Boston has almost all of what the National Women’s Soccer League wants.
“We’re certainly hopeful and excited about the possibility of making this a reality,” said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. “We believe Boston is an incredible sports market and has a unique fan culture and identity as it relates to their local teams.
“The NWSL in particular really is a magnet for those types of avid, rabid fans who really embrace the NWSL into their identity as a member of the community. So, for all those reasons, we’re excited about the future, and we look forward to the time when we can be more definitive.”
Until that time, there are examples that show why Boston appears to fit the NWSL mold. Berman and two co-founders of newer, successful teams — Julie Uhrman of Angel City FC in Los Angeles and Chris Long of the Kansas City Current — offered insight about the three core components that make for a viable NWSL franchise.
The ownership group
Besides the Captain Obvious requirement that any prospective ownership group has enough money to pay the franchise fee — the Bay Area, Calif., team beginning play next year paid $53 million — the group also has to commit to investing in the team and treating it as a business, said Berman.
“It’s a really important element because you can have all the money in the world but if you think [of the team] as an afterthought or don’t believe in the future growth potential of this league, then it’s probably not the right fit for the NWSL,” she said.
The group behind Boston’s bid is female-led, and fronted by Juno Equity founder Jennifer Epstein, with managing partners including Anna Palmer, a general partner at Flybridge Capital; Stephanie Connaughton, an angel investor, adviser, and mentor with early-stage start-ups; and Ami Kuan Danoff, co-founder and CFO of the Women’s Foundation of Boston. Linda Pizzuti Henry, chief executive officer of the Globe, is also an investor.
The Boston group has been light on details when it comes to itself and its mission and business approach — especially on why they believe they will succeed when it was only five years ago that the last Boston NWSL team, the Breakers, folded. Also still unknown is the full slate of other investors and whether any are athletes or celebrities.
The Bay Area NWSL group is led by four former US women’s national team members, including Brandi Chastain. Former US team player Carli Lloyd and former Giants quarterback Eli Manning are with NJ/NY Gotham FC, and Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden is with the Houston Dash. In addition to Long and his wife, Angie, the Current’s other two main owners are Brittany Mahomes and her husband, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Its own HBO Max series, which debuted this week, is proof that Angel City leaned all the way in to make star power both a buy-in and a selling point.
Actress Natalie Portman, Uhrman, and investor Kara Nortman are the co-founders, with Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder and husband of Serena Williams, the lead investor. The investor list also includes Jennifer Garner, Jessica Chastain (not related to Brandi), Eva Longoria, Christina Aguilera, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Lindsey Vonn, and Abby Wambach.
When looking for more investors, Uhrman said, the founders pitched their vision of Angel City as much more than a soccer team. Angel City would be a mission-driven platform that would build up the brand and plow revenue into the common good of the Los Angeles community.
Some traditional investors met the idea with blank stares “or just the more obvious ‘No,’ ” said Uhrman with a laugh.
“But what was really fascinating early on,” she added, “is when we started pitching to athletes and celebrities, we didn’t get blank stares. They fundamentally understood what we were trying to do, of building a brand platform to drive for a social purpose as well as an economic purpose.
“They do that every single day of their own lives, so they understood that you could do both and understood how one can amplify the other and how the success of one will drive the success of the other.”
Sixty-two bidding groups signed nondisclosure agreements and engaged in due diligence when the NWSL launched its expansion process not long after Berman became commissioner last year. The Utah Royals FC and Bay Area became franchises 13 and 14 and will begin play next season, with Boston and others in the mix for teams 15 and 16.
Where teams put down roots is less a matter of a precise geographic mix than it is of entering the most compelling marketplace.
When it comes to attracting sponsors and selling tickets and merchandise — the chief revenue drivers of any sports team playing in a league without a major broadcast deal — there is no one-size-fits-all formula for a successful NWSL market. Population, the number of professional sports teams in the region, the popularity of soccer, and media interest are all heavily weighted factors.
Kansas City has only two teams in the four most popular pro leagues, the Chiefs and Royals, and with about 1.7 million people in the greater metro region, it definitely falls in the small-market category.
Market size and prominence don’t make the Current’s origin story any less relevant to Boston’s bid than Angel City’s or other bigger-market teams.
Besides the popularity of Major League Soccer’s Sporting KC franchise, the area also has the largest youth league (Heartland) in the country and is a destination for youth tournaments. It’s a Chiefs town for sure, but there’s room for soccer.
When the Longs and Brittany Mahomes presented a plan to the NWSL in 2020, their contact was facilitated in part by the late soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who attended the same Kansas high school as Angie Long.
