The NWSL will add two teams in 2024, ESPN reported Thursday. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman confirmed that the league is courting investor groups and aims to select the expansion franchises by the end of this year.
Berman has heard from “over 30 investor groups” interested in the NWSL, she said, though just a handful are ready to hit the ground running, sources told ESPN. While 2023 is “100% off the table,” Berman said, the league plans to add teams the following year.
Utah is expected to host one of those teams, according to ESPN. David Blitzer and Ryan Smith bought MLS’s Real Salt Lake earlier this year, and they have been vocal about wanting to bring a NWSL team back to the area. Blitzer said in January that the return of the Royals was a matter of “when, not if,” and sources told ESPN they expect a team in Utah in 2024.
Road blocks to the Royals’ return remain, though. A fixed fee for the reactivation of the franchise, believed to be approximately $2 million, was set 18 months ago by a previous NWSL commissioner, and the fee has since been increased to keep pace with rising NWSL valuations.
“We’re working with them to figure out what that means,” Berman told ESPN. “The process is underway. There are steps that need to be taken still in order to be in a position to be able to say, yes, in fact, that is happening.”
As for other possible expansion destinations, soccer journalist Grant Wahl reported in May that MLS teams in Atlanta, Austin, Cincinnati and Toronto all are interested. St. Louis and Nashville have also expressed interest, according to ESPN.
Prospective teams must meet three criteria at minimum, Berman said: a wealthy ownership group that is committed to the team, a strong market for fans, and a viable venue for professional soccer.
“I want to approach this group in a very transparent and democratic process, because we really want the best investors and partners for our board,” Berman said. “It’s not necessarily the case that just because someone has contacted us more, that we favor them. We’re going to make the best decision for the league.”
The fee for an expansion team could sit around $10 million, league sources told ESPN. But according to Berman, the market will determine the price when the time comes.
The possibility of relocation was also addressed. USL W League team Minnesota Aurora FC, which recently made its debut, has showcased the market for professional soccer in the state and the Pride were sold last year to the Wilf family, who also owns the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
But according to Berman, the relocation of a franchise like the Pride is not on the table, at least right now. Jarrod Dillon, Orlando’s President of Business Operations, also dispelled the rumors in a tweet Friday, saying “there are ZERO discussions selling or relocating” the Pride.
“Relocation is always the last resort, absolutely last resort,” Berman said. “I don’t think there’s a single market that we’re in today that can’t be successful. I believe that we have some work to do to help our teams be better, but relocation would be an absolute last resort.
“We have so much going on right now. As I describe it, the plane is in the air while we are also trying to think about the future of the league.”