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Women’s soccer gets Bay Area team and record investment

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Former USWNT stars Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osbourne, Aly Wagner and Danielle Slaton are part of the Bay Area ownership team

Source: Allison+Partners Studio

The National Women’s Soccer League announced on Tuesday it’s awarding a 14th franchise to an investor group in California’s Bay Area for a record $53 million franchise fee and a total investment of $125 million — the largest institutional investment ever made in a professional women’s sports franchise, according to the investing group. 

Previously, franchise fees for NWSL teams ranged from $2 million to $5 million.

Alan Waxman, founder of global investment firm Sixth Street, leads the group, which also includes former Meta executive Sheryl Sandberg, NBA and WNBA executive Rick Welts, and U.S. women’s national team legends Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner.

The league’s third team from California will begin play in the 2024 season.

“Sixth Street has the incredible know-how, experience and bandwidth to devote to the league,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman told CNBC. “We think that they’re just going to be an incredible asset, not just locally, but for other teams and for the league.”

Waxman, a former Goldman Sachs executive, founded Sixth Street in 2009, and the firm currently has more than $65 billion in assets under management. This is the company’s first foray into women’s sports, following investments in Spanish soccer teams Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. It also holds a stake, alongside the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, in Legends, the stadium hospitality company.

Waxman said his wife and soccer star Wagner first brought the investment opportunity to his attention. He said he had his team run the research and “every single indicator of what makes a good investment flashed green.”

“I kept asking, ‘What are we missing?’ It’s literally the most undervalued thing we’re seeing not only within the sports landscape, but just across everything,” Waxman said.

The four former national team players will be represented on the board and will work alongside Sixth Street in setting the team’s strategic direction, he said.

Sandberg, founder of Lean In — an organization dedicated to the inclusion and advancement of women — will join the club as a board member and strategic investor, along with her husband Tom Bernthal.

Sandberg will partner with the club to create leadership programs that empower women and girls in underserved Bay Area communities.  

“There is a very clear link between playing sports and becoming a leader,” Sandberg told CNBC.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook speaks onstage during ‘Putting a Best Facebook Forward’ at Vanity Fair’s 6th Annual New Establishment Summit.

Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images

She pointed to the fact that while women hold 5% of the CEO jobs around the world, 80% of those women played sports.

“We’re hopefully going to win lots of games and bring this amazing business to the Bay Area, but we’re also going to train leaders,” Sandberg said.

Health of the league

Berman said the transaction marks an inflection point for the league.

“I don’t think there’s a single better indictor on the health of the league than this purchase price of $53 million” the league’s commissioner said. “That will reset the minimum standards of what we expect from the investors in how they approach the NWSL and our growth.”

Berman also touted the Northern California market, calling the area a “soccer hotbed,” noting the prevalence of Fortune 500 and growth companies in the region.

“We see how the market craves and is thirsty for this level of women’s soccer. When the U.S. men’s national team comes to town, they sell out in a second,” she said.

Berman, a labor attorney and sports executive, stepped in as commissioner a year ago tasked with not only growing the business but also restoring faith in women’s soccer after a tumultuous couple of years that were plagued with abuse, sexism and a lack of confidence in the league.

“That was one of our concerns going in,” Waxman said, “but I think the way that Jessica hit it head on, addressing it with the right protocols, the checks and balances, she’s brought in institutionalization of the league, and that ended up being a positive for us in our overall investment thesis.”

Berman has also super-sized the business in nearly every metric. Attendance, sponsorships and franchise values are all seeing massive upticks.

The league’s $4.5 million media rights deal with Paramount Global, owner of CBS, is up at the end of the year, and that will be another key indicator of the health of the league. Berman characterized conversations over media rights as being robust, saying there are many interested parties as the league eyes global growth.

“The whole landscape has changed in such a short period of time, and we’re actually seeing it translate into bottom-line results much quicker I think than anybody expected,” she said.

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