NWSL/sexual abuse: "Our priority was to re-establish a dialogue with players" (S. Sauvage, OL Reign)
"We had to get organised very quickly. Our priority was to re-establish a dialogue with the NWSLPA (the association representing the players of the NWSL, the National Women's Soccer League)," said Sophie Sauvage, representative of OL Reign, an American women's football franchise owned by Olympique Lyonnais (Ligue 1 Uber Eats / D1 Arkema), to News Tank Football on 19/10/2021.
The American League is in turmoil following the publication of an article by the media company "The Athletic" at the end of September 2021, which alleged the sexual abuse of two NWSL players by their coach.
"The first thing was to listen and make sure we could talk again. Many players expressed their pain at the events, and then also at the silence and the difficulties in expressing themselves," said Sophie Sauvage.
Despite the denunciation of the facts in 2015, the accused (Paul Riley) was not worried and was even able to continue his professional activity in several franchises (North Carolina Courage eventually dismissed him on 30/09/2021). The first consequences of these revelations: the cancellation of the league matches scheduled on 02 and 03/10/2021, and most notably, the resignation of commissioner Lisa Baird.
"Lisa Baird's resignation created a governance vacuum and an executive committee (of three people) was put in place to address this and ensure the continuity of the League's operations. The idea was to work immediately on a systemic transformation and to reassure the teams of a league that was very much affected by this event," explained Sophie Sauvage.
"It was also a question of having complementary profiles: Amanda Duffy was president of the NWSL (in 2019). Angie Long is a very involved owner-investor with a large network. As for me, I brought an international dimension as well as expertise in strategic, financial and legal matters," added Sauvage, referring to an executive committee whose mission will end once the transition has been made with Marla Messing, who was appointed as interim CEO on 18/10/2021.
"In a very short space of time, we have consolidated the operational teams and are happy to hand over to Marla Messing, who, having led the organisation of the 1999 Women's World Cup, has greatly influenced the development of women's professional football in the United States," added Sophie Sauvage, who answered questions from News Tank Football.
"The fact that the NWSL is made up of global stars puts a spotlight on the actions it takes" (S. Sauvage, OL Reign)
You have been representing OL Reign on the NWSL board since the franchise was acquired by OL Groupe in early 2020. How did your relationship with OL come about?
I have always been passionate about sport. I first took a different path by working in private equity and then in mergers and acquisitions. That's how I ended up doing a deal with Cegid (a management software publisher founded by Jean-Michel Aulas in 1983), which acquired a company that I was working with. This gave me the opportunity to meet Jean-Michel Aulas in 1998. I took the opportunity to talk to him about football, the year of the World Cup in France.
He had plans to bring in an investor-partner to consolidate the club. He already had in mind the IPO and probably the idea of having his own stadium. I was thus entrusted with this fund-raising mission, within Deloitte, which led to Pathé's entry into OL's capital (in April 1999). Since then, I have been advising the club through my own structure since May 2019.
In 2003-04, I accompanied a second fund-raising operation carried out with entrepreneurs in the region with the aim of further consolidating the club's equity capital. This project took place before the IPO at the beginning of 2007, in which I was not involved.
I then worked for various companies, including investment firms. I left one of them in 2019 without really knowing what I was going to do next and a few weeks later, OL announced the project to acquire a women's franchise in the United States as part of the merger with ASVEL (Betclic Elite) and Tony Parker, the club's international ambassador.
So I thought this was the job for me. The club eventually gave it to me and it started with a complete overview to try to understand how the NWSL worked, what clubs were there, the profiles of the owners, etc. I then conducted an initial study for about two months. The hosting of the 2019 Women's World Cup semi-finals and final in Lyon (FRA) was an opportunity to meet with franchise owners, including Bill Predmore, the owner of Reign FC. Discussions began and eventually led to an exclusive deal for a majority stake in early November 2019.
The deal was announced in December 2019. Becoming an owner of an NWSL franchise means becoming a shareholder in the league. This means that each club is a member of the board of directors with one vote. Someone had to represent OL and I had done a lot of work on the functioning of the bodies, in particular by meeting several owners since a two-thirds majority is required to validate the purchase of a franchise (the purchase of Reign FC was approved unanimously). OL considered that I was best placed to represent the club on the board of governors.
What is your assessment of your first 18 months on the NWSL board, a period marked by the Covid-19 crisis?
We finalised the acquisition of the club in February 2020 and a number of events followed. We joined the board and then a new commissioner (Lisa Baird) arrived in March just days before the crisis started. Decisions had to be made as a new season was about to begin. The first priority was to protect the players, while preparing for a possible return to competition as soon as possible.
A medical task force was set up with the doctors accompanying all the clubs. We also devised several shortened competition formats. The remuneration of the players was also a subject, especially if there was to be no season. An agreement was quickly reached on the basis that whatever happened, salaries and benefits (accommodation, cars) would be maintained throughout the season. We also decided early on that they would be free to play or not as the environment was very stressful due to travel so we did not want to impose on them.
All of this led to the organisation of the first competition, the NWSL Challenge Cup, in Salt Lake City, Utah, from 27/06 to 26/07/2020 in a sanitary bubble that turned out to be the first ever in the sport. We were the first to restart, saying that it was certainly easier for us and our nine clubs than for other leagues. It was a real success and new sponsors came on board: Procter & Gamble, Google and Verizon, which are big global brands. At the beginning of 2020, we also signed a multi-year media deal with CBS and Twitch, and the TV ratings were remarkable, four times higher than the League's historical best ratings.
