The NWSL will expand into the San Francisco Bay Area in 2024 with an ownership group that includes former USWNT stars Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner.
The ownership group will be headed by Sixth Street Partners, which has invested $125 million, believed to be the largest institutional investment in U.S. women's soccer to date.
The investment includes a $53 million expansion fee with the remainder to be spent on a training facility and the buildout of team infrastructure and staff, the NWSL said in the announcement on Tuesday.
Chastain, Osborne, Slaton and Wagner, all with connections to Santa Clara University, will make up part of the ownership group, and the team will join the Utah Royals as expansion sides starting league play in 2024.
Former Meta executive Sheryl Sandberg will be on the board and invest with her husband Tom Bernthal, as will former Golden State Warriors president and COO Rick Welts. Staci Slaughter, a former San Francisco Giants VP of communications, will also be on the board.
The team name, home venue and training location will be determined at a later date. Legends, a company that specializes in monetizing live venue experiences and which Sixth Street has a majority stake in, will be involved in the development of the club's practice facility.
"These are the moments to celebrate and pause and reflect on how far the league has come in such a short period of time," NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN about the league's latest expansion team. "And I think it's just the beginning. It's a very clear validator of what we believe the growth potential of the league is.
"I think undeniably anyone who knows Sixth Street is very aware of their investment thesis and the rigor with which they analyze all of their investment decisions. The scope and scale of their resources to both vet and analyze growth potential of their various different investments should leave no question that the NWSL and women's soccer is a business opportunity. We have a partner in Sixth Street that clearly sees that."
For Sixth Street CEO Alan Waxman, the soccer know-how of the "Founding Four" of Chastain, Osborne, Slaton and Wagner, the fact that Northern California is one of the best producers of women's soccer talent in the world, with more than 20 World Cup players having Bay Area connections, as well as the rapid growth of NWSL attendance and viewership, were all reasons to get involved.
"You kind of put it all together, [an expansion team] just seemed massively, structurally undervalued," Waxman told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "And that's why we got excited about it. That's why we're putting $125 million of fresh capital into this because that's how much we believe in this."
This isn't the first time that the Bay Area has had a professional women's team. The San Jose CyberRays were part of the WUSA from 2001-03. FC Gold Pride was part of Women's Professional Soccer from 2009-10. But Wagner, a veteran of both the WUSA and WPS feels the potential is much greater for this new team.
Wagner noted that earlier iterations of professional women's soccer were "heartstring" decisions that pointed to investments being more of a social cause. Sixth Street's involvement points to a business decision with expected returns.
She said: "We've always kind of felt like this was possible in women's football, in women's sports. We've tried before and hasn't necessarily come off, but the signals were there. I was so close to the NWSL being the lead broadcaster for so long that I was able to get a good glimpse into what was working, what wasn't, and really the possibility of what the future could look like.
"Getting the right partnership with Sixth Street made this vision that we had come together and feel like something that was going to be achievable."
Sixth Street brings considerable professional sports experience to the table, having already formed relationships with LaLiga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona -- it has a 30% equity stake in the stadium operations of Real Madrid and owns 25% of Barcelona's LaLiga television rights.
Waxman indicated that he and Wagner were in Spain last week meeting with both clubs, though he declined to get into what was discussed.
"We have a very close relationship with [Real Madrid and Barcelona]," Waxman said. "We're always going to look for ways to collaborate is what I would say at this point."