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Push Towards Sophisticated Ownership Behind NWSL Turnover

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Push Towards Sophisticated Ownership Behind NWSL Turnover

A pair of NWSL clubs have sold in recent weeks and a third is reportedly on the block. 

Ron Burkle is selling the San Diego Wave to the Levine Leichtman family in a two-part deal worth $120 million, 80% more than the league’s previous high sale. While Carlyle Group is buying an interest in Seattle Reign FC from OL Groupe in a transaction valuing the club at $58 million. Angel City FC, the NWSL’s most valuable franchise, is also seeking a new control owner.   

NWSL club valuations have skyrocketed over the last four years. For context, Burkle bought the rights to the expansion team in Southern California for $2 million in 2020. OL Groupe paid ~$3.5 million for OL Reign a year prior. 

But the recent turnover isn’t evidence of a peak, or of early investors looking to get out before the proverbial house of cards collapses. To the contrary, the league is cycling out underperforming or troubled owners and replacing them with smart money and/or savvy sports executives capable of helping to push the business forward. 

Carolyn Tisch Blodgett (NJ/NY Gotham FC), the granddaughter of New York Giants co-founder Bob Tisch, Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts (Chicago Red Stars), HBSE co-founder David Blitzer and Utah Jazz governor Ryan Smith (Utah Royals), Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf (Orlando Pride), and Sixth Street (Bay FC), which has strategic investments tied to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and the San Antonio Spurs, are among those now in control of NWSL clubs.


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Women’s soccer in the U.S. has momentum. Fans are going to the games, brands are backing the league, and the media rights dollars are starting to come in. The NWSL announced a deal with Amazon, CBS, ESPN, and Scripps worth $240 million in November ‘23, a 40x increase over the expiring pact.  

The league’s clubs are beginning to generate real revenue too. Well, at least some of them are (see: the Kansas City Current’s new purpose-built venue). 1/3 of NWSL teams now take in more than $10 million/year. 

San Diego Wave FC generated more than the $16.3 million Sportico estimated in ‘23. Bake in a conservative revenue multiple (think: 6x) and you can get to the nine-figure valuation pretty easy. 

“It’s not quite as willy nilly as one might think from afar,” one soccer industry insider said. 

It appears that way because NWSL team sale prices jumped from $36 million in August ‘23 to $63 million five months later, and up to $113 million two months after that.

But the dramatic increases are the result of rising revenues (see: new media rights deal) and club specific income gaps across the league. Sportico estimated that Angel City FC generated nearly 10x more revenue than the Red Stars in ’23. 

The spreads between the league’s haves and have nots can largely be attributed to the teams’ ownership groups (venues are factors too). For example, Angel City has Julie Uhrman and Alexis Ohanian on the cap table, and selling its product. By contrast, Ricketts bought the team from Armin Whisler, a well-intentioned but under-resourced executive within the modern sports landscape. 

That helps to explain why the league has been pushing to bring in more sophisticated sports backers (Merritt Paulson’s exit from the Thorns is an exception to the rule).

NWSL teams are not profitable at this point. But that isn’t their goal right now, either. Remember, the league remains in its relative infancy.

“They’re playing for the brass ring in 10 years, not the short-term,” the soccer insider said.

But at least some investors struggle with seeing the path to profitability.

“Between marketing spend, player salaries, and funding league-level losses, it seemed like [the black] could be 5+ years out if you want to do it right,” one PE backed investor who has looked at league opportunities said.

Of course, all the new money coming in suggests others see it differently. Proponets of the league will tell you if big five teams are being bought for 11x or 12x, and that is the right multiple for an MLS team losing $10mm-$30mm a year, there’s no reason an NWSL club shouldn’t command 6x.

“In five years, people are going to be saying 'why wasn't this so obvious when it was happening'," Sixth Street co-founder and CEO Alan Waxman wrote in a Linked-In post last April.

One could argue MLS teams own their own buildings (the Current is the only NWSL club with its own venue). But a 6x revenue multiple looks to be more than a reasonable discount. 

It seems more likely that the top women’s soccer league in the world will generate greater returns over the next decade than its more mature (and less competitive) men’s counterpart.

“NWSL is a growth stock,” the soccer insider said.

So, what will the catalyst(s) for future growth be?

“The biggest thing will be fans filling the buildings every day, the pricing power that comes with that demand, and subsequently the sponsor support. All of that is going to help drive media rights values the next time around,” the soccer insider said.


As the pay TV ecosystem continues to shrink an increasing amount of the remaining dollars are expected to flow to the top properties (think: NFL, NBA, MLB). It’s not certain the NWSL, or any other second tier league, will be able to command an increase in the years ahead. 

Perhaps the momentum for women’s sports will help to insulate the upstart league.

But even if it does, there’s no guarantee the additional revenues will turn these clubs profitable (see: MLS, NHL). Revenue increases are certain to lead to rising player costs. NWSL players already feel as if they should be earning more.

“There’s just going to be more CBA pressure, more player pressure, and more SG&A pressure…it’s a tough model,” the investor said.

That hasn’t stopped smart money from entering the league of late. Time will tell if these sophisticated investors can make women’s sports work as a business.

They’ll have the chance. Recent expansion placed ~$106mm into league coffers. In other words, the NWSL is not going anywhere, anytime soon.

And expect the next expansion team to sell for $100mm plus. There is an abundance of interested buyers.

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