NWSL Hires Investment Bank Inner Circle to Lead Two-Team Expansion

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The NWSL has retained investment bank Inner Circle Sports to lead its sale of two expansion teams, according to multiple people familiar with the plans. This marks the first time the women’s soccer league has formally launched a competitive expansion process.

The 12-team NWSL is looking to add a pair of new franchises to begin play in 2024. Inner Circle, based in New York, will handle that process, said the people, who were granted anonymity because the details are private.

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It’s unclear how the expansion slots might be priced. The league’s Washington franchise recently sold for $35 million, a league record by far, though that sale happened under unprecedented circumstances.

A representative for the NWSL, which held owners meetings this week in New York, declined to comment. A representative for Inner Circle also declined to comment.

One of the new NWSL teams will likely be based in Utah. Salt Lake City’s previous team, the Utah Royals, moved to Kansas City in 2020, but the city’s MLS club, Real Salt Lake, retained the rights to the team name and branding, plus an option to purchase an NWSL expansion slot, at a set price, at a later date.

Those rights were transferred to Real Salt Lake’s new ownership, a group led by David Blitzer, and team executives have indicated they intend to exercise that option, though the price is unclear. A representative for the club declined to comment beyond prior statements from executives.

There are a number of cities and groups reportedly interested in securing the assumed second expansion slot. New commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN she has heard from more than 30 interested groups.

Among the most public is a group based in the Bay Area, where former USWNT players Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner are leading the charge to bring California a third NWSL club. A number of MLS teams—including Atlanta, Austin, Cincinnati, Toronto, Nashville and the coming St. Louis MLS club—are also among those rumored to be interested in bringing NWSL franchises to their markets. Interest could also come from European soccer owners, or individuals outside the sport.

Inner Circle, which does M&A work across sports, handled that Real Salt Lake sale, so it is already familiar with a part of this process. Led by Steve Horowitz and Rob Tilliss, the group’s recent deals include an investment in the Cleveland Guardians (by Blitzer), and MLS sales in Orlando and Houston.

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