As expansion race heats up, NWSL faces tough questions about its future with Utah expected to join in 2024

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USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski praises Alex Morgan's recent performances in the NWSL. (0:56)

You might have heard this claim before: Women's soccer is a booming business with investors finally waking up to its potential.

Now -- finally -- there are tangible metrics to support that claim, including in the National Women's Soccer League, where franchise valuations have increased tenfold in a two-year period, and there are more groups interested in joining the league than there are available spots.

Los Angeles-based Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC began play this year to bring the 10-year-old NWSL to 12 teams, and newly appointed commissioner Jessica Berman has confirmed to ESPN that two teams will be added for the 2024 season -- "2023 is 100% off the table," she said.

Berman says she has heard from "over 30 investor groups" interested in the league. Although sources around the league say a handful of them are truly serious and ready to mobilize right now, the unprecedented volume of interest -- which necessitated a formal bidding process for the first time in league history -- illustrates the demand for the league. (Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak about NWSL expansion negotiations.)

Now, the pressure falls on the league to make the right decisions. The NWSL, with its historic new collective bargaining agreement, is beyond the talk of whether it can survive. How it creates a better future remains an existential question, however, and the next two ownership groups will shape its future.

"There's really nothing more important than an expansion team being set up for success," Berman told ESPN. "We've seen that with Angel City and San Diego. We've seen that with Kansas City and Louisville. When teams are the right investors coming into the league with the right strategy, it can really propel the league forward in terms of our growth trajectory. So, we're going to be very intentional about seizing the moment."

Planning for Utah, plus one, in 2024

Utah's expected return to the league is the open secret within the NWSL. David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, the new co-owners of Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, have spoken publicly about executing their legal clause to revive the Utah Royals franchise. Blitzer said in January that the return of the Royals would be "a function of when, not if."

Multiple sources told ESPN that "when" will be 2024, as Utah will be one of two new groups expected to join the NWSL. Multiple sources throughout the league are already operating under the assumption of Utah's return.

The league's former Utah-based team, Utah Royals FC, entered the NWSL in late 2017 as a replacement for the folding FC Kansas City franchise. The Royals, spearheaded by owner Dell Loy Hansen, were supposed to be the start of a new era in the NWSL but, by late 2020, Hansen was ousted from the NWSL and MLS after allegations that he was racist and sexist, and oversaw a toxic work culture, and his teams were put up for sale.

Wife and husband Angie and Chris Long stepped up in December 2020 to bring the NWSL back to Kansas City and effectively replace the Royals. When the Royals folded, the league and then-commissioner Lisa Baird included legal language to allow the new, future owners of Real Salt Lake to revive the market's NWSL franchise rights for a set fee. Baird was ousted as commissioner in October amid leaguewide turmoil over allegations of abuse against players and inaction from the league front office, but the clause remained.

Part of the issue with the return of Utah has been a resolution around the fixed fee to reactivate the franchise. It was put in place by a commissioner who preceded both Berman and the new Real Salt Lake owners. It was also put in place 18 months ago, before NWSL franchise valuations ballooned. That number, believed to have been in the $2 million range, has since been increased, multiple sources told ESPN, to solve a potential stumbling block.

Berman declined to explicitly confirm that Utah will return in 2024 but acknowledged that the league is in contact with the ownership group.

"We're working with them to figure out what that means," she said. "The process is underway. There are steps that need to be taken still in order to be in a position to be able to say, yes, in fact, that is happening." (Blitzer and Smith could not be reached for comment.)

Utah was considered one of the league's stronger markets in its three years in the league. The Royals averaged more than 10,000 fans per game in 2019 and hosted the first NWSL Challenge Cup, a competition created early in the COVID-19 pandemic to replace the regular season.

A more formal process to pick the NWSL's next teams

With Utah expected to obtain one of the two spots for 2024 entry into the NWSL, there is a heated competition among ownership groups and cities to become the 14th team in the league.

A group in Northern California's Bay Area, headlined by four ex-U.S. women's national team players, is among the independent prospective ownership groups seeking entry into the league. That group is also the most public to date about its intent.

There is also an interested group in Columbus, Ohio -- which does not include Dee and Jimmy Haslam, owners of MLS's Columbus Crew, sources said.

There are, however, a number of interested MLS teams, sources have confirmed to ESPN, which include Atlanta United, Austin FC, FC Cincinnati and Toronto FC, as first reported by Grant Wahl. St. Louis City SC, which joins MLS next year, and Nashville SC have also expressed interest, one source told ESPN.

