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MIT Sloan publishes case study on how the National Women’s Soccer League thrived in the pandemic


Case highlights lessons on leadership, strategy, and innovation

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 24, 2021 – The challenges women’s sports face have drawn national attention in recent months, particularly when it comes to the inequities they encounter. A new MIT Sloan School of Management case study examines the past, present, and future of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and how it successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the leadership of the league’s new commissioner Lisa Baird, the NWSL was the first professional sports league to return to action during the pandemic and the first to crown a champion. It also succeeded in reaching larger audiences and expanding to new markets. Authors of the case study, MIT Sloan Associate Director of Curriculum Development Cate Reavis, journalist and Boston University Lecturer Shira Springer, and MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer, highlight learnings from Baird and the NWSL about leadership, strategy, and innovation.

“This is a remarkable story about a business navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic and emerging in an even stronger position,” says Shields. “There is so much to learn from studying how Commissioner Baird and her team are charting a growth path for women’s professional soccer in a more equitable and sustainable way.”

Springer notes that the case tells the story of how difficult it is to grow a business while simultaneously trying to change a culture to enable growth. “It can be a ‘Catch-22’ and that presents interesting questions for students to consider. Also, the case is unique in that it features a female protagonist.”

Reavis agrees. “A striking feature of this case is that in addition to featuring Baird’s leadership, her business is based on some of the best women athletes in the world. It’s a story about women leading women.”

The case study was taught in Shields’s and class on Sports Strategy and Analytics on May 18, with Baird as guest speaker. It also is available to download for free, along with a companion podcast written and co-produced by Springer. Both are available at:

The authors point to several takeaways for students and listeners, including:

  • an appreciation for Baird’s collaborative leadership strategy during the uncertainty of the pandemic;
  • an awareness of the strategic and cultural challenges facing women’s professional sports and the new strategies and innovations required to address those challenges; and
  • an understanding of how the lessons from this case apply to other industries.

Springer adds, “The NWSL had been without a commissioner for three years, and Baird took the job just days after COVID-19 hit the U.S. Her first leadership challenge involved dealing with a pandemic and creating some semblance of a season when there was no playbook. Her ability to not only navigate that crisis, but also to be the first sports commissioner to lead a league back to action – and the first to finish the season – was nothing short of amazing.”

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