Commissioner Jessica Berman presents the MVP award to Margaret Purce of Gotham FC at the 2023 National Women's Soccer League championship game
Game Changer typography in white full caps

After breaking barriers as a woman executive in the world of men’s professional sports, Jessica Berman ’02 is bringing her business savvy—grounded in emotional intelligence and a deep commitment to ethics and integrity—to shape the future of women’s soccer.

By Pamela Kaufman

Game Changer

Above: Commissioner Jessica Berman ’02 presents the MVP award to Margaret Purce of Gotham FC at the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League championship game (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images).


essica Berman ’02, commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) since 2022, credits her success as a sports executive to many factors, including her legal training, which turbocharged her ability to think analytically and solve problems; her self-awareness and empathy; and her belief in fairness and good-faith negotiations, epitomized by Fordham Law’s beloved former dean, John Feerick ’61.

These days, Berman sometimes bumps into Feerick at the supermarket in the small Westchester town where they both live. “He’s an icon, a living legend,” she says. “He wrote the 25th Amendment. And there he is, just walking around anonymously!”

Berman chose to attend Fordham Law School in part because of Feerick. “He has such an incredible reputation as someone who drove the sports industry forward with his ethics,” she says. “And that’s a fundamental characteristic that I really care about: integrity.”

As commissioner of the top U.S. professional women’s soccer league, Berman oversees all league operations, including working on behalf of and in partnership with players and NWSL clubs and strategizing new ways to increase the visibility of the league and support its tremendous growth.

Led by the NWSL, professional women’s soccer is experiencing a popularity boom, with record-breaking attendance at games and a nearly fourfold increase in television and streaming game coverage year over year. The NWSL is adding new franchises this year, expanding the number of teams from 12 to 14, with 2 more teams anticipated to debut by 2026.

Research firm NRG found that the NWSL ranked highest in momentum compared with all other sports brands, including men’s sports.

Charting a Pathway to Professional Sports

Berman joined the NWSL after more than two years at the National Lacrosse League, where she became the first woman to hold the title of deputy commissioner for a men’s professional sports league. Before that, she spent 13 years at the National Hockey League (NHL), where, as deputy NHL general counsel, she played a key role in hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement that helped end the 2012 lockout that halted play for almost half a season. Later, she was named vice president of community development, culture, and growth and executive director of the NHL Foundation, the league’s philanthropic arm.

And it really did feel like my calling in that moment, despite the fact that when I took the job, a lot of people questioned whether it was the right decision for me to make.

Jessica Berman

Berman came to the NHL from the New York City law firm Proskauer Rose, where she was an associate in the labor and employment sector, focusing on collective bargaining negotiations, arbitrations, mediations, and litigations. She also worked on pro bono cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, and military matters.

During law school, Berman interned at the National Football League in the organization’s collective bargaining arm. Her mentor there, Lisa Lazarus ’94, now chief executive officer of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (an entity created by Congress in 2022 to govern thoroughbred racing through safety and anti-doping regulations for both horses and humans), remembers Berman as a standout not just for her intellect, drive, and work ethic but also for her ability to connect with others.

“One of the things I’ve always observed about Jessica is that she has extremely high EQ—emotional intelligence,” says Lazarus. “And so she recognizes how to be a good leader, how to empower people, how to motivate people, and how to bring that positive energy and vibe into the workplace. She’s also extremely empathetic, which you can see in her leadership style. Watching what she’s done at the NWSL shows that strength.”

Lazarus, like Berman, has spent her career working as a female executive in the male-dominated sports industry. “So much of what we do is over Zoom, and I’m usually looking at 16 Zoom boxes of men,” Lazarus says. “But while everyone has a different experience, I feel that Jessica has shared mine, in that being a woman hasn’t been a hindrance to us. We’ve been able to be confident in who we are and what we bring to the workplace, to not stop being ourselves and bring our own personal qualities to the job, which may be different than how the men around us act.”

headshot of Jessica Berman
Jessica Berman smiles while standing on a soccer pitch between two NWSL players holding jerseys with the number 1000
side view of Jessica Berman standing in front of a step and repeat, speaking into a Fox 11 microphone held by an off-camera reporter
Berman credits her EQ to her mother, a psychologist, who instilled healthy emotional development in her daughter. “When I was growing up, it was an expectation that therapy was part of my life,” Berman says. “I think the key to having high emotional intelligence is being self-aware and having systems where you do checks on yourself, which helps you understand what’s going on around you. I’m on a constant journey to better understand myself and the decisions I make both consciously and unconsciously, and that gives me a vulnerability that helps me be more relatable to others.”

A Passion for the Game

While Berman did not play traditional sports growing up in Midwood, a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, athletics were a constant.

“In that urban environment, there were limited sports fields and opportunities for girls to play sports, even though it was post-Title IX,” she says. “I became a dancer, and through that route performed during sports event halftimes in high school and college.”

Her brother played football and eventually boxed after college, “but I was by far the family’s most active sports fan,” she says. She was fascinated by the ability of sports to bring people together: “Growing up in a diverse community, I observed that sport was one of the few things in our social fabric that reduced barriers and united our community.”

