EletiofeBay FC, the newest NWSL team, is breaking records...

Bay FC, the newest NWSL team, is breaking records (and molds) before it’s even kicked a ball

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Jun 3, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Bay FC flags fly as the Golden Gate Bridge stands in the background before the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Bay FC flags fly as the Golden Gate Bridge stands in the background before the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

The record-smashing, mold-breaking plan took shape deep in the heart of disruption, first in Silicon Valley, then inside the San Francisco offices of a $75 billion investment firm.

It began with a vision shared by four former U.S. women’s national teamers. They didn’t just want to bring an NWSL club to the Bay Area. “We want to go big,” Aly Wagner said. “We want this to be an iconic global brand.”

So they sought out tech executives and venture capitalists. They laid out financial projections, and did a couple seed rounds. For years, they networked, then went in search of a lead investor with the wealth to bring their vision to life.

And what they found was very different from the millionaires, with an “M,” who bankrolled the early years of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Wagner found Charlotte Waxman, who led them to husband Alan Waxman, the CEO and co-founder of Sixth Street.

Wagner made her pitch, which, she knew, “might sound a little bit wild.” Five years earlier, with the NWSL struggling to survive, it might’ve been laughed out of the room. But Waxman was intrigued. His team dug into data and trends. And what they saw in an NWSL expansion franchise was “the most massively, structurally undervalued investment, not only in sports, but across everything we do at Sixth Street,” Waxman said.

So they committed $125 million, “the largest institutional investment ever made in a professional women’s sports franchise,” to an expansion fee, a training facility, and to what became Bay FC, the NWSL’s 14th club.

And they talked a big game, before they’d even played one.

Waxman and the so-called Founding Four — Wagner, Danielle Slaton, Leslie Osborne and Brandi Chastain — rarely talked about tactics or roster-building. They talked about “defying conventions” and “transcending culture,” about “changing the world” and “forever changing the landscape of sport.” Wagner, speaking at an industry summit last summer in London, talked about “proving that a women’s soccer brand, a women’s sport brand, can … stand shoulder to shoulder against the iconic brands that we know, and that happen to be men’s [teams].”

They talked, and some eyes rolled.

“To say we want to change the game globally, and we’ve not even kicked a football yet — people are like, ‘mkay,’” Bay FC general manager Lucy Rushton says, acknowledging the skepticism.

But then, this winter, they began walking the walk. Before they’d kicked a ball, they began shattering records. They paid a seven-figure sum for five international stars, including $787,600 to Madrid CFF for Racheal Kundananji, the largest transfer fee ever for a women’s soccer player.

They signed Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala, and Manchester City’s Deyna Castellanos. They signed Sutter Health to a corporate partnership deal that’s reportedly the largest in NWSL history. They’ve grown from two employees to around 70 in nine months, and that, executives say, is merely the foundation. “We’re at the very, very beginning of our journey as a club,” CEO Brady Stewart says. “We haven’t even played a formal match in the NWSL yet.”

They’ll do that, finally, on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, NWSL+) against Angel City, the Los Angeles team whose 2020 launch inspired their vision. They’ll compete against a club now valued at $180 million, in a league where splashy investments are increasingly the norm.

But they aren’t here to replicate norms or existing NWSL prototypes. They have “a three-year buildout plan, and it’s different,” Rushton says. “Because I think we’re trying to create new standards within the league.”

Jun 3, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Bay FC co-founder Brandi Chastain (left) gestures while standing on the stage with co-founder Danielle Slaton (right) during the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Bay FC co-founder Brandi Chastain (L) gestures while standing on the stage with co-founder Danielle Slaton during the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Bay FC bucks NWSL trends with unconventional approach

The vision first wowed Rushton via Zoom last spring, before Bay FC even existed. Waxman outlined it on an hour-long recruitment call, then invited Rushton to San Francisco for a more immersive pitch. She heard from Sixth Street executives at their San Fran offices. She met the Founding Four. She sat with Waxman at his house for over two hours. And everywhere she went, she sensed “really big ambition.“It was kind of crazy,” Rushton says. It was also precisely what she craved.

She was five months removed from a frustrating stint as the GM at D.C. United, in Major League Soccer. As she plotted her next move, she reflected on the importance of alignment with ownership, of working relationships, of culture. “I’ve been at clubs previously where there’s a lack of ambition,” Rushton says. In the months after her D.C. ouster, when approached by multiple clubs — in the U.S. and abroad, in men’s and women’s soccer, she confirms — she sensed it again. “There were a couple where it just didn’t feel quite right,” Rushton says.

Then there was Sixth Street. There was talk of revolutionary player care, of a facility purpose-built for women, of a robust staff. There was a salary offer that, according to The Athletic, was “multiple times” higher than what some MLS GMs are making. And there was a budget, plus an eagerness, to chase international stars and buck NWSL trends.

It reminded Rushton, in many ways, of her first MLS gig, as the head of technical recruitment and analysis at Atlanta United. With freedom to pursue foreign talent, she identified South American stars, and helped build a 2016 expansion team into a 2017 MLS Cup winner.

At Bay FC, she has essentially repurposed the Atlanta approach.

First, at positions “down the spine of the team,” in the center of defense and midfield, she looked domestically. “Establishing a core of U.S. and experienced NWSL players — who we knew understood the league, who we knew could lead a dressing room and set some standards for us relative to this league — was really important,” Rushton says.

