, the ability to deal with adversity, learning how to fail, and overcoming those things, I think are lessons that girls get through that participation, and it helps them as they mature into women and pursue their careers. I think our players feel that responsibility as role models. And what is nice about our players is that that aspect is really wired into their DNA. If you look at the players in our sport and in our league, how they interact with kids, it’s completely different from what you see with their male counterparts. Our players routinely line the field after a game, spending an hour or so signing autographs, doing selfies. And you see the entire team doing it. You see these kids lining the field. The thing that’s been interesting in my year of doing this now is the number of boys that are actually attending our games, wearing our players’ jerseys as well. So I think we’re starting to see that transformation of kids, and how kids view women’s sports, and their interest in them, and our players do feel that responsibility as role models, and the things they do on and off the field to help inspire these girls as they mature.
ABERMAN: A few weeks ago, you and I had the chance to talk some about some of your players. And I’ll say, one of the things I was struck by was how accomplished they are.
BALDWIN: Yeah, they sure are. Our club has five graduates from Stanford, and we’ve also had players from Georgetown, Virginia, North Carolina, Wake Forest, you know, some of the best schools in the country. And the women in our club are very accomplished in the majors that they have. Business, engineering, computer science, things like that. I like to say that I have the best collection of well-educated athletes on the planet. So, these players are not only in the top one percent athletically, they’re in the top one percent in terms of their education status, the brilliance that they have.
ABERMAN: I lived overseas for a while when I was younger, and soccer is of immense popularity there, and around the world. Here, it’s not captured that level of mind-share. Why do you think it is that soccer is not as important in the American sports mind as what our foreign friends call American Football?
BALDWIN: Part of it is the tradition and history that is really, from a soccer perspective, maybe only has one generation in our country. I think the demographic changes that are taking place are changing that. I think what’s unique about our league is, we’re the only professional league in this country that can say that it’s the best in the world. And I don’t say that to downgrade MLS, but it’s really to put a spotlight on the excellence we have in the league. And that’s really the opportunity we have as owners in this league, is to take advantage of the increased interest in soccer, particularly women’s soccer. You saw it with the most recent World Cup. We have to take advantage of that exposure, and really work to continue to elevate the status of the players, so our sport does become the best women’s sport in the country. And I think we have the opportunity to do that, and part of that is just more exposure. I think the other thing that you have that kind of holds our sport, and women’s sports in general, back, is a lack of corporate partnerships in it. Basically one percent of marketing dollars in corporate America, that they spend on sports, goes to women’s sports. Imagine the difference if just 20 percent of those dollars came into women’s sports, what that would do socially, in terms of elevating the status of the players, inspiring the girls, inspiring more kids. Because as I mentioned, the boys are taking much greater interest in our sport and our game, and I think that combination will raise the status of soccer in general in the country.
ABERMAN: I know you spend a lot of time right now building corporate sponsorship, that’s your background, and I’ll be watching that with great interest. I’m very excited about this. Before I let you go: if people want to come to a game, how do they get tickets?
BALDWIN: In 2020, we’ll play at three venues. We’ll have four matches at the Maryland Soccerplex in Germantown, four games at Segra Field in Loudon County, and four games, including our league and season opener, at Audi Field.