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NWSL ownership in its best place yet

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman speaks into a microphone at a podium on draft day.
Photo Copyright Robert Deutsch for USA TODAY Sports

The first major National Women’s Soccer League news of this calendar year came out of Portland when the sale of the Thorns to the Bhathal Family was announced. The announcement ended the star-crossed tenure of Merritt Paulson. Once the most powerful owner in the league, Paulson exited a villain after investigations revealed he failed to disclose the reasons the Thorns fired Paul Riley in 2015.

But the legacy Paulson left behind as a founding NWSL owner is dotted with positives. In the league’s nascent days when teams would occasionally draw three-figure crowds (yes three!), the Thorns flew out of the gate by averaging 13,320 in 2013. That average went up five of the next six years before the pandemic, topping out at 20,098 in 2019. The Thorns were the face of the NWSL’s early years.

Another original owner, Arnim Whisler, bid the league adieu late last year, selling the Chicago Red Stars to the Ricketts family. Whisler’s legacy will be different from Paulson’s. He carried the Red Stars, one of four NWSL originals with prior history, through the early years when the team played at the remote outpost known as Benedictine University Sports Complex. Whisler dabbled in nearly every role for the Red Stars, even deputizing as color commentator on one of the team-produced webcasts.

Behind the scenes though, Whisler was helping foster a culture of abuse, perpetrated by longtime coach Rory Dames. Investigations into the Red Stars revealed that not only was Whisler aware of Dames’ behavior but rejected the coach’s offer to resign in 2014.

The Bhathal and Ricketts families are part of a new wave of NWSL owners that promises to take the league into its next iteration.

“We really believe that we reset the league in 2022; 2023 we established the foundation, and this is the point at which we really feel the league is going to take off,” commissioner Jessica Berman during Thursday’s NWSL Challenge Cup media day.

Berman took the helm in 2022 following a scandal-ridden fall that led to Paulson and Whisler selling and cost her predecessor, Lisa Baird her job.

The ownership pendulum began to swing before Berman’s arrival. It was July 21, 2020, when Angel City FC was announced as an expansion club. Angel City was unique to women’s sports with the club’s array of celebrity owners and early success on the social media front. Later joined by San Diego in the expansion class of ’22, the California teams took the NWSL to new heights. Angel City sold out what was then Banc of California Stadium in a star-studded home opener and promptly lapped the Thorns in attendance. Last season the Wave made 32,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium their permanent home and moved the attendance bar to 20,718.

“There’s an influx of new owners who are seeing their opportunities for a return on investment in a meaningfully different way,” Berman said. “I think since I’ve joined this league more than half of our ownership groups have turned over.”

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Paulson—who still owns Major League Soccer’s Timbers—and Whisler will both have to live with the ghosts of their transgressions. But there is little doubt that without their contributions, NWSL would not be where it is today if it even existed at all. Others have had a hand in the rise as well.

Bill Lynch was sometimes unpopular for his refusal to host Pride Night at the Maryland SoccerPlex and later sold the Washington Spirit to Steve Baldwin. Baldwin’s tenure was lowlighted by the hiring of his buddy Richie Burke as head coach, an arrangement that ended when Burke came under fire for several inappropriate comments directed at players. In 2022, Baldwin was officially bought out by Y Michele Kang.

Bill Predmore started Seattle Reign FC from scratch and eventually sold to the OL Groupe. Predmore remained on as president for a time at the dawn of OL Reign. Another group will soon be on board as OL Groupe is selling the club.

On Thursday, Berman said she had been hoping to have a different answer to a resolution for Reign ownership, especially as she had appeared confident last fall that a sale would be complete by the end of 2023.

“I guess what I would emphasize,” she said, “is that to the extent our track record supports giving us the time to get it right. I think we’ve done pretty well in all of our ownership transactions. When you look back at the sales that have occurred…we’re very proud of the investment we brought into this league.”

Also on Thursday, after Berman spoke, Sportico reported that Ron Burkle will sell the Wave to the Levine Leichtman family for a reported $120 million. That would nearly double the previous NWSL record for sale of a club. For context, Predmore sold the Reign to OL Groupe less than five years ago for $3.5 million.

On the general state of ownership, Berman said: “There’s nothing more important than who sits around the table to make these decisions for the future.”

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