Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler has begun the process of selling his majority stake in the NWSL club, according to someone familiar with the franchise. Whisler confirmed the news in a statement Monday.
Whisler has formally engaged investment bank Inner Circle Sports to facilitate the sale. Inner Circle is also currently leading the NWSL’s expansion round.
“For the last 15 years, my family and I have proudly poured our hearts, time, resources and efforts into founding the NWSL and transforming the Chicago Red Stars into one of the top women’s soccer clubs in the world,” Whisler’s statement said. “It is clear now that we needed to provide greater support for our players, and we deeply regret that we didn’t do more sooner. We understand this is an important time for new leadership, and it is with a heavy heart that we have made the decision to start the process of selling the team.”
Whisler said he plans to work with both the league and the club to “diligently find the right ownership” and ensure a smooth transition.
In an email sent from the Red Stars board to shareholders Thursday, the contents of which were viewed by Sportico, the board informed recipients that Whisler had hired an outside firm to sell his stake. It also outlined a process for identifying potential investors and solicited introductions to parties who may be interested in participating.
The NWSL and Inner Circle declined to comment.
The news comes on the heels of Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson’s announcement earlier Thursday that he intended to sell the club. Paulson, who also owns the Portland Timbers, will retain ownership of the MLS team. Both sales come in the aftermath of an independent investigation led by former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates into allegations of widespread abuse and sexual misconduct within women’s professional soccer and the NWSL that implicated the pair of clubs, and amid an ongoing joint probe by the NWSL and NWSLPA, the findings of which are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
After the Yates report was released, Whisler stepped away from a decision-making role with the club, passed operational control to its executive team and removed himself from the NWSL board of governors. The Red Stars board of directors removed him as chairman, and a club spokesperson said in early October that the board hoped to facilitate the sale of Whisler’s shares in a timely manner. That process is now underway.
There is no timeline for the Red Stars sale, according to a person familiar with the club, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the sale, but the process, while now active, is only in its beginning stages.
Whisler was a founding owner of the Red Stars, one of the Women’s Professional Soccer teams in 2007, which went on to become an NWSL franchise upon the league’s birth in 2013. The club was one of several caught up in the league-wide abuse scandal, news of which broke last year, and was particularly implicated in Yates’ report.
The lengthy investigation found Whisler dismissed and ignored allegations from players about verbal and emotional abuse by the club’s former coach, Rory Dames, who resigned in November 2021. The report said allegations against Dames, who was hired as the Red Stars head coach in 2013, were brought to Whisler’s attention multiple times, beginning as early as 2014. Allegations of abuse against Dames even predated his time in Chicago.
The Red Stars were also one of three NWSL clubs Yates’ law firm, King & Spalding, called out for failing to cooperate with the investigation, alongside Portland and Racing Louisville FC.
Chicago welcomed a slew of new minority investors in early 2021 at an undisclosed valuation, and the value of NWSL clubs increased dramatically in the months that followed. Expansion fees that sat between $2 million and $5 million as recently as two years ago are now expected fall in the ballpark of $30 to $40 million. Controlling ownership of the Washington Spirit was valued at $35 million in Michele Kang’s takeover earlier this year, and Gotham FC used a $40 million valuation in a recent raise.
Newcomer Angel City, which just capped its debut campaign, raised money in April 2021—before the team had ever played an NWSL game—at a valuation greater than $100 million.
Growing NWSL valuations are a positive sign for the league, but there are still substantial revenue disparities among teams. Angel City, for example, leads the league in attendance, as well as related revenue streams, and sponsor dollars. The Red Stars, on the other hand, averaged 5,863 fans this season, up from 3,291 in 2021 but still substantially lower than the Los Angeles-based expansion team (19,105) and the Portland Thorns, whose 15,543 fan average was good for second in the 12-team league this season. Chicago sat at No. 8.
(This article has been updated to include information on Inner Circle Sports’ role, and to include Whisler’s Monday statement.)