Nine expansion options on NWSL's radar
The National Women's Soccer League is the first U.S. women's professional soccer league to make it to a fourth season. More than ever, the chatter heading into the offseason is about expansion rather than contraction or the potential that the league on the whole might not even make it.
With the uptick in fan interest in the U.S. women's national team and the sport in general has come an increased interest in business leaders looking to get involved, including those who already own Major League Soccer teams.
Some have gone on the record with their interest. Others are ongoing whispers with varying levels of legitimacy. And an important note is that markets should be viewed not only as expansion candidates, but possibilities for the relocation of any NWSL team which just can't break through in its market.
We explore nine markets -- or, in some cases, entities -- which could be in the mix for an NWSL team, from the shoo-ins to the more speculative:
Salt Lake City
At one point, Real Salt Lake looked like a shoo-in to be the NWSL’s 10th franchise, and the third such one to be partnered with an MLS club. Instead, Orlando’s late surge, inspired by the bump in women’s soccer’s profile post-World Cup and the ability to land the sport’s most recognized face, Alex Morgan, meant the Orlando Pride moved up in the pecking order.
But RSL is still in the mix and ostensibly the clubhouse leader in this increasingly competitive expansion landscape (words the 2013 me never thought he’d type). Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen has been the most vocal of any other would-be owner, and Real Salt Lake’s women’s team would have the option of playing games at the 20,000-seat gem that is Rio Tinto Stadium or at a cozy 5,000-seat stadium 30 minutes south of downtown at the club’s $50 million training facility set to open in August 2017. RSL continues to look like a ‘when, not if’ scenario for NWSL.
— Real Salt Lake (@RealSaltLake) September 2, 2016
— Real Salt Lake (@RealSaltLake) September 2, 2016
-- Jeff Kassouf
Expansion into the Los Angeles market seems inevitable, with one recent report confirming a Southern California team may be closer than we think. Thank you, LAFC.
Mia Hamm’s involvement as one of LAFC’s 6,723 co-owners* would be a welcome addition to any fan, but the move also speaks to the changing mission of North American soccer clubs. No longer are MLS expansion teams seeing themselves as mere soccer teams. Now, the opportunities are broader, be those opportunities commercial, cultural or, more simply, in terms of second and third teams.
That’s proving to be a boon for the NWSL. Inherent in LAFC’s vision, as well as that of others on this list, is to provide opportunities to all of the community, not just half of it. Women play, watch, and spend money on soccer, too. They’re kind of a big deal.
LA’s new MLS franchise seems eager to serve the greater Los Angeles area, possibly pushing the envelope for its inevitable rival. The Galaxy has been the standard in Southern California for 20 years, but LAFC may be ready to push it beyond its comfort zone. The Galaxy could yet have something to say about who gets the NWSL’s LA team. And FC Barcelona might, too…? (Keep reading.)
* - unofficial count
Part of that expanded vision involves facilities. Take the San Jose Earthquakes, for example. ‘We have this great facility, we control it, but we’re only playing 20-some games a year at home. What do we do with it the rest of the time?’ Concerts, high school football games? Sure, but with the low cost of operating NWSL franchises -- a cost that gets offset if you have preexisting, MLS infrastructure -- a women’s soccer team is a no-brainer.
With memories of FC Gold Pride still flickering in the South Bay, San Jose makes sense. Like many MLS teams, the Earthquakes have developed a deep, loyal fanbase, one that’s easy to market to. If the conversion rates we’ve seen in Portland, Houston, and Orlando can hold up, expanding to San Jose is an obvious choice, particularly with so many seasoned women’s soccer minds ready to be re-engaged in the Bay Area.
Could the USL’s Sacramento Republic FC and its lofty goals come into play? Maybe. And about that Barcelona stuff…
This one is truly a wild card. FC Barcelona -- yes, that FC Barcelona -- president Josep Bartomeu proclaimed last week in New York that the Spanish club and world superpower is very interested in joining the NWSL. In a follow-up interview with FourFourTwo, Arno Trabesinger, the managing director of FCB North America LLC, said that “it’s our clear goal” to have a women’s team in the U.S., and the club is targeting New York, Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
But despite the most public of proclamations, Trabesinger says talks are still preliminary. FFT confirmed independently that NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush has met with Barcelona, but it remains unclear just how serious this is. Many team executives across the league were only first hearing of Barcelona’s intent when Bartomeu went public with it, which brings a significant dose of skepticism.
