The National Women’s Soccer League will officially grow to 14 clubs in 2024 with the arrival of a highly anticipated Bay Area expansion team ready to spend.
The NWSL announced its latest franchise and details of a star-studded ownership group Tuesday. A source familiar with the group’s plans told Yahoo Sports that it intends to invest an initial $125 million in the team, with the biggest chunks dedicated to a brand new training facility and a record-high $53 million expansion fee.
That money will largely be supplied by Sixth Street, the global investment firm behind the expansion bid. And four former U.S. women’s national team players who’ve driven the bid since its beginnings — Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner — will supply soccer knowledge, strategic vision and clout.
Wagner and Sixth Street CEO Alan Waxman will co-chair the club’s board, which will also include former Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, former San Francisco Giants executive Staci Slaughter, and former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.
The big unknowns are where, exactly, the club will play, and what it will be called.
With less than a year until its on-field launch and inaugural game, neither the NWSL nor the still-unnamed club mentioned stadiums or even temporary homes in its Tuesday announcement. In fact, there has been nothing tying the club to San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose or any other specific Bay Area city.
That, in part, is intentional; the club’s goal is to capture fans and attention throughout Northern California, across the Bay and farther afield. But it’s also because executives do not yet know where the club will play and train — in 2024, or beyond. The NWSL said in its official release that the “state-of-the-art training venue” will be at “a to-be-announced location.”
The club also has less than a year to unveil its brand identity, build out its business staff and hire soccer executives and coaches.
But what it already has, in lieu of ready-made infrastructure for now, is financial commitment.
Waxman, the CEO of Sixth Street — which has invested in both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, in addition the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs — outlined his reasoning for investment in a blog post distributed Tuesday. He wrote that women’s sports possess “trapped value waiting to be unlocked.”
“There are moments in time where, as investors, inflection points begin to take shape,” he wrote. “Patterns start to develop, and you can almost see the trend happening in real time, even before the full economic reality catches up with the underlying data. We believe we are at one of those moments with women’s sports, and women’s soccer in particular.”
After laying out five reasons for that belief — including upticks in attendance and TV viewership for women’s sports, and content consumption trends that suggest even those data undersell the sports’ true popularity, which “advertisers, sponsors, media companies, and investors” are slowly “waking up to” — Waxman continued:
“All you have to believe is that economic reality eventually catches up to the data. And as it does, similar to the global men’s soccer franchises, we will start to see professional women’s teams become national and global consumer brands.”
So Waxman and Sixth Street made this commitment in line with a league-wide trend. NWSL rules currently prevent the Bay Area club from throwing money at global superstars; but it — like Angel City, the San Diego Wave, the Washington Spirit, the Kansas City Current and others — will build from the ground up.
And all the while, the NWSL will continue mapping out further expansion. It said in its Tuesday announcement that it “remains engaged in the expansion process with an eye towards adding teams #15 and #16.” No. 15 will reportedly go to Boston; that there could be a No. 16 in the foreseeable future is news.
Those clubs will likely pay in the region of the Bay Area’s $53 million expansion fee — which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal — a tenfold-or-more increase over what the league was able to garner just a few years ago.
“The number of bids and the increase in the league’s expansion fees are indicative of both the demand that exists for women’s soccer in the professional sports landscape and the validated growth trajectory of our league,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement.
Waxman echoed that sentiment, and peered into the future. “Many years from now, we believe we will look back on this period as a landmark moment in U.S. sports history and a turning point for large-scale investment in women’s sports,” he wrote. “We are thrilled the Bay Area will be leading. We have a lot of work to do to get this right, and we’re incredibly grateful to people like Sheryl, Rick, and Staci for jumping on board to help guide this organization.”