“That’s how it all came about,” said Long. “It’s a little bit different than what you’re seeing in today’s market with more of a run-up to an expansion franchise.
“In some ways, we had fortune and misfortune when we started; we had no brand, we had no website, no people, just a plan. The league had to believe in us and the plan, believe that we would actually do what we said we’d do.”
The Current, who debuted in the NWSL in 2021, are thriving. Revenue last season increased more than 70 percent from 2021, with attendance figures rising all three years and season-ticket sales double this year what they were last year. Long projects that the team could be profitable a year and a half to three years from now.
On a recent visit, Berman experienced how the Current have permeated the region.
“When I walked into our hotel, the team was on the bottom ticker of the TV news, there was merchandise being sold at the airport, there were Kansas City Current flags all over the city,” said Berman, “and that all feeds the local ecosystem that makes a sports team thrive, and women’s sports in particular and the NWSL.”
Uhrman said Angel City founders “got a lot of pushback” about the team’s ability to be seen and heard in a city with seven teams among the four most prominent men’s pro sports, plus two MLS teams.
The Angel City founders leaned into both quantitative and qualitative analyses — an example of the latter being impressive attendance figures at USWNT exhibitions and men’s games — as a floor to build upon.
“We believed that if we could build up our community and live our values, we would find our audience,” said Uhrman.
Angel City exceeded $10 million in first-year ticket sales. Of the nearly 16,000 fans who bought season tickets, 90 percent renewed this season, and there are now 16,300 season ticket-holders. Last year, the club’s $50 million in long-term partnership revenue contracts made up 37 percent of all league revenue.
Profitability is about three to five years away, said Uhrman, who believes Angel City will “easily” be worth $1 billion in 5-10 years, with other franchises exceeding half a billion dollars by then, too.
It looks as though the NWSL may have competition, too. A new women’s pro soccer league playing at the same tier is hoping to kick off in August 2024 with 8-12 teams. The USL Super League announced Tuesday that it will apply with US Soccer for sanctioning at the top level.
The stadium and training facility
Boston’s bid will fall short if it can’t lock down the biggest and final remaining piece of its bid: a place to play and train.
Plan A rests on the City of Boston’s request for proposals to find a private partner to join it in the rehabilitation of White Stadium in Franklin Park.
The expansion team’s proposal not only has to satisfy the City of Boston when it comes to sharing costs and plans for a stadium that will host Boston Public Schools athletic and cultural events, but also, the build-out of locker rooms and training spaces has to meet NWSL standards that keep rising to meet the expectations of world-class players.
There’s no known Plan B.
Notable also is that the men’s pro team in the region, the New England Revolution, have been on a never-ending quest for their own soccer-specific venue in or near Boston instead of playing in cavernous Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. The Revolution may be zeroing in on a site next to Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, but the lack of their own stadium has limited the franchise’s financial strength.
It’s absolutely imperative that NWSL players compete and train in top-notch facilities, said Berman, “particularly as we think about bringing new teams into the league because we want to set our standards not just for where we are today but where we know the league is going.”
Angel City shares the downtown BMO Stadium with the Los Angeles FC of MLS. It has no plans to build its own facility, although constructing its own dedicated training and practice area is “very much on our horizon,” said Uhrman.
The Current played their first season at an independent-league baseball stadium in Kansas City, Kan., before moving down the street to Sporting KC’s Children’s Mercy Park. This year, the club opened a sleek $18 million, 17,000-square-foot state-of-the art training complex just north of downtown Kansas City, and its brightly lit LED billboard near the major highway connector between the airport and the heavily populated suburbs south of the city is on all day and night.
Rising on the Missouri River waterfront below downtown Kansas City is a $117 million, 11,500-capacity stadium that will open next year. It will be the first stadium built for an NWSL team. The team began taking deposits on season tickets this month and expects to sell out its allotment.
Long, who sits on the league’s expansion committee, lived in Boston for two years while attending Harvard Business School. The Philadelphia native makes no claims to being an expert on the Boston market, but he believes in it and the Boston ownership group’s ability to make a team work.
“Boston’s going to want to turn out to support a professional women’s franchise, I have no doubt about that,” said Long. “You’ve got a market that is, one, steeped in tradition with very passionate, loyal fans. It’s a large market from a media perspective and obviously it would help with our national map as far as where the teams are.
“It makes a ton of sense to have a team on the East Coast, so there’s a fit there. And then lastly, I think that the ownership group brings a lot of experience and value. They’ve got deep ties across a variety of organizations, they’re settled into the community.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.