The NWSL is choosing between three cities for its 14th expansion team, according to people close to the sale process. Groups from Boston, Tampa and San Francisco are finalists, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly. The highest initial bid is well over $40 million, the people said, a significant bump from the $2- to $5-million price tags that came with new NWSL clubs as recently as two years ago.
The San Francisco bid is backed by private equity giant Sixth Street, the people said, alongside former USWNT players Brandi Chastain, Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton and Leslie Osborne, who have very publicly campaigned for an expansion slot for several months. The Tampa backers include Stuart Sternberg, majority owner of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Boston bid is being led by a group of local businesswomen, including Juno Equity founder Jennifer Epstein and consultant Stephanie Connaughton, whose previous roles include time at Bain and Procter & Gamble.
While almost every major U.S. league has rules around institutional investors, the NWSL does not. Sixth Street co-founder and CEO Alan Waxman was part of the group’s in-person presentation to NWSL owners, according to two of the people. This wouldn’t be Sixth Street’s first foray into team ownership. The firm recently invested in the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and has a strategic partnership with Real Madrid and Legends, of which Sixth Street is a majority owner.
Commissioner Jessica Berman said in October she expected between five and 10 official bids upon the league’s November deadline. Four groups were presented at NWSL owner meetings, which took place early this month in New York, and site visits have already been conducted on the final three. A group from Cleveland—backed by the same people behind the city’s new MLS Next Pro men’s team—presented to owners, but was later told they would not be chosen, according to sources.
A team at Inner Circle Sports, including Steve Horowitz, Rob Tilliss and Maddie Winslow, is leading the expansion process. The NWSL, Inner Circle, Sixth Street and the Rays declined to comment. An email to the Cleveland Pro Soccer ownership group did not immediately receive a response.
The Bay Area group has been the most vocal bid publicly, though Sixth Street’s involvement has not previously been reported. Alan Waxman, the firm’s co-founder and CEO, presented the bid to NWSL owners earlier this month, according to two of the people. The league has other private equity investors, but no firm rules around institutional money, unlike many of its peers. If successful the group would be the third NWSL club in California—the Golden State is home to 2022 expansion clubs in Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave.
Boston boasts another women-led group of prospective owners, with a group of smaller investors that includes Anna Palmer of Flybridge, a venture capital firm, and Linda Henry. Henry, who was also part of the WNBA’s $75 million raise earlier this year, is the CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners and co-owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC. She is the wife of Fenway Sports Group’s John Henry. (Epstein declined to comment. Attempts to reach Palmer, Connaughton and Henry weren’t immediately successful.)
Several iterations of professional women’s soccer have existed in Boston. The original Boston Breakers played as part of the short-lived Women’s United Soccer Association in the early 2000s and were reestablished several years later upon the formation of the Women’s Professional Soccer league. The franchise eventually became one of the NWSL’s founding teams but folded ahead of the 2018 season.
The newcomer will be one of two expansion franchises the 12-team league plans to add in 2024. The 13th expansion club will almost definitely be in Utah, where the new owners of MLS club Real Salt Lake hold an option to revive the Utah Royals as an expansion franchise for roughly $2 million—much less than what the league is expected to fetch for the other expansion slot. RSL’s ownership group, led by Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils co-owner David Blitzer, also includes Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and private equity fund Arctos Sports Partners.
Valuations have increased exponentially since the league’s last expansion round, which brought Angel City and San Diego into the NWSL, as viewership, attendance and sponsor investment in the league have all grown. Controlling ownership of the Washington Spirit was valued at $35 million in Michele Kang’s acquisition earlier this year; Gotham FC was valued at $40 million in a recent raise; and Angel City raised capital in early 2021 at a valuation greater than $100 million—all of which boosted expectations for what the league’s 14th franchise could command.
Expansion clubs aren’t the league’s only assets for sale. A pair of existing NWSL clubs are also on the market as of this month: the Portland Thorns, owned by Merritt Paulson, and the Chicago Red Stars, as Sportico first reported earlier this month. Chicago’s majority owner Arnim Whisler confirmed that he had hired Inner Circle to begin the process of selling his stake in the long-tenured club. Paulson’s Peregrine Sports, which also owns the Portland Timbers, will not sell the MLS club.
Both the Red Stars and Thorns were implicated in both October’s U.S. Soccer-commissioned report on abuse and misconduct in women’s soccer and the NWSL-NWSLPA’s own joint investigation, released this month. Both clubs were criticized for failing to handle allegations appropriately and refusing to fully cooperate with the Sally Yates-led investigation. The findings from a second, ongoing joint probe by the NWSL and NWSLPA are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
A bid for the Thorns led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong would reportedly value the reigning NWSL champions—long seen as one of the league’s most successful franchises with attendance on par with many MLS clubs and revenue nearing the $10 million mark—at $60 million. Chicago, with far different economics than Portland, is expected to sell for substantially less than the Thorns.
(This story has been updated in the second paragraph to include Danielle Slaton and Leslie Osborne in the San Francisco backers group and to identify the members of the Boston group.)