The NWSL is adding four teams in the next three seasons. Yet while the expansion may seem rapid, it’s actually a measured pace, according to commissioner Jessica Berman.

Speaking on the latest episode of Just Women’s Sports‘ “Snacks” podcast, Berman talked about the plans for expansion, which include new teams in Utah and the San Francisco Bay Area in 2024 and in Boston and one additional city in 2026. That comes on top of the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, which joined the NWSL in 2022.

The 12-team league is sensitive to concerns about expanding too quickly, and that is the reason why just four teams are slated for the next few seasons, Berman said.

“I think one of the reasons we’re only expanding by two teams in 2024, and two teams in 2026, is because of that concern,” she said. “Like, if we didn’t have that concern, we would just do it now.”

Berman also revealed that the league recently had a meeting about expansion with “preliminary interests.” So even though the league isn’t currently in an expansion process beyond 2026, they’re still “very actively circling the hoop.”

“We could expand easily for 2024, not to 14 teams, but easily to 20,” she said. “Teams if we felt like the business could absorb it, if we thought it was strategic, if we felt like there was the right player pool to support it most importantly, because we have to make sure the quality of the game stays at the top. But we’re not doing that. There’s a reason we’re not doing that. And it’s because of the concerns of growing too quickly.”

One trend alongside the league’s expansion has been an increase in valuation of existing teams, and therefore in the buy-in price for expansion teams. A new broadcast deal could bring those valuations even higher, while Angel City FC is reportedly the highest-valued women’s club in sports.

“Everyone who’s investing, even teams that are not experiencing the incredible growth that Angel City is, is demonstrating … that $53 million is what they should pay for an NWSL team,” Berman said. “The rest of our owners, especially the ones who have been in it, have been at it for a while — they didn’t come to lose. They now see a world that is materially different in upside than what they thought was possible.”

And now, she says, the job is to ensure that both existing teams and those entering the league are competing not just on the field but off it. Currently the league is working on creating a department to help share best business practices around the league.

“There’s always, in every league, a top third and a middle third and a bottom third. That just exists in every league,” she said. “It’s our job to keep the top third raising the bar and bring up the bottom third, in all of the key areas from a business and player experience perspective. They want to compete, they just need a path to get there.

“We are uniquely positioned to facilitate that sharing. Our teams don’t compete in business — they compete on the pitch, but they don’t compete in business. So, we should be embracing the opportunity to make sure all of our clubs, like it is the true rising tide, lifts all boats. That is what we are doing.”

The NWSL’s new Bay Area expansion team is already setting records.

When Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC joined the league as the most recent expansion teams, their ownership groups paid fees of between $2 million and $5 million. Just one year after those teams played their first games, the investors in the Bay Area team have committed to a record expansion fee of $53 million. 

The investor group, led by Sixth Street, former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and former Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts – as well as USWNT legends Brandi Chastain, Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton and Leslie Osborne – plan to invest $125 million from the start, including the expansion fee and a $40 million practice facility.

The club is set to begin play in 2024, with further details set to be announced at a later date.

Nine months of research led to the investment, Sixth Street co-founder and CEO Alan Waxman said, which showed that “everything that indicates something is structurally undervalued was flashing green, on every vector.”

“There’s a bigger structural trend here, where the economics have not yet caught up with reality,” Waxman told Sportico. “The data is just popping off the page.”

The $53 million expansion fee marks a significant increase from Angel City and San Diego, and even from the reincarnation of the Utah Royals. The return of the Royals, also set for the 2024 season, came with a fixed fee of between $2 million and $5 million, set several years ago by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird.

Since then, the league’s value has ballooned. Last August, Angel City was valued at more than $100 million, and the Washington Spirit ($35 million) and Gotham FC ($40 million) also saw their valuations increase.

In December, it was reported that an investor group planned to submit an offer for the majority stake in the Portland Thorns at a $60 million valuation. No deal has been finalized yet.

The NWSL had a number of bids to sort through in their most recent round of expansion decisions, with the Bay Area group being one of the most high-profile. As the league grows, investment is expected to grow as well. 

“The number of bids and the increase in the league’s expansion fees are indicative of both the demand that exists for women’s soccer in the professional sports landscape and the validated growth trajectory of our league,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement.

And, of course, Sixth Street expects the investment in women’s sports to grow to the point that the firm and its investors will make money. 

“In five years,” Waxman said, “people are going to be saying, ‘Why wasn’t this so obvious when it was happening?'”

The NWSL is headed to the Bay Area.

On Tuesday, the league announced a second expansion franchise for the 2024 season, awarding rights for what will become the 14th team in the league to a San Francisco-area group.

“Northern California has been a key generator of women’s soccer talent throughout the history of the sport, and the Bay Area is a top-ten media market known for its diverse culture and vibrant ecosystem of creativity and innovation,” the league said in a release.

The Bay Area club and the returning Utah Royals are both set to begin play in 2024.

“The Bay Area is where this all began,” said U.S. women’s national team legend Brandi Chastain, one of the club’s lead investors. “We are as excited about what this club will achieve on the field of play as we are for what it will represent for generations of women athletes and professionals yet to come.”

Majority investor Sixth Street leads a stacked lineup. Sixth Street has investments in Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and the San Antonio Spurs, and is also partnered with the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys.

“Sixth Street is making the largest institutional investment in women’s professional soccer to date as the NWSL experiences record-breaking viewership, attendance, and sponsorship growth,” the league’s statement read.

The group has partnered with former USWNT stars Chastain, Danielle Slaton, Leslie Osborne and Aly Wagner. All were part of launching the original effort to bring a NWSL expansion team to the Bay Area.

They will be dubbed the club’s “Founding Football Four” for their efforts and will work alongside Sixth Street and a majority-women board.

“This is something we’ve been working on for almost three years,” said Slaton, “and to reach this point and officially be accepted into the NWSL is both a dream come true and a motivator, because now it’s time to start building.”

The new club has yet to reveal its name and logo.