NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman reveals expansion details: League eyes two new teams for 2026 season

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman but on Friday, ahead of the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup final, the league’s boss held a press conference to talk about all things women’s soccer in America. Saturday the North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC will square off for the Cup title, and the media address leading into the match was Berman’s first since the start of the regular season.

As the league continues to celebrate its 11th year, the NWSL is balancing future expansion and the sale of existing clubs with breaking attendance records all while navigating media rights negotiations. Here are some key takeaways from the commissioner’s address.

Another round of NWSL expansion on its way

The Commissioner confirmed the league will begin another expansion round at the end of its 2023 fourth quarter.

“We will be starting our next expansion process. It will be a similar process to what we launched when I first began about a year and a half ago, and we will apply similar filters in terms of what our priorities are and thinking about how we select the right expansion market. We look at the market, we’ll look at the ownership groups, we’ll look at facilities and we’ll look at the value in terms of what the prospective group is willing to invest to ensure that the team is successful.”

The league has already announced Bay FC and Utah Royals FC as expansion franchises for the upcoming 2024 season. The Bay Area expansion side finalized their bid with a record-setting expansion fee of $53 million dollars and a total of $125 million in future investment toward the club and a training facility.

Utah Royals FC had a prior arrangement with NWSL to buy back into the league after former owner Dell Loy Hansen sold his previous Utah MLS and MLS academy sides. Reports of a toxic work environment, where racist and sexist language were common led the league to intervene and set a placeholder for the franchise if they wished to return in the next expansion window under new ownership. The previous Royals roster was ultimately relocated to Kansas City, where the Current became an expansion franchise in 2021.

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Utah Royals return to the league came at roughly $2 million, an indicator of where NWSL valuations were prior to the pandemic. The two teams slated for NWSL entry in 2024 will boost the league club total to 14, with an eye on future franchises. Previous reports stated more teams could come into the league by 2025, with Boston being a leading market. Comissioner Berman didn’t specify if the Boston group is still in play, but clarified that 2026 is a new target for two more expansion clubs.

“Next season we’ll be having the Bay Area and Utah join. We expect our next round of expansion to be joining for the 2026 season. And we expect that to be two teams. I don’t really have any more news to share about that,” said Berman.

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The right ownership for existing franchises

Berman acknowledged the recent sale of the Chicago Red Stars to Laura Ricketts and her ownership group. The Red Stars went up for sale in December 2022, after previous owner Arnim Whisler was implicated in multiple reports that detailed a toxic and abusive work environment at the club. Chicago was the first of the three current existing NWSL franchises to finalize negotiations, with the deal closing at $60 million, with $35.5 million toward former ownership and $25.5 million earmarked for future club operations.

Portland Thorns FC has also been up for sale since December after owner Merritt Paulson was also named in investigations into misconduct and coercion by former Thorns coach Paul Riley. OL Reign has been on the market since April 2023 after Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang pursued the Reign’s partner club, Olympique Lyon Femenin. The acquisition is on hold pending approval from the NWSL and French OL Groupe is still in the process of selling their NWSL partner franchise.

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With multiple teams up for sale, the commissioner revealed that this week was a “preliminary deadline” for the ongoing sales.

“Those processes are underway this week… Both of those teams in their respective and independent sales processes. Both have achieved multiple bidders being interested and we still expect for both of those transactions to close by the end of the calendar year. We continue to work very closely with the incumbent owners both in Portland and in Seattle to ensure that the new ownership group meets the standards and criteria for the league.”

The commissioner acknowledged the two remaining club sales as different processes and that the league will continue to provide support in order to finalize deals by the end of the calendar year.

“I’ll start with sort of the ordinary circumstance when a team is being sold. That’s probably most similar to what’s happening with the Reign,” said Berman.

“Until a team is sold, the incumbent ownership group, of course, retains all rights and obligations on behalf of their franchise. So, from a governance perspective, from a management perspective, the expectation is that they will continue to operate in the ordinary course of business,” Berman explained on OL Reign’s current situation.

“So, it’s really business as usual from the Reign’s perspective, in that the individuals who have been managing and governing the team are the same individuals that existed previously. So, there really has not been a change in circumstance in terms of how the club is being operated.”

Olympique Lyon is under an ownership group led by John Textor and is likely leading the sale till it is approved. The Thorns are in a different position where their existing owner does not have a voting role on the current board.

“From a Portland perspective, obviously that situation is unique because we carry forward the aftermath of Merritt [Paulson] having stepped off the Board of Governors. In terms of the business of the club, the one change is that Merritt is not on our board.”

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The commissioner clarified that Portland still has representation on the current NWSL BOG. The Athletic previously reported that current club CEO Heather Davis, appointed by Paulson to the role, has been a voting member as early as January 2023.

NWSL sets an attendance record

The league set a new record for in game attendance across the league in 2023. Last season the league celebrated the 1,000,000 turnstile mark, but have broken the record with 1,060,978 with four games remaining on the schedule. The new record includes a record 11 regular season games with more that 20,000 fans in attendance, up from the four games in 2022.

“We have crossed the threshold earlier than last year to have more than 1 million fans come through our turnstiles in our stadiums in the 2023 season And I think the most notable piece … that I am super proud of on behalf of the League and all of our clubs is that the story is different.

The story is yes, the clubs who have been leading the clubhouse and rising the tide in attendance in Angel City in San Diego are continuing to crush their attendance metrics and selling tickets and bringing in new people into their games and rising the tide. But you also see that there are so many other clubs who are setting records week over week, month over month. And so we can conclude from this that the success that we’re seeing in the attendance across the league is not isolated.”

What’s next

The 2023 Challenge Cup final will kickoff on Saturday as the first of three possible NWSL titles up for grabs this season. The playoff push is on in the regular season, with multiple teams in contention for the 2023 NWSL Shield, awarded to the team with the winningest record. The 2023 NWSL Championship will be played on Nov. 11 at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California.

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