Former Meta exec Sheryl Sandberg helps bring women’s pro soccer team to Bay Area
The San Francisco Bay Area is about to get a new women’s professional soccer team with backing from ex-Meta Platforms Inc. executive Sheryl Sandberg and with former US National Team stars including Brandi Chastain as founding partners.
The National Women’s Soccer League has awarded the rights for its newest expansion team to a group that includes the investment firm Sixth Street, Sandberg and her husband, Tom Bernthal, along with Chastain and three other former national team players. The $125 million investment led by Sixth Street is the largest to date in women’s soccer, the group said.
“Women’s sports is on the rise and we think has huge potential but it’s deeper than that,” Sandberg said. “There’s a really direct tie-in between leaders and sports.”
The LeanIn.org founder and Bernthal, the co-founder and CEO of the strategic consulting agency Kelton Global, will also partner with the club to build a program to help players develop leadership skills on and off the pitch.
“Eighty percent of women who make it to the C-suite played sports,” Sandberg said.
In addition to Chastain, Sixth Street has also partnered with former soccer stars Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner, capping a three-year effort to bring a new team to the Bay Area. Wagner and Sixth Street Chief Executive Officer Alan Waxman will serve as co-chairs of the board, which will also include Sandberg and former San Francisco Giants Executive Vice President Staci Slaughter.
‘Where this all Began’
“The Bay Area is where this all began,” said Chastain, the Santa Clara University star, two-time FIFA World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist who played for the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association’s San Jose CyberRays. “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.”al
Interest in women’s soccer, and support for the teams, has grown steadily since the league’s inception, especially against the backdrop of unequal pay at the national level. The US Women’s National Team has won the Women’s World Cup four times, including their current reign as back-to-back champions in 2015 and 2019. Their latest victory came while the team was suing the United States Soccer Federation for pay inequities compared with the mens’ national team. The organization said last year that it would pay players on both teams equally.
There are currently 12 NWSL teams across the US. The Utah Royals will rejoin the roster in 2024; the team had previously played from 2018 to 2020. Like other teams in the NWSL, the new Utah Royals will be a counterpart to the men’s team in the area.
The new Bay Area club will start playing in 2024, but at what stadium hasn’t been disclosed. The CyberRays had played on the same field as the Bay Area men’s Major League Soccer team, the Earthquakes, whose games are now at PayPal Park in San Jose.
The new club will be the second women’s soccer team to launch in the Bay Area in as many years. The Oakland Soul Sports Club, part of the pre-professional USL W league, is set for its first home opener in May. It’s affiliated with the men’s Oakland Roots team, which is currently looking to build a stadium.
The NWSL club will add to Sixth Street’s already expansive sports portfolio, which now includes investments in Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs. The firm has also partnered with the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys through its majority investment in Legends, a global sports and live venture experience business.
Longtime venture capitalist Kara Nortman recently co-founded the Los Angeles-based women’s soccer team Angel City FC with actress and activist Natalie Portman and tech entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, who now serves as the team’s president. Angel City FC has set new attendance records for the NWSL and recently played the opening game of its second season before a sold-out stadium.
“Sustainable business that can keep breaking through glass ceilings and all ceilings, it’s a unique opportunity in women’s sports to do that,” Nortman said in an interview that will also be included in a forthcoming episode of “The Circuit with Emily Chang.”
It isn’t just about breaking glass ceilings, it’s about making money too. Angel City FC has set a goal for profitability within a few years and a $1 billion valuation.
“The model of having a team where every woman’s goal is the whole team’s goal, that reflects into what we strive for as women working together,” Portman said. Several former US Women’s National Team players, including Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm, are investing in that effort.
Both Sandberg and Bernthal said their investment is personal as well as financial.
“I have been coaching our daughters since they were 3 years old – it sort of has a special place for us – but beyond that – the club’s mission and our mission are completely aligned, lifting up women and girls and on and off the pitch,” Bernthal said.
Sandberg added: “We want pro sports in our area, and as a family we are very interested in soccer and it’s an opportunity to work with four women who I’ve so admired for so long. It’s not just for our daughters to see women’s sports, it’s for our sons to see women’s sports.”