Each prospective expansion team will need to meet three pillars for Berman and the NWSL, at minimum: a wealthy and committed ownership group; a strong market for fans; and a viable, professional venue. In the past, the NWSL received many inquiries with question marks around at least one of those tentpole items. Now, there are multiple serious expansion candidates that check all of those boxes. How, then, will the league decide what to do?

The NWSL is in the process of finalizing a contract with an investment bank to handle the expansion bidding process, after putting out a request for proposal. That bank "has experience selling franchises in the sports space," Berman said.

Previously, the NWSL has added expansion teams by way of interested parties reaching out to the league, and deals being struck. That brought the Houston Dash for 2014, Orlando Pride for 2015, Racing Louisville FC in 2021, and Angel City and San Diego (which was initially supposed to be a franchise in Sacramento, California) in 2022, in addition to the Utah and Kansas City reshuffling.

Recent changes in leadership made that method even more difficult and left prospective groups with feelings ranging from confusion to concern over the direction of the league. Baird handled much of the process herself, sources said. Marla Messing then picked up conversations as interim CEO, but she was also tasked with more pressing player safety issues. Now, Berman works closely with an expansion committee that includes Chris Long, among others, and an executive committee that is also in close contact about the process.

Berman said that some groups among the 30-plus that are interested have been more vocal about their intentions to join the league and more assertive about getting on her radar, but that she is approaching each prospective partner on equal terms. The process, Berman said, is "bilateral." Groups are pitching the league on why they should join, but the NWSL is also pitching them on their vision for the future. The hope is that their goals align in tangible ways.

"I want to approach this group in a very transparent and democratic process, because we really want the best investors and partners for our board," Berman said. "It's not necessarily the case that just because someone has contacted us more, that we favor them. We're going to make the best decision for the league."

League sources expect the expansion fee for team No. 14 to be in the range of $10 million but, with the formal process yet to start, that might change. The bank will run the bidding and vetting.

"The market will tell us what the price should be," Berman said when asked about the $10 million figure. "The world has so materially changed in the last six to eight months. Certainly, our teams raising capital have helped change the nature of the conversation of how much our franchises are worth."

Investments in existing teams have changed the landscape that Berman said recently sees NWSL teams valued between $35 million and $100 million. Seattle-based OL Reign sold in December 2019 for a valuation of $3.51 million, at the time the highest sale of a team. Earlier this year, Michele Kang took over controlling interest of the Washington Spirit for $35 million. Those are different markets and unique franchises, but that is a tenfold increase in just over two years.

A $10 million entry fee for team No. 14 alongside Utah's reentry fee means the two expansion teams could join the league at the same time for significantly different fees. Racing Louisville's fee to join the league for the 2021 season was believed to be between $1 million and $2 million, with escalators since then for Angel City FC, the San Diego Wave and the Kansas City Current. (The Current started play in 2021, a year before Angel City and San Diego, but the two California teams bought into the league prior to Kansas City.)

Berman said the target is to have the 2024 expansion teams decided by the end of the calendar year to provide them with 15 to 16 months from public launch to first kick. Ideally, she says, decisions will be made sooner than that.

Expansion fees vs. expansion investment

If all major factors appear equal in a handful of markets, and all groups are willing to pay the asking price, deciding factors could be more nuanced. Multiple league sources expressed the opinion that expansion fees are just the start of financial investment, and the fees are less important than what an ownership group is willing to invest into the league.

Would, for example, a group plan to build its own stadium for its NWSL team, to control dates and revenue streams? That would theoretically be a better setup than a team renting a facility as a second or third tenant. Kansas City will break ground in October on an 11,500-seat stadium expected to open in time for the 2024 season. The price tag is expected to top $120 million.

Renting out stadiums and practice facilities has long caused problems for NWSL teams, from inflated expenses to the inability to lock in a schedule in a timely manner or access premium dates. A purpose-built stadium solves that, as does a stadium already owned by a group. That is an advantage that MLS teams bring to the table, although the Kansas City Current are showing that there are other ways to succeed, and Angel City is finding early success as a tenant at Banc of California Stadium. San Diego executives are bullish on SnapDragon Stadium as their long-term home.

"As a true believer in diversity, I believe a balanced approach is the right answer," Berman said of whether she thinks MLS owners or unaffiliated groups offer more advantages. "I don't think it would be good for the league to have no MLS teams, and I don't think it would be good for the league to have all MLS teams.

"I think we will want to be intentional about having representation of MLS teams, because they bring a unique perspective and they certainly have at least some of their problems solved in the vertical integration from a facilities perspective. But there are other challenges that they have that independent teams don't."

