Burkle Selling NWSL’s Wave to Levine Leichtman Family in $113M Deal

Billionaire Ron Burkle is selling the San Diego Wave to the Levine Leichtman family in a two-part deal that values the NWSL club at $113 million, according to multiple people familiar with the agreement.

Lauren Leichtman and her husband Arthur Levine, founding partners of Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, are paying $35 million now for 35% of the team, and have agreed to buy the other 65% for $78 million after the 2024 season, said the sources, who were granted anonymity because the details are private. The deal carries a weighted average of $113 million, though the valuation in the later transaction is $120 million.

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Burkle paid a $2 million expansion fee when the Wave joined the NWSL less than three years ago. The Levine Leichtman buy price is the highest ever paid for a control stake in an NWSL team, eclipsing the $63 million paid earlier this year for the Portland Thorns. The Wave sale has already been approved by league owners, the people said.

“We are proud of the unprecedented success we have had as an expansion team and I am confident that [the Levine Leichtman] family’s investment will contribute to the growth of our team and the San Diego community,” Burkle told Sportico in a statement.

The statement confirmed just that the family was coming in as a minority investor. Representatives for both the NWSL and Burkle declined to comment on the financial specifics. A message sent to the Levine Leichtman family office wasn’t immediately returned.

Burkle, the former owner of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, is worth $3 billion, according to Forbes. He will maintain control of the franchise until the second transaction occurs following the end of this NWSL season, sources said. The second part of the deal is a contractual obligation, according to the sources, meaning the buyers cannot choose to stop at 35%. Sportico valued the team in October at $90 million, second highest in the league behind Angel City ($180 million).

Levine Leichtman Capital Partners was founded in 1984 and has $9.3 billion in assets under management. The Levine Leichtman Family office was founded in 1985 and is run by Arthur and Lauren’s children, Zachary and Sabrina.

Levine and Leichtman are connected to the Wave through team president Jill Ellis. They were supporters of the UCLA women’s soccer team, which Ellis coached from 1999 to 2010.

“We are excited to join forces with San Diego Wave FC and help build upon the impressive foundation established by Ron Burkle,” Lauren Leichtman said in a statement. “This investment aligns with our values and vision for supporting initiatives that empower women and foster opportunities for aspiring female athletes.”

The sale continues a run of big commercial wins for the league. Late last year the NWSL inked new four-year TV deals with a combined topline value of $240 million, a big jump over the previous deals even after production and marketing costs are removed. Team valuations are soaring, as are league-wide partnerships. Last year’s title game drew 25,011 people, the highest in league history.:

“We’re thrilled to welcome the Levine Leichtman family to the ownership group of the San Diego Wave,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said. “As longtime supporters of the women’s game, Arthur and Lauren know well the impact that our league can have in our society, and as savvy investors, understand the opportunities in front of us to continue to grow our league and club businesses.“

The Wave joined the NWSL in 2022 alongside Angel City. Both paid roughly $2 million expansion fees in the run-up to their debuts, which was in line with how teams were valued at the time. (The last two teams to pay expansion fees, in Boston and the Bay Area, agreed to pay $53 million each).

Burkle owned the Penguins, alongside Mario Lemieux, from 1999 until 2021, when Fenway Sports Group bought the team for about $900 million. He reportedly stayed on a minority owner in the team. He was also the lead backer of an MLS expansion bid in Sacramento, announced in October 2019, but he later backed out citing complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team never joined MLS, and that expansion slot, ironically, eventually went to a group from San Diego.

The Wave deal also continues a massive overhaul of NWSL ownership. Of the league’s 15 teams, all but one (North Carolina Courage), is either a new franchise or has a new principal governor in the past four years.

With assistance from Kurt Badenhausen and Scott Soshnick.

(This article has been updated with a quote from NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman.)

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