As a teenager, Berman connected that observation to professional sports during a memorable night attending a New York Islanders ice hockey game with her parents. When she saw two men who didn’t know each other ecstatically hug and high-five after the home team scored a goal, she realized that this was a world she wanted to be a part of.

At the time, she believed the best way to enter the industry was to get involved in male sports leagues. “I had not even realized until recently that my career ambitions and pursuits to do good in the world through sport were shaped by some of the systemic barriers that exist for women and women’s sports,” she says. During high school, she managed the boy’s baseball team; at the University of Michigan, she was a manager for the men’s football, hockey, and baseball teams.

Because of Jessica, the Law School’s commitment to sports just grew and grew. She left behind a legacy.
John Feerick
After graduating from Michigan with a degree in sports management and communications, Berman headed to Fordham Law. Why Fordham? “First, I pretty much knew I wanted to work at a professional sports league at some point, and all the national leagues are headquartered in New York, so that proximity seemed super important to have access to internships. Second, Dean Feerick was a key component for me. I knew, of course, his reputation in the sports space, and I was attracted to his values and what he brought to the school. And then I did some digging and saw the robust connectivity of Fordham Law alumni who work in the sports industry, and I thought it would be helpful to have that network to lean on.”

Berman was an associate editor at the Fordham Urban Law Journal and also active in the Fordham Sports Law Forum, where she became editor-in-chief. Looking for ways to raise the stature of the Forum, a student-run group founded at the Law School in 1996 that organizes annual symposiums and negotiation competitions, she had the idea to launch a sports law journal. “So I pulled together an analysis of all the student groups that received funding from the school, and I took it to Dean Feerick. And we explored the possibility of creating our own journal, which is a very onerous process and not for the faint of heart.”

“I’m pretty sure it was Dean Feerick who gave me the idea that rather than start our own journal, we should publish a sports-specific book with an existing law journal,” Berman continues. “It was a great lesson for me.”

Feerick speaks admiringly of Berman’s lasting impact on Fordham. “Because of Jessica, the Law School’s commitment to sports just grew and grew,” he says. “She left behind a legacy.”

Jessica Berman smiles while standing on the NWSL 2023 Draft Pick stage beside a woman soccer athlete
Jessica Berman wears glasses and a white dress with pink accents as she speaks at the podium of the NWSL Championship 2023 in San Diego
Jessica Berman, second from the right, leans in for a groups photo on a soccer pitch
Even though Feerick considers Berman a “lawyer’s lawyer,” he notes that she has always looked for ways to contribute beyond legal work. “She always saw herself as part of a community, in a role that enabled her to reach across cubicles and take on leadership roles and build communities within communities. She was just always so interested in what she was doing,” Feerick says.

Leading Through Crisis

Berman’s knack for community-building—in addition to her extensive training in labor and employment law—became essential when she was approached by the NWSL about potentially becoming commissioner. At the time, the league was in disaster mode, reeling from revelations of a culture of sexual misconduct and verbal and emotional abuse in which coaches targeted players while leaders of the NWSL and the United States Soccer Federation, team owners, executives, and other coaches turned a blind eye.

When this misconduct and abuse finally came to light in 2021, the fallout was dramatic. Berman’s predecessor, Commissioner Lisa Baird, resigned; half the league’s head coaches either resigned or were fired. The players were furious, demoralized, and skeptical that league executives would ever have their back.

I had not even realized until recently that my career ambitions and pursuits to do good in the world through sport were shaped by some of the systemic barriers that exist for women and women’s sports.
Jessica Berman
Enter Berman. “As I went through the interview process, it became clear to me that my background was perfectly suited to figuring out a solution for the crisis the league was facing,” she says. “And it really did feel like my calling in that moment, despite the fact that when I took the job, a lot of people questioned whether it was the right decision for me to make.”

Simply put, many of Berman’s confidants told her to be wary about taking the job because they weren’t sure the league could survive, given its toxic culture. “But I guess where they saw obstacles, I saw opportunity,” says Berman. “Especially after talking with the players as part of the interview process, I really believed that they held the key to the future of the league, and that they were most certainly not looking for the league to fail. They were looking to find a way to make the league successful and needed leadership and guidance on how to do that. And I became convinced that they were willing to trust someone, if the person could earn their trust, and so I was not worried about it at all.”

Berman’s EQ, bolstered by her own outsider experience as a woman working in men’s sports, helped her understand the athletes’ perspective. To convince them that she was genuinely committed to transforming the culture and values of the NWSL, she says, “I needed the humility to listen to and learn from these players who had real trauma around the history of the league. I needed to understand their perspective and meet them where they were. Healing begins with accountability and acknowledgment of someone’s experience so they feel validated, and then turning the page from there.”

“It was so clear to me that the players were yearning for solutions,” Berman says. “And I think the last year and half have proven that the players were actually very self-aware and knew exactly what they wanted, and delivered exactly what they told me they would.”

Berman remains dedicated to delivering exactly what she said she would. And the league has not just survived; it has thrived.