We also focused on expansions (bringing in new franchises). Louisville Racing was already in place before we arrived and at the end of 2020 we completed Kansas City's expansion (which took over the Utah Royals' roster). These two new franchises have entered into 2021. Finally, the Los Angeles franchise (Angel City) will participate in the competition from 2022. The San Diego franchise will also participate in the competition, as announced in June 2021, for a total of 12 teams.
The NWSL has introduced a new three-person executive committee following the resignation of Lisa Baird. How did you come to be part of it?
Lisa Baird's resignation created a governance vacuum and an executive committee was put in place to address this and ensure the continuity of the League's operations. It is obviously an offshoot of the board and its scope of action is global. The idea was to work immediately on a systemic transformation and to reassure the teams of a league that was very much affected by this event.
It was also a question of having complementary profiles: Amanda Duffy has been president of the League (in 2019). Angie Long is a very involved owner-investor with a large network and a strong ability to be directly involved in player relations. As for me, I brought an international dimension as well as expertise in strategic, financial and legal matters.
What were the specific tasks of this provisional executive committee? (Marla Messing has just been appointed interim CEO)
We had to get organised very quickly to find out how we were going to manage all this. Our priority was to re-establish a dialogue with the NWSLPA (association representing NWSL players). First of all, we had to listen and make sure that we could talk again. Many players expressed their pain at the events, of course, but also at the silence and the difficulty of expressing themselves. It was decided not to play the first matches of the weekend following the revelations.
It is seismic for all the teams to realise that these things have happened. Our organisation is affected, but the problem is much wider. It is worldwide and not just in sport. But we have to recognise that this has happened within our organisation, that we are affected, that we are listening to the pain of the players and the staff.
In terms of tasks, we had two important issues to deal with: continuity in the functioning of the League and an ongoing negotiation with the players' association regarding the NWSL's first CBA.
In addition to listening, an investigation had to be launched into all the facts reported, but also into all the internal practices and policies of the League and the clubs. Are they simply applied? If so, are they sufficient? We need to identify the risks and understand why relationships sometimes become unhealthy and lead to abuse, and what the triggers are.
The use of the law firm Covington & Burling should enable us to make progress in this area, since it is a firm that has had to deal with these issues, particularly within the company Uber. It analyses corporate cultures and the abuse that they can give rise to. The facts are one thing, but the systemic part must enable certain conditions to be put in place so that this type of event does not happen again. It is a question of making the space in which the players in general evolve as safe as possible.
In a very short space of time, we have consolidated the operational teams and are happy to hand over to Marla Messing, who, having led the organisation of the 1999 Women's World Cup, has greatly influenced the development of women's professional football in the USA.
Does your knowledge of the mechanisms that exist to fight against sexual abuse in French sport (actions carried out by the FFF, control of the integrity of educators, etc.) help you in your mission?
There are many things that can be shared between what is done in France and what is done in the United States. Character checks are very important. We really need to review our processes, so any inspiration is useful.
I bring this international dimension, which allows me to remind the NWSL that these problems do not only concern the United States and that what we are going to do can also serve as an example for other countries. The fact that the NWSL is made up of global stars puts a spotlight on the actions it takes. We have a responsibility to our League but not only that, we have to inspire others.
Does the fact that a player like Megan Rapinoe, a very committed activist, plays for OL Reign, give the franchise more responsibility in dealing with such a crisis?
Megan Rapinoe is an amazing voice and has an unwavering commitment to the causes she cares about. That obviously drives us.
The image of the OL is also at stake...
All the actions in which OL engages are done with the greatest responsibility in the long term. It's not a question of image but of substance. What OL wants to do with women's sport is to create a model for everyone. To do the best we can and to establish conditions in which the players are able to develop to the best of their abilities in a professional, safe and happy environment.
We are much more than a question of image. This ambition has been supported by Jean-Michel Aulas and OL for nearly 20 years.
To what extent can women's football in the USA inspire Europe and vice versa?
The USA is the home of women's football. The NWSL was the third league to be created because the other two did not last. We will begin our 10th season in 2022. There is a remarkable commitment and investment model from the owners. There are few equivalents in Europe, where we are not yet fully professional. The financial balance has not yet been found.
I particularly like the willingness in the US to build something for the long term with owners who are willing to make an effort. The valuation model of American franchises helps to encourage investment. It is a model that does not exist in France for women's football and we need to think about that. We saw that the English took strong decisions in 2017 to professionalise the League by setting up high standards and thus forcing the clubs to invest. In France, we are behind.
At the European level, however, we have the best competition with the Women's Champions League, which is very attractive. The reason why some American women have come to play in Europe is to play in it. It is mainly an international competition like this that would be interesting to export to the United States. It's maybe the only thing we have that they don't have.
What are OL Reign's plans in the coming months?
The first project is to continue to perform well on the pitch and even to be at the top of the League. We are not far from that. Our French and German players from OL are having an incredible experience. The Champions League may be the best competition, but the NWSL is really the best domestic league. There is no equivalent because all teams can beat each other and that raises the level.
We also need to work on our infrastructures. We are looking at the possibilities to improve them. This is a priority because it's what allows us to grow. We couldn't really work the way we wanted to in the first year because of Covid, which obviously slowed things down.