May 20, 2024

Jessica Berman was in her sixth month as commissioner of the NWSL when she found herself and her league at a dangerous crossroads. U.S. Soccer had just released the Yates Report, a 173-page document detailing years of systemic abuse and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer. The NWSL was finishing its own study of the same issues.

The evidence was ugly, overwhelming and damning.

“It really was almost like an existential crisis for the league,” Berman said.

How she handled it might well determine whether the league survived. So the commissioner sought wisdom from the children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” one she used to read to her two sons to teach them how to deal with challenges.

“You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You just have to go through it,” she said, repeating the book’s refrain. “Sometimes hard things require that bravery and courage.”

What was a solid approach for hunting bears proved to be just as useful for saving the NWSL because 13 months later the league has not only survived, it has thrived. With Saturday’s NWSL championship game at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium — the final game in the storied careers of OL Reign winger Megan Rapinoe and NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger, who have combined for four World Cup titles and one Olympic gold medal but have never won an NWSL crown — Berman will bring down the curtain on the most successful season in league history.

Attendance is up 32%, according to Soccer Stadium Digest, and TV viewership jumped 40%; Fortune 500 companies including Nationwide, Nike, Ally, Delta and SiriusXM have either signed new sponsorship deals or extended existing ones in the last two years; the league has added expansion teams in Utah, the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston since March; and on Thursday it announced a historic four-year broadcast agreement with CBS, Amazon, ESPN and Scripps, which will broadcast a combined 118 games next season.

OL Reign forward Veronica Latsko jumps into the arms of Megan Rapinoe while celebrating scoring against Angel City

OL Reign forward Veronica Latsko, top right, celebrates with teammates Phoebe McClernon (21), Sofia Huerta (11) and Megan Rapinoe, right, after scoring during a playoff match against Angel City on Oct. 20.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

The deal is worth $240 million, according to ESPN, making it the most lucrative media-rights contract in the history of women’s team sports. It’s also a massive increase from the league’s previous deal with CBS, which was worth just $1.5 million a season.

And Berman laid the foundation for much of that last fall when she decided to confront the league’s troubles head on, permanently expelling four coaches, fining half the league’s 12 clubs, forcing out two owners and working to change the culture of the NWSL.

“I knew in my heart that if we were transparent and gave our fans — and more importantly, our players — a reason to trust us, that we’d be able to move to NWSL 2.0, which really is how we thought about calendar year 2023,” she said. “It really began with the first day after we announced the corrective action coming out of the report. Everything we’ve gotten from that day has been building for our future.”

A future that was once in doubt now seems almost limitless.

“This league is strong,” said Rosalyn Durant, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and acquisitions. “And we sincerely believe that it is positioned for continued growth. The record attendance, franchise expansion, the increase in fan engagement, the increase in viewership, all of those are markings of an ascendant league.”

A league so ascendant, cities and ownership groups are lining up to join. When Boston begins play in three seasons, the NWSL will have grown by 66%, to 15 teams, since 2019, adding teams in Louisville, Los Angeles and San Diego in addition to Utah, the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston. Berman said she hoped to add at least one more franchise after that. There are prospective owners in Denver and Cleveland among the more than a dozen qualifying investment groups from around the U.S. to have expressed interest, Berman said.

But it’s not so much the number of teams in the league as it is what they’re paying to join and who’s signing those checks that is noteworthy. Bay FC, the new Northern Californian expansion team, and Boston Unity Soccer Partners each paid $53 million for the rights to a franchise earlier this year. That’s more than 26 times the $2 million it reportedly cost Angel City to join the league in 2022.

Angel City is now worth a league-record $180 million, according to team valuations compiled by the sports-business website Sportico. In the last two years, that kind of growth has drawn investors including ex-Peloton executive Carolyn Tisch Blodgett, whose family owns the NFL’s New York Giants; former Meta chief executive Sheryl Sandberg; Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts; and Sixth Street Partners, a global investment firm with more than $70 billion in assets to the league.

