NWSL on track to pick 16th team in by start of Q4 – Berman

National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN that the league is “comfortably on track” to choose the location and ownership group for its 16th team at “the beginning of Q4” later this year.

The difference in this round of the league’s expansion process, which seeks to identify a team to begin competing in 2026, is that the NWSL is “starting from a more curated place,” Berman said in a wide-ranging on-campus interview with ESPN this week.

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“We know enough to advance the process,” she said. “It’s self-selecting people who understand what the expectations are for investment. We wouldn’t want anyone to waste their time; we don’t want to waste anyone else’s time.

“For where we are, the discussions feel more sophisticated and advanced because I think we’re more of a proven entity.”

About a dozen prospective ownership groups have signed non-disclosure agreements, Berman said.

By comparison, the NWSL initially fielded inquiries from over 60 groups in 2022.

That process eventually yielded Bay FC, which played its inaugural game last month, and a team in Boston scheduled to begin play in 2026.

Each of those teams paid a $53 million expansion fee — more than 10 times what previous expansion teams paid to enter the league — and committed millions more to infrastructure.

Sports investment bank Inner Circle Sports is once again running the NWSL’s bidding process.

Berman confirmed that some groups from the previous bidding process have re-engaged with the league in pursuit of acquiring the rights to the NWSL’s 16th franchise.

There are also new groups at the table, Berman confirmed. A few groups have been public about their intent to bid, including one in Denver and one in Cleveland.

Finalists in the 2022 bidding process were the Bay FC group, the Boston group, and a bid from a group in Tampa, Florida, that included Tampa Bay Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg.

NWSL franchise valuations continue to soar, which is also expected to drive up the expansion fee. The Portland Thorns recently sold for a then-record $63 million. Last month, a two-part sale process of San Diego Wave FC began for nearly double that valuation.

“An open sale process that’s driven by an owner is an additional important litmus test from a franchise valuation perspective,” Berman said.

“So, to see Portland sell for [$63 million], plus the commitment to build training facility, to see San Diego sell for [between $113 million and $120 million], from that perspective, if you’re an investor, you get a lot of comfort in those data points because, again the more consistency we can show in the way we’re driving value with different buyers and different markets, all sort of with the thread of the consistency of the NWSL, I think the more we’re seeing investors lean into the opportunities.”

Berman said that “a compelling” media market that is “geographically appropriate” will be easily attainable since the NWSL is still so small.

Including the expected arrival of Boston in 2026, the NWSL will have franchises in seven of the top 10 media markets but only eight of the top 15 markets and 11 of the top 25 markets.

Now, in the wake of the opening of the first stadium purpose-built for an NWSL team in Kansas City, there is even greater emphasis on both prospective and incumbent teams securing facilities that allow them to control revenues and expenses.

“The bar is even higher than I thought it could be in 2024,” Berman said. “And I think our ownership groups want to really expedite their ability to figure out how to control their own destiny, which means you have to have priority in your building. It makes running a business really hard when virtually the whole league are tenants.”

Bay FC played its first home game on Saturday at PayPal Park in San Jose, California, in front of a sellout crowd of 18,000 fans.

The group in Boston is working with the city to renovate an old high school sports stadium in the city in a private-public partnership that would see the NWSL co-anchor the stadium alongside Boston Public Schools athletics.

The plans have come under increasing scrutiny from local residents and media.

A judge recently dismissed a motion meant to halt work on the project, which would have jeopardized the entire expansion project.

“I look forward to the day that they break ground and [to] seeing that come to life,” Berman told ESPN.

“Because Boston’s a market that has historically struggled with these types of investments and partnerships. And so, I think it’ll be great success story for us to point to.”