Former players are shaping the NWSL in bigger ways than ever before, from the ownership ranks to broadcasting and media roles to front office positions. In the league’s 10th year, players have found their voices, their influence, their power, their seats at the table and they are shaping the future of the league.
In the Bay Area, four former players—Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner—are hoping to continue this trend by leading the way as founding members of a potential expansion group. Between the four of them, they have experience from all three professional leagues in the United States, and careers that spanned 10 pro teams domestic and abroad, not to mention the US women’s national team. All four are also Santa Clara Broncos (with a delightful reputation for going hard at NCAA games in the stands).
“We’ve learned so much,” Osborne told The Athletic. “We’ve seen what hasn’t worked, what we want to work, what we don’t want to work. We’ve seen it all. Now we have the opportunity to be directly involved.”
All four players hope not just to have ownership stakes, but directly work for the club too.
“This is a very special opportunity to directly shape and influence teams, players, leagues, the sport and we feel we have that experience to directly do so,” Osborne added.
“We are very quickly realizing that athletes’ voices aren’t just nice to have, it’s essential for success,” Slaton said. As someone who currently serves on the US Soccer board as an athlete representative, the role of governance is perhaps more top of mind for her than most, as she pointed to the Ted Stevens Act and the increase of athlete representation stemming from the failures to protect gymnasts. “Everyone knows this is a critical piece, not only for the health of an organization, but for it to thrive.”
For now, these four players are the ones out in front for the potential Bay Area expansion group, which is composed of investors from sport, tech, media and the business world — and while they’re not sharing the complete list of who’s involved yet , the group says they include 70% women.
On Thursday, the Bay Area found out it would host 2026 men’s World Cup matches, which will surely have an impact on the soccer infrastructure of the area. But there’s also plenty of pro women’s soccer history to point to, as well. First, the Bay Area CyberRays (before changing their name to the San Jose CyberRays) of WUSA, then FC Gold Pride of WPS: winners of the 2010 WPS Championship, who folded two months later.
On the NWSL front, it hasn’t been the most straightforward path to an expansion bid. Back in 2019, the path looked to be expansion in Sacramento, potentially with WPSL team California Storm playing a role in the formation of a NWSL team. Both Chastain and Osborne were on the Storm’s board of directors, and campaigned for Sacramento — and the Storm — to join the NWSL. The ownership group in Sacramento got approved in 2020 (and was officially announced in January 2021). By May 2021, the NWSL board of governors approved the plan by owners Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez to move their territory rights to Southern California. The expansion team that would become San Diego Wave FC was finally, officially, a go.
Northern California, once again, was left without a Division I pro women’s soccer team. The dream for these former players had to be reshaped. And it was another California team that helped solidify that vision: Angel City FC.
“The moment that Angel City announced what they were doing, it was immediate,” Osborne remembered. “’Wait a second, why aren’t we doing this? If they can do it, why aren’t we?’”
The LA team has already been influential for a number of reasons in their short history, not just for their substantial list of influential owners, but for their sponsorship model (and the financial numbers around those sponsorships), their approach to branding and more.
“It was a proof of concept, right?” Slaton said. “I really think we can be one of the next steps that proves to people that this isn’t just a unicorn, that this is a real, true sustainable change that we will see in the long term. All credit to Angel City and what they’ve accomplished, but that needs to be a standard around the league. I really think it can be.”
There are plenty of reasons why Osborne and Slaton have been hard at work, alongside Chastain and Wagner, putting this bid together — not just because of their ties to the Bay Area or the long list of reasons why they believe the local support is there for a NWSL team at every level of the sport.
“It hits home for all of us,” Osborne said. “I have three young girls. Every day, I’m constantly inspired and motivated to continue to provide this opportunity for them, if they want it, to be able to play professional soccer.”
Slaton said that all four of them had been transformed as people by the game. It’s clear that, for her, this extends far beyond a NWSL team — it’s just the mechanism for much larger ambition. “It’s going to sound a little fluffy,” she prefaced, “but I really believe that if we change the game, we’ll change the world. I really do.”
Slaton said that the influence of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, in particular, has touched every part of the globe; the same goes for soccer. “I know it feels big, but quite frankly, if we just change our neighborhood, if we just change the league, to me, we’re not thinking big enough. We’re thinking as big as we can, right?”
The players are not shying away from these ambitions and how more than just their on-the-field experience would be useful at the highest level of a NWSL club, even as they are learning all the ins and outs of what makes a successful one — from facilities to sponsorships.
“We all have different backgrounds and resumes, but all four of us did a lot as players, we all did a lot post-retirement in the business world and the media world,” Osborne said. “We sit on boards as advisors. We’ve put ourselves out there to learn and grow. It’s cool to partner up with executives in sports and media and in the tech world, but also know that we bring a lot to the table, too.”
Of the four, Slaton has taken the lead on the facilities and real estate piece — something she wasn’t deeply familiar with before. She joked that finding land in the Bay Area was challenging, but it’s also helped her have a realization.
“I think I had this impression that there’s these really, really smart people out there who are a lot smarter than me who somehow do these things,” Slaton said.” The more people I talked to, the more I realized that we’re pretty damn smart. We can sit at these tables. I can have these conversations.”
She feels comfortable calling the president of a commercial real estate office now. Before, she thought she wouldn’t know the right things to say.
“The thing I’m realizing the most is the way I thought the world worked, I get to be a part of that,” she continued. “And, excuse my language, get shit done.”
The choice to start talking about their hopes for landing an expansion team is perhaps a brave one. Historically, groups have played their cards close to the chest, releasing only brief statements or talking in hypotheticals about their interest. With commissioner Jessica Berman recently taking over at the league front office, and being fairly candid about restarting the expansion process from the ground up, there’s maybe an opening for things to be different this time. There’s value for potential groups not just to make their case to the board via the official bid process, but to the league as a whole and its fans in the public sphere.
Maybe it is a little bit of a risk, but public perception and support will absolutely play a role in these decisions for 2024 and beyond. Why wait to build on this one front when so much work has already been done to make the case for the Bay Area? No one outright said it on the call, but the two years the group has already put into the bid does give them a leg up on their competition, not to mention their familiarity with the landscape of the sport. There are plenty of reasons for them to be confident as they wait to see what the league wants from potential bids.
“Right now, where we are, we’re learning the process as it goes forward,” Slaton said. “So in the meantime, the focus is on what we can control, and that is generating local support. That’s really where our time and energy is right now, because we think that’s where it can make the biggest difference.”
It’s a soccer answer in the best possible way: control what you can control. “It’s been beaten into my brain for the past 20 years,” Slaton joked once she got called out for it. Her playing career did more for her than just give her the right to trot out a press conference standard line.
“The other thing I think about, more than any other sport, it’s a player’s game. You don’t have timeouts, you just roll the ball out for 45 minutes and solve the problem,” Slaton said. “That’s what we’ve done our whole lives, that’s what we’ve trained to do. There’s no reason we can’t do it in boardrooms and executive rooms, and in the leadership of this league.”
(Photo: Terrell Lloyd)