Gotham FC's Ali Krieger wears a captain's armband that reads "Thank You Ali" during her final home game before retiring.

Gotham FC’s Ali Krieger wears a captain’s armband that reads “Thank You Ali” during her final home game before retiring. On Oct. 15. Krieger’s team will face OL Reign for the NWSL title Saturday.

(Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

“I think they were waiting for solid proof points to make investments. Angel City didn’t wait for returns, we invested knowing they were coming,” said Julie Uhrman, the team’s president and co-founder. “So Angel City comes on the scene and we blow out sponsorship revenue, ticketing revenue, attendance, merchandising revenues and global attention. Now there’s an example in the marketplace that says, ‘Hey, if we invest in our product, our community, our players, in our experience, the revenue will follow.’ And the result of that is teams like Kansas City and Utah, and San Diego and Bay FC coming in and investing.”

Angel City’s sprawling ownership group, which includes a galaxy of Hollywood stars, also features nearly two dozen former athletes. That’s significant because many of them not only invested their money in the team, but their knowledge and experience as well.

“We’re going to see more and more athlete-investors in the sport,” Uhrman said. “Because of how Angel City structured itself, more as a start-up, we want[ed] them to participate in the growth of the team, in the sport. We’ve really been intentional about bringing [athletes] in as investors, leveraging their experience.”

That model has caught on. In the last three seasons, soccer’s Carli Lloyd, Aly Wagner, Brandi Chastain and Brianna Scurry; gymnast Dominique Dawes; basketball players Sue Bird, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala; tennis champion Naomi Osaka; former Super Bowl champion Eli Manning and Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his wife Brittany, a former professional soccer player, have all bought stakes in NWSL teams, not only helping to finance teams, but giving the league priceless credibility.

Steven A. Bank, the Paul Hastings professor of business law at UCLA and a close observer of soccer finances, praised Berman’s work to first stabilize, then grow the league.

“In effect, NWSL went through a painful rebirth and came out much healthier for having done so,” he said. “That has allowed the league to focus on building rather than plugging leaks.”

However, he cautions the league is still building the foundation to support that growth.

The attendance numbers are lumpy, for example, with San Diego, Angel City and the Portland Thorns each drawing more than 18,900 a game while four teams — Chicago, Louisville, Houston and North Carolina — averaged fewer than 6,000. That leaves the league’s record attendance average of 10,432 this season at less than half what the MLS drew.

Angel City FC soccer fans wave Pride and team flags during a match against the Chicago Red Stars

Angel City FC soccer fans wave Pride and team flags during a match against the Chicago Red Stars at BMO Stadium on June 5.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

And while the combined valuation of the league’s 12 teams is $743 million, Sportico valued three different MLS teams at more than $850 million each.

Those comparisons, Berman said “are like comparing apples and bread. It’s not even in the same universe of comparison.”

For starters, the NWLS, which began play in 2013, is far younger than MLS and has been a fully independent league only since 2022, when its allocation system with U.S. Soccer ended and the salaries for national team players became the responsibility of the individual clubs. That makes the current state of the NWSL, which Bank credits to several recent events, all the more exceptional.

“NWSL’s resurgence is in part a function of the post-World Cup bounce, which helps drive attendance, investment, and sponsorships. It’s also a byproduct of entering a period of labor peace and stability at both the NWSL and U.S. Soccer level,” Bank said. “It also has new investors in expansion teams who are perhaps more committed and engaged to the league and its efforts than ownership has been in the past.”

But for OL Reign defender Lauren Barnes, who has played in a record 211 NWSL games, starting with the second match in league history, this is just the start of the journey.

“It’s only going to get better and better,” she said. “It will improve [with] more resources and more investment. The numbers don’t lie.

“We’ve seen, over the past maybe three years, just literally growing and growing. It’d be dumb not to invest in women’s sports.”

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