SOCCER

Bay Area NWSL expansion group: ‘If we can change the game, we’ll change the world’

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Former players are shaping the NWSL in more important ways than ever before, from ownership ranks to broadcast and media roles to front office positions. In the league’s 10th year, the players have found their voice, their influence, their power, their seats at the table and they are shaping the future of the league.

In the Bay Area, four former players – Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner – hope to continue this trend by leading the way as founding members of a potential expansion group. Between them, they have experience in all three professional leagues in the United States and careers that have spanned 10 domestic and foreign professional teams, not to mention the U.S. Women’s National Team. All four are also Santa Clara Broncos (with a delicious reputation for being tough at NCAA games in the stands).

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“We learned so much,” Osborne said Athleticism. “We saw what went wrong, what we want to make work, what we don’t want to do. We have seen it all. We now have the opportunity to be directly involved.

The four players hope to not only hold ownership shares, but also work directly for the club.

“It’s a very special opportunity to directly shape and influence teams, players, leagues, the sport and we believe we have that experience to do that directly,” Osborne added.

“We’re realizing very quickly that the athlete voice isn’t just great to hear, it’s critical to success,” Slaton said. As someone who currently sits on the board of directors of American football as an athlete representative, the role of governance is perhaps more important to her than most, as she pointed out the Ted Stevens Act. and increased athlete representation resulting from failures to protect gymnasts. “Everyone knows it’s critical, not just for the health of an organization, but for it to thrive.”

For now, these four players are the ones leading the Bay Area’s potential expansion group, which is made up of investors from sports, tech, media and business — and while they do not yet share the full list of those involved. , the group says it is made up of 70% women.

On Thursday, the Bay Area found out that it will be hosting the 2026 Men’s World Cup matches, which will surely impact the region’s football infrastructure. But there’s also a lot of professional women’s football history to highlight. First the Bay Area CyberRays (before changing their name to San Jose CyberRays) of WUSA, then FC Gold Pride of WPS: 2010 WPS Championship winners, who folded two months later.

On the NWSL front, it hasn’t been the easiest path to an expansion bid. In 2019, the path seemed to be expanding to Sacramento, potentially with the WPSL California Storm team playing a part in forming an NWSL team. Both Chastain and Osborne were on the Storm’s board of directors and campaigned for Sacramento – and the Storm – to join the NWSL. The Ownership Group in Sacramento was approved in 2020 (and was officially announced in January 2021). In May 2021, the NWSL Board of Governors approved owners Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez’s plan to move their territorial rights to Southern California. The expansion team that would become San Diego Wave FC was finally, officially, launched.

Northern California, once again, was left without a professional Division I women’s soccer team. The dream of these former players needed to be reshaped. And it was another Californian team that helped solidify this vision: Angel City FC.

“The moment Angel City announced what they were doing, it was immediate,” Osborne recalled. “’Wait a second, why don’t we do this? If they can do it, why aren’t we? »

The LA team has already been influential for a number of reasons in its short history, not just for its substantial roster of influential owners, but for its sponsorship model (and the financial figures around these sponsorships), their approach to branding and more.

“It was a proof of concept, right?” said Slaton. “I really think we can be one of the next steps that proves to people that this isn’t just a unicorn, this is real, lasting change that we’ll see in the long run. All credit comes back to Angel City and what they have achieved, but it has to be a league standard. I really think it can be.

There are plenty of reasons Osborne and Slaton worked hard, alongside Chastain and Wagner, to put this deal together — not just because of their Bay Area ties or the long list of reasons why. they believe the local support is there for an NWSL team at all levels of the sport.

“It affects all of us,” Osborne said. “I have three young daughters. Every day I am constantly inspired and motivated to continue to offer them this opportunity, if they wish, to be able to play professional football.

Slaton said all four have been transformed as people through the game. Clearly, for her, this goes far beyond an NWSL team – it’s just the mechanics of ambition much more. big. “This is going to sound a little fluffy,” she prefaced, “but I truly believe that if we change the game, we’ll change the world. I really do.”

Slaton said the influence of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, in particular, has touched every part of the globe; the same goes for football. “I know it sounds big, but frankly, if we’re just changing our neighborhood, if we’re just changing the league, to me, we’re not thinking big enough. We think as big as possible, don’t we? »

The players don’t shy away from those ambitions and how more than their on-court experience would be useful at the top level of an NWSL club, even if they learn all the ins and outs of what makes a success – facilities to sponsorships.

“We all have different backgrounds and CVs, but all four of us have done a lot as players, we all have done a lot after retirement in the business world and the media world,” Osborne said. “We sit on boards of directors as advisors. We deployed to learn and grow. It’s cool to partner with leaders in sports, media and tech, but also know that we bring a lot to the table.

Of the four, Slaton took the lead on facilities and real estate — something she was not deeply familiar with before. She joked that finding land in the Bay Area was difficult, but it also helped her realize.

“I think I got this feeling that there are these really, really smart people who are a lot smarter than me and do these things somehow,” Slaton said. The more people I talked about, the more I realized how damn smart we were. We can sit at these tables. I can have these conversations.

She now feels comfortable calling the president of a commercial real estate agency. Before, she thought she couldn’t say the right things.

“What I realize the most is the way I thought the world worked, I can be a part of it,” she continued. “And, excuse my language, do some shit.”

The choice to start talking about their hopes of landing an expansion team is perhaps a brave one. Historically, groups have played their cards close to the chest, releasing only brief statements or speaking only hypothetically about their interest. With commissioner Jessica Berman who recently took over the league’s front office and is quite candid about restart the expansion process from scratch, there may be an opening for things to be different this time. It is important for potential groups not only to make their case to the board through the official application process, but also to the league as a whole and its fans in the public sphere.

It may be a bit of a risk, but public perception and support will absolutely play a part in these decisions for 2024 and beyond. Why wait to build on this front when so much work has already been done to make the case for the Bay Area? No one said it outright on the call, but the two years the group has already put into the bid gives them a leg up on their competition, not to mention their familiarity with the sports landscape. There are plenty of reasons for them to be confident while waiting to see what the league expects from potential offers.

“Right now, where we are, we’re learning the process as we go,” Slaton said. “So in the meantime, the focus is on what we can control, and that’s generating local support. That’s really where our time and energy is right now, because we think that’s where that can make the biggest difference.

It’s a football answer in the best possible way: control what you can control. “It’s been pounding in my brain for the last 20 years,” Slaton joked once she was called out for it. Her playing career has done more for her than just giving her the right to throw a standard press conference line.

“The other thing I think about, more than any other sport, is a player’s game. You don’t have timeouts, you just roll the ball for 45 minutes and solve the problem,” said Slaton, “It’s what we’ve been doing all our lives, it’s what we’ve been training for. There’s no reason we can’t do it in boardrooms and conference rooms.” executive halls, and in the direction of this league.

(Photo: Terrell Lloyd)

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