Next, she looked abroad, for elite goal-creators and flair.

In her first couple months on the job, when hiring a director of scouting, she asked candidates: “Present any player in the world to me — any player, no restrictions — that you think would be a good signing for Bay.”

Austin Buchanan, the eventual hire, presented Kundananji, a 23-year-old Zambian forward tearing up the Spanish league, with “off-the-charts” performance data at a mid-table club.

Around six months later, Bay FC made Kundananji the most expensive women’s soccer player ever.

In a span of three weeks, they also signed Oshoala, a 29-year-old forward, the six-time African women’s footballer of the year; and Jen Beattie, an experienced Scottish center back from Arsenal. They paid a $225,000 transfer fee, and a salary roughly twice that, for Castellanos, a 24-year-old Venezuelan playmaker who’d previously been coveted by NWSL clubs, but “decided to go elsewhere because there’s more money,” her agent told Yahoo Sports last year.

At Bay FC, money was not a constraint. The constraint, instead, was and is NWSL rules.

Ever since the league’s 2012 inception, it has imposed relatively hard caps on salaries and the employment of foreign players. Under growing pressure from ambitious owners this offseason, it doubled the salary cap, and increased the per-club limit on international players from five to seven. Those tweaks, in tandem, have allowed for an uptick in splashy signings, such as the Orlando Pride’s recent deal with Barbra Banda, the second-most expensive transfer in women’s soccer history.

But most of the sport’s biggest stars still play in Europe, where uncapped salaries at iconic clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea are often more lucrative. Bay FC will probably, eventually, have to woo more of those stars to meet its global ambitions — and NWSL rules will have to permit them.

When asked if she would’ve tried to woo more in Year 1 if the salary cap allowed, Rushton said: “I certainly think we would’ve had the funding and the backing to do that, from the ownership group.”

Jun 3, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Fans use the 3D photo booth during the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Fans use the 3D photo booth during the Bay FC Day for the Bay event at Presidio Main Post Lawn. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Going big begins at home

The funding, and the backing, are rooted in a thesis that a growing number of investors now believe. “There are moments in time when inflection points begin to take shape. Patterns start to develop, and you can almost see the trend happening in real time, even before the full economic reality catches up with the underlying data,” Waxman wrote in a LinkedIn post last April. “We believe we are at one of those moments with women’s sports, and women’s soccer in particular.”

“Industries,” he explained on a conference call, “sort of get caught in a zone of operation, and a zone of thinking, that’s based on history.” The conventional wisdom, in this industry, was that men’s sports were inherently more popular, and women’s sports less worthy. But “structural changes,” he said, can disrupt conventional wisdom. The shift from traditional TV to streaming opened up consumer access to women’s sports. Social media broke down barriers. Sizable audiences have followed, and multiplied at a remarkable pace.

“You gotta look at growth rates,” Waxman said. Those are the data, the “undeniable data,” the “flashing green” indicators that he speaks about. Revenues and salaries — the “economic reality” — haven’t yet matched audience growth, but someday they will.

“This is trapped value waiting to be unlocked,” Waxman wrote.

“I actually think,” he said, “that over the next decade, U.S. women’s soccer and men’s soccer will be at parity, from an economic reality perspective.”

And as economic reality catches up, he wrote, “similar to global men’s soccer franchises, we will start to see professional women’s teams become national and global consumer brands.”

That is his goal for Bay FC. He mentions the nascent club alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, the San Antonio Spurs and the New York Yankees, other teams in which Sixth Street has invested. He envisions billion-dollar valuations. He, and everyone at the club, also knows that all of this will take time.

“We’re trying to build something that will be around in 50 years,” Stewart, the club’s very first hire, a former Levi Strauss executive, says.

And before they can go global, they have to start local.

“We break it out into distinct phases,” Stewart says. “Phase 1 is all about the Bay Area. … While we have big, global ambitions, and we’re trying to build a strategic framework that allows us to get there, our first push is about really establishing ourselves in the Bay.

“When you think about great sports franchises, so much of what they are is based on their relationship with their fans in their home market,” she continues. “If your fans in your home market aren’t passionate about who you are, and what you’re about, it’s hard to get anyone else to feel the same way.”

So they began with a launch event last June that blew past expectations, with around 5,000 fans on a bayside lawn. Over the months that followed, they built out a commercial staff before they even had a dedicated space for meetings. They initially worked from home and met at local coffee shops. They’ve now moved into makeshift soccer offices at San José State University, where the team is training; and business offices in San Francisco.

They have generated buzz in the Bay and in soccer circles. They’ll play games at PayPal Park, the home of MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes, and they expect to sell out their March 30 home opener. “We have a good fan base already,” Oshoala, the Nigerian forward, said a few days after being approached by fans for pictures at a Golden State Warriors game.

Now, it is time to kick a ball, and to win. Perhaps not right away — only one NWSL expansion team, San Diego in 2022, has ever reached the playoffs — but soon.

“We’ve had great investment. We’ve signed great players. And so there’s a natural pressure that comes with that. Expectation,” Rushton says. “We know this is a long-term project, but as a group, as a coaching staff, as a group of players, we wanna win.”

“I’m not here to just chill or to enjoy the weather,” Oshoala said last week. “I’m here to win trophies.”

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