Four Bay Area women’s soccer legends leading effort for NWSL expansion

A player-based ownership group will begin to gauge local interest and potential community support for a National Women’s Football League team in the Gulf region over the next several months.

Ali Wagner, Brandy Chastain, Leslie Osborne and Daniel Slatton, all former Santa Clara players with significant experience in professional and international football, are leading an effort that began two years ago. San Francisco-based investor David Aufhauser will serve as interim head of the effort to bring the NWSL team to the Bay Area. No one within the organization will share who the other investors are or any financial details. A source told The Chronicle that other professional sports teams in the Bay Area may also participate from a social support standpoint.

The main stadium revolves around the popularity of women’s football in the Gulf region. Eight of the 23 players currently on the US women’s national team — 35 percent of the roster — have ties in the Bay Area. In the college ranks, Santa Clara won the national title in 2020, and the Bay Area has had success with international women’s soccer events in the past, such as attracting 22,788 fans at Levi’s Stadium for a friendly (exhibition match) in 2019.

“That’s at first, it’s definitely going to be more about the feel,” Wagner said. “Just the energy. We have nothing to sell. We don’t have an expansion team yet. So this is just about getting people to drive towards our goal, which is to be the NWSL franchise come (2024) or 2025.”

Early metrics could include supporter engagement on their newly launched websites and social numbers from hashtags, but the group emphasized that this is more about creating excitement in the community.

“This is not some kind of stand next to your pants,” Chastain said. “There is a process for becoming a part of the league, and we need to make sure that we are ready to follow the process and establish ourselves in a way that is in line with what the league is asking and needing and we will be supportive and representative of that.”

The new Angel City club in Los Angeles has created a scheme to attract high profile investors with a property group that includes Natalie Portman. Chicago was backed by Olympic hockey player Kendall Quinn-Schofield and Carli Lloyd joined the Gotham City estate. By the start of its inaugural season this year (after its release was announced in 2020), Angel City had 15,400 season ticket holders.

“When Angel City made their announcement, I immediately texted my closest friends. Abby Wambach, Angela Huckles, Lauren Holiday and Julie Fody are like, what the heck, how did no one tell me this,” Osborne said. It’s like my dream, like the previous players, my teammates are now owners in this new and exciting professional women’s team. Like that’s exactly what I like. That was my dream.”

Osborne said she contacted a local business leader who was interested in making a team, but did not have the football connections yet. I called the other three former players and asked if they were in it.

“It became real the moment we had that conversation,” Osborne said. “I think we dreamed of having a business and a technology side with a football team, and it is clear that our four backgrounds have a lot of football experience.”

The Bay Area group has used some recent expansion clubs as a reference, recognizing its own independent operation. Two expansion teams have had a successful start to the season – San Diego and Angel City – after Louisville and Kansas City began playing in 2021, with a current total of 12.

We don’t want to be Angel City,” Wagner said. “We want to be the Bay Area, but we want to have some community action that has been very strong. And that’s one piece of Angel City that we like to emulate. Then for San Diego, I think their football strategy has been great. This is a team that is sitting at the top of the table now.”

A tweet in March reported that Osbourne said they raised 10 million dollars in investment of tech companies in silicon valley. The effort’s spokesperson declined to comment on the accuracy of that number.

Washington Spirit sold for a record $35 million in February, but the expansion fee for Kansas City Current was $5 million in 2021, and when Sacramento made its bid in 2019—and ended up in San Diego instead—it was $2 million. The current is also expected to spend about $70 million to open its stadium in 2024.

No one within the Bay Area group would disclose the stadium’s status, but noted that they were “finalizing” the site. The Bay Area has options like MLS Earthquakes’ PayPal Park in San Jose, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara – now the site of the 2026 Men’s World Cup – and stadiums at Stanford, Cal Berkeley and San Jose State University.

This is one of several steps the group has begun work on in anticipation of the league working with groups bidding for expansion in the coming months. But right now, a lot of their energy is being devoted to building community support.

“We don’t really know the timeline,” Slatton said. “So we’re just trying to control what we can control and really start to inform our community and try to get as much support and learning from our community as possible.”

New Commissioner Jessica Berman started in April after serving as the Deputy Commissioner of the National Lacrosse League for more than two years. It said in May that the process of defining the timeline and strategy for new expansion clubs could begin within a few months. The closest entry point to start playing in the expansion market seems to be 2024.

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