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Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Expansion Teams at Forefront of NWSL’s ‘Turning Point’

  • San Diego Wave FC set an NWSL record with 20,709 spectators per game this season.
  • “They came into the league shortly after we started Angel City and it really felt like a turning point for the NWSL,” says Angel City FC leading investor Alexis Ohanian.
San Diego Wave FC forward Alex Morgan (13) celebrates with teammates after the win against the Racing Louisville FC at Snapdragon Stadium.
Abe Arredondo-USA TODAY Sports

It took just two seasons for San Diego Wave FC to make an immense impact on the National Women’s Soccer League. 

On Sunday, the Wave secured a playoff first-round bye, its second postseason berth in as many seasons, and the NWSL Shield for the league’s best regular season with a 2-0 home win against Racing Louisville. The NWSL Playoffs begin Friday, with the semifinals and San Diego’s first game on Nov. 5.

But that wasn’t all: With 30,312 fans in the stands, San Diego set an NWSL record with 20,709 spectators per game — comfortably breaking the previous record set by the Portland Thorns in 2019 (20,098). It builds on a league-wide attendance record set in early September, with over 1 million fans attending games this season. 

The Wave’s move to the brand new Snapdragon Stadium on San Diego State’s campus ahead of this season was just one of the calculated business decisions that has propelled the expansion club to so much instant success.

“A year ago, when we launched, people said, ‘What do you want the Wave to be?’ And I said, ‘Loved by the city, but a really good night out for friends and family,’” Wave president Jill Ellis told Front Office Sports. “I’ve grown up in environments where it’s as much about what’s on the field as it is about the people in the stands with you, and I think people are getting that experience when they come to our games.”

Ellis says that the club spends extensively on marketing to get people to come out to games — and that included signing American soccer legend Alex Morgan ahead of its inaugural season. 

Morgan led the NWSL in goals in 2022 and finished top five this season, but her intangible qualities also made her a huge draw.

“It was bringing a player that’s known, that’s from this area, that we can build on and we can build narratives around and start storytelling on,” says Ellis. “But that doesn’t happen without a financial commitment from ownership to really believe in the growth and the build of the club.”

San Diego’s owner Ron Burkle is part of a new wave of owners who truly believe that the women’s game will be a multibillion-dollar enterprise in the United States and are investing like it — rather than doing so for the novelty of owning a sports team on the cheap.

Another like-minded ownership group controls fellow expansion team Angel City FC, which also began play in 2022 and is in the playoffs for the first time this season.

“In March 2019, far more people were telling me I was going to lose all my money either buying or starting an NWSL club,” Angel City leading investor Alexis Ohanian tells FOS. “I just love the fact that only four years later, the atmosphere, the attitude, the mindset has shifted.”

Ohanian praises the owners that have joined the league since Angel City formed, which includes businesswoman Michele Kang, who paid a reported $35 million for a majority stake of the Washington Spirit in 2022, and Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, who just finalized a $35.5 million purchase of the Chicago Red Stars. 

But it’s the budding rivalry in Southern California that could prove to be one of the NWSL’s most marketable aspects in the coming years.

“When we petitioned the league to come to San Diego, I remember calling Julie Uhrman at Angel City and I said, ‘We will be the best thing to happen to you because there is nothing in sports like rivalries,’” says Ellis.

“They came into the league shortly after we started Angel City and it really felt like a turning point for the NWSL,” Ohanian says. “San Diego has been, in tech we say, a fast follower.”

It’s those types of organic storylines — supported by great play on the field and good marketing off of it — that will help push the league forward financially as it continues to gain popularity in person and on television.

“There’s a belief that if you want people to invest, you have to believe in your own value,” Ellis says. “I think you’re seeing the newer ownership groups wanting that and demanding more.”

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