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Burkle’s San Diego proposal gains momentum; formal NWSL Board vote looms

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

The National Women’s Soccer League’s potential (and surprising) entry into the San Diego market appears to be inching closer toward reality. The NWSL Board of Governors have now met multiple times to discuss the plan proposed by a group headlined by billionaire Ron Burkle, who originally purchased territory rights to Sacramento but has shifted his focus to San Diego, as The Equalizer first reported two months ago.

On Thursday, The Athletic reported that Burkle’s group “appears to have enough support from the league’s board of governors to approve a change to its territory rights.” A vote by the board would be required for any such move; no vote has taken place yet, multiple sources tell The Equalizer. A vote could happen in the coming weeks, multiple sources say.

The temporary plan from Burkle would be for the team to start play in 2022 at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium, a 6,000-seat venue which housed the San Diego Spirit in the WUSA from 2001-2003. USL Championship (second-division) team San Diego Loyal currently plays at Torero Stadium. That team has been searching for land in order to build a stadium, and sources say the Loyal could be a potential partner for an NWSL team looking to build a stadium. San Diego Loyal president and CEO Warren Smith was a founding member of Sacramento Republic FC.

A source with knowledge of the situation told The Equalizer that Burkle has pitched the idea of building a training facility in the San Diego area in time for the 2022 season and building a stadium by 2023. As of yet, he has not presented any concrete details about where or how that would be built. Such ongoing uncertainty has understandably left some of the NWSL’s Board skeptical, another source says, particularly given the recent history of Burkle’s group pulling out of its deal for a Sacramento MLS team.

Multiple sources confirm that if the NWSL Board of Governors were to reject the San Diego plan, the onus would be back on Burkle & Co. to fulfill their contractual agreement to bring a team to Sacramento — a scenario which seems logically impossible at this point, the way local relationships have deteriorated there. Burkle could also come up with a new plan to move his territory rights, or he could sell those rights to someone else. An extreme option, should the situation drag on without resolution, would be for the league to claim he is breach of contract.

Kickin’ Back with Lisa Baird

Sacramento was finally announced as a 2022 NWSL expansion team by league commissioner Lisa Baird in a January press call, after some 18 months of speculation. The group was close to joining ahead of the 2020 season but ultimately did not commit in enough time. They eventually did pay an expansion fee in mid-2020 (it never paid MLS any expansion fees, per multiple reports) and began sitting in on NWSL Board of Governors calls, but the group originally set to operate the Sacramento team never formally announced itself. Burkle did acknowledge in a Jan. 12 statement to The Equalizer that he was looking forward to joining the league:

“Sacramento’s soccer story continues to grow and we’re excited to welcome the best female players in the world when we enter the league in 2022. In working to grow the game in Northern California, we’ve seen the passion and pride that fans have first-hand and know that a top-flight women’s team would add to the excitement and growth of the city.

“We’re honored to join the league, especially after a season where players, league leadership and fans have set new standards for the sports world. Thank you to Commissioner Baird and the investors, owners, and executives around the league for embracing Sacramento and its fans. Mayor Steinberg and the City Council have been great partners throughout and we have that rare combination here in Sacramento to do something truly special.”

On Feb. 26, MLS announced that Burkle had decided not to move forward with the acquisition of a franchise in Sacramento. That cast immediate questions upon the NWSL plans, but the NWSL has persistently refrained from comment on the topic. Baird acknowledged in an April 7 press call that “it ended up being a more complicated situation in Sacramento than we anticipated,” but declined to provide a formal update about Burkle’s group.

Additionally, there is a group of Bay Area investors interested in joining the NWSL as early as the 2023 season. They would most likely look to have a team playing out of Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose. Burkle’s group negotiated an expansion of the standard 75-mile protected market radius — which would hinder a team trying to start in Oakland — but the group’s territory rights do not include San Jose, sources say.

Angel City FC, based in Los Angeles, is set to join the NWSL for the 2022 season. The league previously announced a Dec. 16 expansion draft “featuring Angel City FC and Sacramento.”

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