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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — As Angie and Chris Long followed the U.S. women across France during the 2019 World Cup, they were struck by two things.
The first was that despite Kansas City no longer having an NWSL team, the city’s watch parties were always among those shown on big screens outside the stadiums, and they were packed. The second was that World Cup sponsors were a wide and diverse mix of multinational companies, many without a natural connection to women’s sports.
Taken together, the inspiration was obvious. Within 18 months, the Longs and Brittany Mahomes announced they were bringing the NWSL back to Kansas City with an expansion team, now called the Current and playing in its second season.
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“We came away with this idea that if you invest and change the mindset a little bit, from a business standpoint you could be profitable in a relatively short period of time,” Chris Long told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month.
“I know that’s not a widely shared view just yet, but I think it absolutely is going in that direction.”
There is a sea change occurring in women’s sports and nowhere is it more apparent than in the NWSL. On Tuesday, the Current will open a $17 million, state-of-the-art training facility. This fall, they’ll break ground on a privately funded stadium believed to be the first in the United States built specifically for a women’s team, and Long said interest from potential sponsors has been robust.
Meanwhile, expansion Angel City FC has a waiting list after selling out its 15,000 season tickets. It had already booked $35 million in sponsorship revenue before its first game, and its lineup of corporate partners is now up to 23.
New NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said last month there is strong interest in expansion franchises, with valuation estimates ranging from $35 million – the amount Michele Kang paid earlier this year to take control of the Washington Spirit – to over $100 million.
After long being seen – and often run – as little more than philanthropic endeavors, NWSL and WNBA teams are finally being recognized as good financial bets.
“It’s so exciting to me because I’ve seen, in my career, this shift from owners and people getting involved in women’s soccer,” said Sam Mewis, who led the North Carolina Courage to two NWSL titles before the Current traded for her in November.
“I was just talking to Angie the other day and she was saying, ‘This is a good investment.’ I’m really excited by that because it’s getting really serious people involved who want to put money in and want to grow it because they want a financial return,” said Mewis, U.S. Soccer’s player of the year in 2020.
“It’s not this do-gooder thing that it maybe could have been in the past. They’re doing a ton of good, but they’re also seeing it as a business venture.”
For the Current, the riverfront stadium is the lynchpin to the team’s financial success.
As the owners of men’s professional teams have long known, it is the stadium that is the most significant driver of team revenue. Naming rights alone can generate millions, with corporations able to plaster their name on everything from the stadium itself to the entrance gates to viewing areas inside.
At Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting KC’s permanent home and the Current’s temporary one, there’s the Hollywood Casino Gate. The Mazuma Gate. The UMB Premium Entry. The Budweiser Brew House. The Audi Sport Club. The … well, you get the picture.
There’s also the take from concessions. Parking. Merchandise. And, of course, sales of tickets and suites.
But if you are playing in someone else’s home, as so many women’s teams do, that money goes to someone else.
“Obviously (building a stadium) is a massive upfront investment. However, you then control so many more revenue drivers that most women’s clubs globally don’t control,” Chris Long said. “That wasn’t lost on us that, if done right, would be a key aspect to the club’s profitability. And we’re well on our way there.”
The Current’s training facility and stadium are both privately funded, though the team sought $6 million in state tax credits for the stadium after its projected cost ballooned from $70 million to $117 million.
Chris Long wouldn’t say how many sponsors the Current is targeting for the new stadium, or what the revenue projections are for when it opens in 2024. But he said the interest from potential sponsors has “exceeded my expectations, and they were already high,” and that they are national in scope.
The conversations with prospective sponsors also are different than they might have been even a few years ago, said Allison Howard, the Current’s new team president.
Howard came to the Current from the Los Angeles Lakers, where she worked in corporate partnerships for the last 10-plus years, including the last five as the department’s vice president. Just as team owners are seeing the financial potential in women’s sports, Howard said the corporate world is, too.
“They’ve already identified that internally. They already have separate budgets to spend to advocate for women’s sports,” Howard said. “Some of them, they’re coming to us (and saying), `How can we really maximize this?’ That’s the dream.”
Though the Current’s practice facility is new and its stadium won’t open for almost two years, the team’s facilities are already having an impact beyond Kansas City. Mewis is spreading the word among players, and Howard said the team is already hearing from agents who represent “significant players over in Europe.”
Groups and cities considering expansion bids have also been in contact with the Longs.
“They know as part of that effort, facilities is one of the ingredients as to whether or not they end up being selected,” Chris Long said.
Homes of their own, or at least facilities befitting a professional franchise, are a logical next step in the evolution of the NWSL. Pair them with a new media rights package coming in 2024, and these NWSL owners who recognize the vast sums of money that have been left on the table all these years are going to help everybody cash in.
“For so long, the mindset was break even or grow a little bit or try not to lose too much,” Chris Long said. “Now it’s, ‘Wait, we could have multiples of growth if this is done right.’ ”