Geography could also play a role in more ways than one. There is typically talk of a national footprint, which the NWSL has more of now that it has filled the gaping hole that was in California. Location matters for more than expansion, however.

The league will soon be negotiating new media rights deals: the international deal with Twitch expires at the end of this season, and the domestic deal with CBS runs through 2023. Berman & Co. will want to maximize that fee, as well as future sponsorship fees, and part of doing so is offering exposure. Angel City, for example, already leads the league in attendance and has become a must-see event in the crowded Los Angeles market.

Atlanta and greater San Francisco are top-10 national media markets, of which only half currently have NWSL teams. That could be a factor if two prospective expansion bids seem otherwise equal. Does the Bay Area offer more than Columbus, for example?

That is not to discount the necessity of local support and infrastructure. Louisville, which is the smallest market in the league by some margin, is considered within the league to be a valuable addition for its local support and investment in facilities.

As one league source said, most of the forthcoming bids will look the same on paper, so then the conversation becomes about markets.

Will the NWSL consider relocation instead of expansion?

A boom in NWSL expansion follows a long stretch in which the league was either stagnant or underwent contraction. Utah originally joined the NWSL after the 2017 season, which also turned out to be the final season for both FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers. The Breakers played in the two prior pro women's leagues that failed.

Adding two expansion sides in 2024 would make for a net addition of five teams in a three-year period, and that has some within the league rightfully concerned about the depth of the player pool and potential dilution of what is currently considered the most competitive women's soccer league in the world, from top to bottom.

Additionally, there will be a second-division women's professional league for the first time beginning in August 2023. The USL Super League is expected to kick off with roughly a dozen teams and offer standards on par with the men's USL Championship. That means it will likely compete for players on the bottom end of NWSL rosters looking for more playing time or better opportunities, which could further spread the player pool.

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Commissioner Berman: Interest in NWSL expansion 'overwhelming'

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman breaks down the various factors that come into play if and when the league decides to expand.

Berman, who joined the NWSL in April after a stint with the National Lacrosse League, said the NWSL is staffing up this summer with a particular focus on the soccer side, including player development. Among those hires will be a chief sporting director who will report to Berman.

"We will be investing in executive-level talent at the league office who really can help inform our strategy," Berman said, "because I think globally, we see that the level of talent from a player perspective is rising, and that is really informing our intentionality around how we resource this area moving forward."

The introduction of the USL Super League also means competition for markets, whether either league wants to admit that or not. Some markets left on the outside of the NWSL's expansion process could aim to start a USL Super League team. That could be a preferred path for any existing USL men's franchises, at least. And franchise valuations for the USL Super League, while still a mystery, will certainly be lower than the rising NWSL entry point. Similar patterns have played out at scale on the men's side between the USL and MLS.

Internally, the NWSL also has the matter of some markets either actively struggling or whose long-term viability is unclear based on those same expansion requirements of strong ownership, viable venues and strong fan support.

The Chicago Red Stars need a stadium solution beyond SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, which MLS' Chicago Fire finally abandoned 15 years after it was built, an admission that the location just doesn't work. Long-term attendance figures reinforce that -- the Red Stars rank last in the league this year with an average attendance just over 3,000. There are also ongoing questions about ownership structure there following a tumultuous offseason that saw longtime head coach Rory Dames depart the club amid allegations of decades of misconduct.

Average attendance sits below 5,000 for the North Carolina Courage and the Orlando Pride. The Houston Dash have finally seen an upturn in local interest after years of struggles. There are other markets in which the long-term viability of facilities is unclear. All of which raises the question: If there are that many strong, interested prospective ownership groups, should they be viewed as potential relocation options to improve the strength of the league, rather than expand to 15 or 16 teams?

"Relocation is always the last resort, absolutely last resort," Berman said.

She and league leadership are working on a system based off the NBA's TMBO (team marketing and business operations) model. The basic concept is that the league is a centralized resource that intervenes with each team, and thus can share best practices. If one team is struggling in a particular department, it can connect with a team thriving in that category.

"I don't think there's a single market that we're in today that can't be successful," Berman said. "I believe that we have some work to do to help our teams be better, but relocation would be an absolute last resort."

Sorting out existing market issues must be among the big items Berman addresses early in her tenure. This expansion process is also front and center, among a host of issues the league faces in the wake of a transformative past year.

As Berman says of the juggle: "We have so much going on right now. As I describe it, the plane is in the air while we are also trying to think about the future of the league."