And Sky Blue FC has right of first refusal on the New York market. Would Barcelona buy out the club, which will finish bottom of the attendance standings for the fourth straight season this year? City Football Group also has its eyes on the market. Would Barce boot LAFC or the Galaxy from the LA market? Unlikely. And the Bay Area also has an MLS team. Perhaps, if this is a serious bid, it could mean Barcelona taking over one of the franchises currently finding less success away from the field.
Just as the Rocky Mountains are currently a huge geographic gap on the NWSL landscape, so, too, is the American South. Between the triangle formed by Orlando, Houston and Washington, there’s nothing to serve the growing population bases of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. When it comes to pro sports teams, the South kind of gets screwed.
The North Carolina Triangle is an obvious expansion choice. Not only is there the culture cultivated by the Tar Heels’ women’s program but there’s the legacy of WUSA’s Carolina Courage, as well as significant numbers of prominent players and ex-players who call the area home.
With the new Carolina RailHawks owners showing refreshing ambition and declaring public interest in the NWSL, an ownership group may already be in place. Like an MLS partnership, this NASL link would be ready-to-go. But as sports and entertainment events -- including the 2016 Women’s College Cup and other NCAA events -- pull out of the state for its controversial HB2 law, even the right ownership and infrastructure could prevent this from happening in the short term.
Atlanta’s instance is somewhat different; somewhat a combination of Carolina and the Bay Area. With Atlanta United set to join MLS next year, you’ll have another team that controls their facility who can use a team to fill in more dates filled on the calendar. You’ll also have a group with an infrastructure that can support the NWSL commitment, one that can leverage the practical and cultural benefits of linking with an MLS club. (Where that all leaves the proposed Atlanta Vibe, which made a public push for a team last year, is unclear.)
Then there’s the demographics. The South, in general, is underserved by the NWSL despite the women’s collegiate game being strong in the region. Atlanta, specifically, is one of the biggest, most important cities in the country, one that serves as both an economic and cultural hub of the region. Putting a growing league in a growing city makes sense, particularly given how much the city already supports the sport.
Like Atlanta, Dallas’ is a name that comes up often, and often without real links to an actual expansion effort. Beyond that (admittedly very, very important detail), though, things make sense. With its unparalleled youth development on the boys’ side and an already established ECNL (soon to be U.S. Soccer Development Academy) team, Dallas clearly has a formula for engaging the community and developing its talents. Inhabiting an enviable complex in Frisco, outside of Dallas proper, FCD has the infrastructure and facilities to take on another first-division team. It’s just a matter of desire.
Geographically, too, this makes sense. Chris Canetti and Houston made the leap into the NWSL in 2014 without a reasonable regional foe. When the league pairs up teams to serve as rivals for scheduling purposes, Houston gets paired with Orlando, a mere 850 miles away. The distance from Houston to Dallas? 225 miles.
And don’t forget, Texas is a hotbed for strong youth clubs even beyond FC Dallas.
New York (City Football Group)
City Football Group chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said in June that the organization, which operates Manchester City in England, NYCFC in MLS, Melbourne City in Australia and has a minority stake in Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan, is interested in “potentially” operating a women’s team in New York. Sources have told me that CFP starting a women’s team as part of its NYCFC brand is a matter of when, not if.
Such scenario would almost certainly require CFP and NYCFC to absorb Sky Blue FC, the central New Jersey club which has been a part of the past two professional women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. but finished last in average and total attendance in all three NWSL seasons to date and is will do the same in this fourth season.
Sky Blue walked away from the negotiating table with the New York Red Bulls following the 2013 NWSL season, a move which has left the club stuck in neutral and still largely irrelevant. If and when NYCFC and the City Group money come calling, Sky Blue may not be able to say no -- literally, if other owners around the league force the sale.
Vancouver, the beautiful city that it is, may sit atop the list of places which everyone always wants to revisit as a potential home for a professional women’s team. It’s the de facto home of the Canadian women’s national team. It hosted a World Cup final last year. The Whitecaps were once the best-run team in the USL W-League. Well...the Whitecaps also pulled the plug on their semi-pro women’s team three years ago, once NWSL started.
Since then, the brass of the MLS franchise has said little of detail about interest in the NWSL other than it being a possibility “down the road.” Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson tweeted last month: “prediction...Van to NWSL in 2018...call it a hunch”. Perhaps there is more going on behind the scenes in Vancouver. A quick look at other candidates on this list suggests some stiff competition for what looks like it could be a pair of expansion spots in 2018 and two more in the year or two following that.
Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.