Salt Lake City, Utah, along with Boston and San Francisco will be the next National Women’s Soccer League expansion franchises with Salt Lake City and Bay Area teams planning to start play in the 2024 season and Boston joining as soon as the year after, reported the Wall Street Journal.
Expansion of the league has been long watched by soccer observers. The Journal reported the Utah franchise paid between $2 million and $5 million in an agreement reached a few years ago while the Boston and Bay Area franchises will pay around $50 million apiece, an enormous increase on previous expansion fees.
NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia that its expansion plans would be announced shortly.
“It’ll be somewhere between days and months — more like weeks — when we’ll be in a position to share information,” Berman said. “What I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us.”
Further expansion will allow the league to continue to ride the wave of momentum from successful launches with the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC in Los Angeles last season.
“We have the premier women’s professional league in the world,” said JT Batson, U.S. soccer chief executive officer, during a session at the United Soccer Coaches Convention held in January in Philadelphia. “There’s a dynamic that didn’t always exist on the women’s side where before there was a lot of time spent for our players was in expanded national team camps. With the growth of the NWSL and the continued investment by owners in the league, the environments for year-round, top-notch competition and quality is an advantage we have.”
Following in 2024 is not only expansion in new markets but the scheduled opening for KC Current Stadium at Berkley Riverfront Park, the first soccer-specific stadium built for women’s pro soccer and coming after the 2022 launch of the team’s training facility.
“I do think we have the best league in the world,” said U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone during her session with Batson at the convention’s exhibit hall. “Every week it’s a competitive game, any team can beat any team and I don’t think there’s another professional league in the world you can say that.”
The announcement of Utah returning to the NWSL was a formality. Utah Royals FC entered the NWSL in 2017 and was owned by then-Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen after a team in Kansas City folded. The Royals averaged more than 10,000 fans per game in 2019 and hosted the inaugural NWSL Challenge Cup early in the COVID-19 pandemic to replace the regular season.
After allegations that Hansen was racist, sexist and oversaw a toxic work culture in 2020, both teams were put up for sale. Angie and Chris Long bought the Royals in December 2020 to bring the NWSL back to Kansas City; when the Royals left Utah, the league included a clause to allow the future new owners of Real Salt Lake to revive the market’s NWSL franchise for a set fee. David Blitzer and Ryan Smith bought Real Salt Lake before the 2022 MLS season and soon after said the clause would be activated.
The Bay Area’s bid was backed prominently by two former USWNT stars in Brandi Chastain and Aly Wagner along with Leslie Osborne and Danielle Slaton, also national team veterans. Sixth Street Partners, a private equity firm, is also involved in the ownership setup. The San Jose CyberRays played three seasons in the WUSA won the 2001 championship before the league and team folded in 2003. FC Gold Pride played two seasons in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer before folding in 2010.
Boston also has a history with women’s pro soccer with the Boston Breakers as part of the Women’s Professional Soccer League in 2007 before joining the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite in 2012 and later the NWSL in its inaugural season before the team shut down in 2018. Its ownership group will include Jennifer Epstein, founder of Juno Equity and the daughter of Boston Celtics co-owner Robert Epstein.
The expansion announcement continues the NWSL’s increasing number of franchises throughout the U.S. What was a league that 10 years ago started with eight teams reached 12 last season with two new teams in California, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC. Angel City averaged more than 19,000 fans in Los Angeles last season while San Diego set a postseason attendance record in the playoff semifinals.
Between the success of the NWSL in recent years, massive fan engagement surrounding the U.S. women’s national team and an overall surge of interest in women’s sports, the chance to be part of the expansion process led to a reported 30 investment groups showing interest with four groups — Bay Area, Boston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland — making presentations to NWSL executives as one of the final parts of a process in which the league used Inner Circle Sports to advise on expansion.
One of the next storylines for the league’s existing teams is the sales of the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars. Both franchises were implicated in both October’s U.S. Soccer report on abuse and misconduct in women’s soccer and the NWSL-NWSLPA’s own joint investigation. A bid for the Thorns led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong would reportedly value the team at $60 million. The Washington Spirit was valued at $35 million in Michele Kang’s acquisition in 2022; Gotham FC was valued at $40 million in a group capital buy-in in 2022 and Angel City raised capital in early 2021 at a valuation greater than $100 million.
The 2023 NWSL regular season begins March 25 before going on a hiatus for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which starts July 20 and lasts through August 20. The Challenge Cup final will be September 9.