Q&A: NLL exec Jessica Berman on being a pioneer, league expansion

Jessica Berman is the National Lacrosse League's deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs. (NLL)

Jessica Berman joined the National Lacrosse League in the summer of 2019 after 13 years of legal and business work for the National Hockey League. Berman, 42, is the NLL’s deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs, making her the highest-ranking female executive in North American men’s professional sports.

She spoke to Sportsnet about the challenges of her new job, her time at the NHL, the pressure of being a trailblazer and how a New York Islanders game changed her life forever.

SPORTSNET: When did you know you wanted to work in sports?
Jessica Berman: Since I was 16 years old. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and if you’re not familiar with Brooklyn, it’s a melting pot. Dating back to when I was a small child, I’ve always been interested in what brings people from different backgrounds together.

It was actually an epiphany moment in my sophomore year of high school. I was attending a New York Islanders game and I observed two individuals high-fiving and hugging after the Islanders scored, and they were from very different backgrounds. I asked them whether they knew each other and they said they didn’t; I asked whether they sit together at every game and they said no; they were just passionate about the Islanders. I knew at that moment that I wanted to work in an industry that had the power to unify communities.

How did you end up working at the NHL?
When I went to [Fordham University School of Law], I was looking at different law firms and it became really clear that Proskauer Rose was the firm that so many sports leaders had come from — like [former NBA commissioner] David Stern and [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman. So I had my eye on Proskauer from the time I went into law school and ultimately got a chance to work there and worked on their sports clients, including the NHL. That’s really how I got the opportunity to come in house [with the NHL] and work there as a lawyer.

What was it like working at the NHL and what achievements are you most proud of?
I spent 13 years at the NHL and I’ve always said working there is working with family. They are running a multi-multi-multi-billion dollar business, but the people there are so supportive and loyal.

The one [project] that comes to mind is, when we were negotiating the 2012–13 collective bargaining agreement with the [National Hockey League Players’ Association] and it became clear pretty early in the negotiations that [NHLPA executive director] Don Fehr and the union were wanting a defined-benefit pension plan for the players so that they could have a much more secure financial retirement….

Gary and [deputy commissioner Bill Daly] asked me to take responsibility for essentially becoming the in-house subject-matter expert in that area and be responsible for ultimately negotiating it with the union. I really didn’t know anything about pension before that, but I saw the writing on the wall early on that that was going to be a fundamental tenet of getting a deal done, a big aspect of what we would be giving the players in exchange for some of the asks we were seeking. It turned out to be, as you may remember, a really important aspect of getting the deal done and saving the season early in 2013.

What made you decide it was time to take on a new challenge last summer?
I had spent 13 years at the NHL — the first nine as a lawyer, and I was the deputy general counsel — and then moved onto the business side for my final four years, with Gary and Bill’s blessing, to take on a new challenge and learn a new area of the business.

I always felt if I ever entertained leaving the NHL it would only be for a role that could marry together the two areas I had previously been responsible for at the NHL. That’s a pretty unique proposition because there aren’t many hybrid roles out there that aren’t super senior. When this opportunity presented itself and was exactly that — plus the opportunity to get exposure to new areas of the business that I hadn’t previously either worked in or been responsible for — it was a no-brainer in terms of my professional development and pushing myself to the next level.

It was very hard to leave the NHL, as you can imagine. But it was the right time and the right opportunity for me to take the leap.

What does a typical day for you look like now?
[One main area of focus is] building out our team-services functions. A lot of the leagues have an area of the business dedicated to helping the teams maximize their business goals and growth objectives, so that’s a very key area of focus for me. The league has not historically had a strategic plan around that. I’ve been building that out, and we launched, officially, those services in January with our inaugural club business summit in Las Vegas.

Another area that I’m super focused on is expansion. We’ve grown as a league from nine to 13 teams in the last three years under [commissioner Nick Sakiewicz’s] amazing leadership. It is our goal to get to 16 teams by 2023. We are in active discussion with various different potential owners and markets about the best next three. With all of the momentum that’s been built in the last several years with the NLL, there are a lot of interested and qualified potential owners as well as opportunities at arenas and in different markets that are looking for tenants and home teams to be in their facility. We already have shared ownership with the NHL and NBA and NFL. About half of our teams are owners who also own teams in those other leagues, so my relationship with the owners and the teams in the NHL are proving to be really relevant in my new role.

I’m responsible for and overseeing all marketing and social media on player engagement in terms of building relevance and our brand. The NLL has been around for 34 years and we have really strong and consistent metrics in terms of fans in the local markets coming to support their teams. Our challenge now is to sort of build and amplify as a league with national programming and initiatives and campaigns that really elevate the dialogue and help others to see the value of our league and our local teams so we can continues to build revenue and relevance.

Photo: NLL

I’ve heard you say, “Diversity is getting an invitation to the party — inclusion is having fun at the party.” Are we getting any closer to everyone having fun yet?
The having fun at the party, you’d have to look at each particular culture of an organization to really answer that question. People look a lot at metrics and numbers in terms of how many women do you have on your staff and what’s your breakdown of people of colour on your staff? That’s the invitation to the party. The harder thing to assess is, do those people feel like they’re being given an opportunity to contribute? Is it an environment where people can freely question the decisions that are being made and contribute ideas for how to make it better? It [isn’t about whether or not the people in power] are in the majority or minority from a gender or race standpoint. Is it a work environment that’s conducive to people being able to share their ideas? I guess I can only speak for my current situation where I feel, every day, grateful for the opportunity to work in an environment where my ideas and questions are not only embraced but encouraged.

It’s a lot easier to surround yourself with people who are just like you. It’s a lot easier to look in the mirror and nod your head because you see people nodding back and that’s very comforting and validating. What’s harder is to present your ideas to people who think differently than you or have a different background and be vulnerable to questions and challenges that may make you think differently about what you thought was the best course.

When you took your current job, you acknowledged the feeling of having a lot of eyeballs on you. Is that still something that’s on your mind?
I think about it every day, and part of the reason I think about it every day is I have two young boys at home, and when I was given the opportunity to take this role I asked my kids [what they thought] knowing that it was going to be a significant ask on my part from them in terms of the [large time commitment]. My older son, who is 11, said, “You have to take this role because you’re a pioneer.” I think about that every day.

I’m having a great time and really excited to see where it all leads and hopefully by sort of modelling and talking out loud about our management style and the way we are leading our league, it will help others to incorporate that sort of thinking into the way they approach their league, organization and management.

I always say it takes a village. I don’t think that’s just true for women. It’s for all of us who have competing interests in our lives — it doesn’t even need to be that you have children — but we all are balancing and juggling various different interests and demands on our time. It really takes some discipline to say, “What is the best use of my time in this moment?” and some vulnerability to acknowledge that you need some help to get it done.

I often call on my village. My village is very wide and deep — I’m very grateful for that. I try to give back to my village and feed the well when I can because I couldn’t do this without them. I think that’s really important in this day and age, and I think it’s an important conversation, not just for women, but for men, too. I know lots of men who struggle with wanting to get to their kids’ dance recital or baseball game or get home for dinner on a particular day. I’m happy to be bold and talk about it and hopefully it’ll make others feel more comfortable to kind of acknowledge the complexity of how we all have to balance our time.

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