June 16, 2024

When Raj Bhathal immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1960, he gave up the old world for the new, marrying a California beach girl and founding a swimwear company.

“He’s always been a trailblazer and a pioneer,” said his daughter Lisa. “He was the only one out of all his brothers and sisters not to have an arranged marriage.”

But the old world ways were never far away. So when Lisa and her brother Alex, who spun the swimwear company into a capital management firm named after their father, began mulling an investment in women’s soccer, they weren’t sure how he would react.

“He grew up in India [at] a time when women just did not have the same rights or respect as men,” said Lisa Bhathal Merage, who broached the subject over dinner. Still, she wasn’t surprised by his response.

“He said, ‘I really believe in women’s sports’,” she said. “It’s so cool to have an older gentleman from India, that grew up in such a different way, say, ‘Yes, this is the future,’”

So this month with Raj Bhathal’s blessing, Newport Beach-based RAJ Capital bought the Portland Thorns for an NWSL-record $63 million, a price the siblings consider a bargain.

“The Portland Thorns are iconic,” Bhathal Merage said of the team, an original NWSL franchise which holds league records for regular-season wins (109), goals (374), championships (three) and overall average attendance. “It’s kind of like buying the New York Yankees of women’s soccer. That was really how we looked at it.

“The players are the best and the fans are the best. It was a no-brainer for us.”

The timing was a no-brainer as well.

Last fall, the sports-business website Sportico put the median value of an NWSL team at $51 million with Angel City, which brought in more than $31 million in revenue last year, leading the way at $180 million. But that’s just the start: The league will grow by three more teams during the next three years with the Utah Royals and Bay FC beginning play this season and a Boston franchise joining in 2026; the latter two teams paid expansion fees of $53 million each, more than 10 times what Angel City and the San Diego Wave paid to join the league in 2022.

Salaries are up, TV viewership is climbing and sponsors are lining up to write checks — so much so last November the league was able to sell its broadcast rights for $240 million during the next four seasons, a massive leap from the old deal, which paid just $1.5 million a season. Two weeks later Deloitte, the global accounting and financial advisory firm, released a report predicting women’s sports would generate worldwide revenues of more than $1.25 billion this year, a 300% jump from 2021.

“We’re really excited about the future of women’s sports in general,” said Bhathal Merage, 52. “We’re big believers that both soccer and basketball are, and will continue to be, the biggest international sports. Investing in the Thorns, this is an opportunity for us to continue to make an impact in this world and be part of the journey.”

Richard Merage, left, Lisa Bhathal Merage, Marta Bhathal and Raj Bhathal attend the 46th annual Candlelight Concert.

Richard Merage, left, Lisa Bhathal Merage, Marta Bhathal and Raj Bhathal attend the 46th annual Candlelight Concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa in December 2019.

(Ryan Miller / WireImage via Getty Images)

“We want to win championships,” her brother added. “And we want to have a lot of fun.”

The siblings have done this before. In 2013, they were part of a group that spent $534 million to buy the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, whose value has more than quadrupled to $2.32 billion, according to Sportico. Now they are part of a wave of savvy investors who have bought into the NWSL in recent years, a list that includes Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (Angel City); the Tisch family, owners of the NFL’s New York Giants (Gotham FC); Sixth Street Partners, a global management firm with more than $75 billion in assets (Bay FC); billionaire businessman Ronald Burkle (San Diego Wave); and Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts (Chicago Red Stars).

Now come the Bhathals and RAJ Capital.

“I don’t think we could have asked for a better ownership group,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said. “They embody the values of our league in their humility and commitment to investing in this team and in their market. They want to do things the right way. They understand the long-term value of this investment. And they have a history of having done this really well in Sacramento.

“They are the kinds of people who really level up our boardroom in a way that I have no doubt will make us all smarter and better.”

Merritt Paulson, the Thorns’ founding owner, had been under pressure to sell the team since 2021, when the franchise was linked to a wide-ranging sexual abuse and harassment scandal that forced the resignations of NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine, led to permanent bans for four coaches, including former Portland manager Paul Riley, and threatened the league’s existence.

Under Berman’s leadership, the league is healthier than ever. It’s also expanding faster than ever, having finally noticed California. Three years ago, the NWSL had never had a team in the state and had no majority owners based there. This season, with the addition of Bay FC and the sale of the Thorns, there will be three teams and four ownership groups in California.

“We know that California is a hotbed for girls’ and women’s soccer, college soccer and there are tons of coaches, players, families who love this sport,” Berman said. “I can’t speak to why it wasn’t here before. But it’s not surprising to see the level of interest and the engagement from communities, investors and fans across the state.”

Bhathal Merage said the family nearly partnered with Angel City when the team was seeking investors, but she and her brother wanted more than a minority role.

“They were the ones,” she said of Angel City, “that really interested us in the space.”

That interest never waned.

“We see a lot of really intriguing parallels [in] the NWSL to the growth of some of the other major sports leagues,” said Alex Bhathal, 48. “It’s clear we are past an inflection point, similar to what happened in the NBA, where there were prospects to take the sport globally, there was significant media interest in broadcasting games or significant interest in corporate sponsorship to support the growth of the revenues of the league. We see a lot of those same fundamentals emerging in the NWSL.

“The momentum is clear; the business dynamics, the value creation opportunities are clear. The growth of women’s professional soccer in the United States is here to stay. And it’s generational. So we think we’re investing into this league at a really exciting time.”

Looks like Raj Bhathal was right about the future after all.

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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