Former players are shaping the NWSL in a bigger way than ever before, from ownership ranks to broadcast and media roles to office positions. In the tenth year of the league, players have found their voices, their influence, their power, their seats at the table, and are shaping the future of the league.
In the Bay Area, four former players — Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner — hope to continue this trend by leading the way as founding members of a potential expansion group. Between the four of them, they have experience in all three pro leagues in the United States and careers that spanned 10 domestic and foreign pro teams, not to mention the US women’s national team. All four are also Santa Clara Broncos (with a delicious reputation for going hard at NCAA games in the stands).
“We’ve learned a lot,” Osborne said. the athletic. “We’ve seen what hasn’t worked, what we want to work, what we don’t want to work. We have seen it all. Now we have the opportunity to participate directly.”
All four players hope to not only have ownership stakes, but also work directly for the club.
“This is a very special opportunity to directly shape and influence teams, players, leagues, the sport and we feel like we have that experience to do it directly,” Osborne added.
“We are quickly realizing that athlete voices are not only nice to have, they are essential to success,” Slaton said. As someone who currently serves on the US Soccer board of directors as an athlete representative, the role of governance is perhaps more important to her than most, as she pointed to the Ted Stevens Act and the increased representation of athletes. athletes due to failures to protect gymnasts “Everyone knows that this is a fundamental piece, not only for the health of an organization, but also for it to prosper.”
For now, these four players are at the forefront of the Bay Area’s potential expansion group, which is made up of investors from the worlds of sports, technology, media and business, and while they don’t yet share the full list of who is involved, the group says are 70% female.
On Thursday, the Bay Area learned that it would host the 2026 men’s World Cup games, which is sure to have an impact on the area’s soccer infrastructure. But there is also a lot of history of professional women’s football to highlight. 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 easiest path to an expansion offering. In 2019, the way seemed to be expansion in Sacramento, potentially with the WPSL California Storm team playing a role in the formation of an NWSL team. Both Chastain and Osborne were on the Storm board of directors and campaigned for Sacramento, and Storm, to join the NWSL. The owner group in Sacramento was approved in 2020 (and was officially announced in January 2021). By May 2021, the NWSL board of governors approved owners Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez’s plan to move their land rights to Southern California. The expansion team that would become San Diego Wave FC was finally, officially, an opportunity.
Northern California was once again without a Division I professional women’s soccer team. The dream of these former players had to be reshaped. And it was another California team that helped solidify that vision: Angel City FC.
“The minute Angel City announced what they were doing, it was immediate,” Osborne recalled. “’Wait a second, why aren’t we doing this? If they can do it, why can’t we?’”
The LA team has already been influential for a number of reasons in its short history, not just because of its substantial list of influential owners, but because of its sponsorship model (and the financial numbers around those sponsorships), their approach to the brand, and more.
“It was a proof of concept, right?” Slaton said. “I truly believe that we can be one of the next steps that shows people that this is not just a unicorn, that this is real, true and sustainable change that we will see in the long term. All credit to Angel City and what they’ve accomplished, but that has to be standard in the league. I really think it can be.”
There are many reasons Osborne and Slaton have worked hard, along with Chastain and Wagner, to put together this offer, not just because of their ties to the Bay Area or the long list of reasons they believe local support is there for an NWSL team at every level of the sport.
“It affects all of us,” Osborne said. “I have three little girls. Every day, I am constantly inspired and motivated to continue to provide you with this opportunity, if you wish, to be able to play professional soccer.”
Slaton said that the game had transformed all four of them into people. It’s clear that, for her, this extends far beyond an NWSL team – it’s just the mechanism for a much bigger ambition. “It’s going to sound a little fluffy,” she prefaced, “but I really believe that if we change the game, we change the world. I really do.
Slaton said the influence of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, in particular, has touched every part of the world; the same goes for soccer. “I know it feels big, but 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?
Players aren’t shying away from these ambitions and how more than just their on-field experience would come in handy at the highest level of an NWSL club, even as they’re learning all the ins and outs of what makes one successful: from the facilities to the sponsorships.
“We all have different backgrounds and resumes, but the four of us did a lot as players, we all did a lot after retirement in the business world and the media world,” Osborne said. “We sit in meetings as advisers. We have put ourselves out there to learn and grow. It’s great to partner with executives in sports and media and in the tech world, but I also know we bring a lot to the table.”
Of the four, Slaton has taken the lead in the facilities and real estate piece, something she wasn’t too familiar with before. She joked that finding land in the Bay Area was a challenge, but it also helped her figure it out.
“I think I got the impression that there are very, very smart people who are much smarter than I am and who somehow do these things,” Slaton said. The more people talked, the more I realized that we’re pretty smart. We can sit at these tables. I can have these conversations.”
Now she feels comfortable calling the president of a commercial real estate office. Before, she thought that she wouldn’t know the right things to say.
“What I realize the most is the way I thought the world worked, I can be a part of that,” she continued. “And, excuse my language, finish the shit.”
The choice to start talking about his hopes of landing an expansion team is perhaps a brave one. Historically, groups have played their cards carefully, posting only brief statements or speaking hypothetically about their interest. With Commissioner Jessica Berman recently in charge of the league’s front office, and being quite candid about restart the expansion process from scratch, maybe there is a chance for things to be different this time. There is value for potential groups not only to make their case to the board through the official bidding process, but also for the league as a whole and its fans in the public sphere.
It may be a bit of a gamble, but public perception and support will play a critical role in these decisions for 2024 and beyond. Why wait to build on this front when so much work has already been done to defend the Bay Area? No one said it directly on the call, but the two years the group has already put on the deal gives them an edge over 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 offers.
“Right now, where we are, we’re learning the process as it goes along,” Slaton said. “So in the meantime, the focus is on what we can control, and that’s building local support. That’s where our time and energy really is right now, because we think that’s where it can make the biggest difference.”
It’s a football answer in the best possible way: control what you can control. “He’s been banged on my brain for the last 20 years,” Slaton joked once she was called up. Her playing career did more for her than just give her the right to spout a standard press conference line.
“The other thing I think about, more than any other sport, is a player’s game. You don’t have timeouts, you just get the ball rolling for 45 minutes and you solve the problem,” Slaton said. “That’s what we’ve done all our lives, that’s what we’ve trained for. There’s no reason we can’t do it in the boardrooms and executive rooms, and in the leadership of this league.”
(Photo: Terrell Lloyd)