Sue Bird, nearing retirement, announced she’s buying a minority stake in the National Women’s Soccer League franchise NJ/NY Gotham FC, the parties told Forbes.
For the Women’s National Basketball Association star, 41, it’s more about the possibility of growth in the league than a get-rich-quick scheme. She joins an all-star list of Gotham FC investors that includes New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, and his wife, Tammy Murphy; NBA star Kevin Durant’s investment firm, Thirty Five Ventures; and former US national team soccer star Carli Lloyd. The financial terms of Bird’s stake weren’t disclosed, but the investment includes the stipulation that Bird act as an “advisor” to the club as Gotham FC looks to increase its brand profile in the crowded regional and national sports landscape.
How much the NWSL franchise is worth remains unclear. Sports bankers told Forbes to consider businesswoman Michele Kang’s February purchase of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit for a reported $35 million. Also, a fund tied to Los Angeles-based Angel City FC raised more than $20 million, valuing the fund at roughly $110 million, according to PitchBook. Angel City FC said it raised additional capital in February 2022.
Bird told Forbes that Gotham FC appears sustainable but declined to discuss financial details. However, she did say Gotham FC met her business requirements and supported women’s potential in sports. She added that investing in the NWSL club didn’t take any convincing from her fiancee, soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
“It wasn’t a conversation,” Bird said. “It was, ‘Yeah, that sounds amazing.'”
Arrows pointing up for NWSL
On June 16, Bird announced plans to retire after playing 21 seasons with the Seattle Storm, the team that drafted her first overall in 2002. The 12-time all-star led the Storm to four WNBA championships and has won five Olympic gold medals. She’ll finish this season making roughly $72,000, according to Spotrac, which tracks sports contracts.
When asked to sum up her career in two words, Bird said, “Winner and longevity.”
Bird said she started contemplating life after the WNBA in 2014, “understanding at some point my life as an athlete was going to end, and I wanted to be prepared for that moment.” She started exploring investments in smaller companies and now has stakes in firms including San Francisco fitness equipment maker Tonal. That company raised $250 million in 2021, according to PitchBook. Bird also co-owns a media production company, Togethxr.
Bird said the NWSL has “already has done the hard part” by overcoming early challenges that face start-ups. The league launched in 2013 and is playing its 10th season. Like its two predecessors the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, the league aims to benefit from the popularity of women’s soccer in the US
Led by stars including Rapinoe, Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo, the US national team drove significant interest in women’s soccer in 2015 when it won the women’s FIFA World Cup in a rematch with Japan. The game drew a record 25 million viewers in the US In 2019, the team won again, drawing an average of 14 million viewers. That beat the 2018 men’s FIFA World Cup, which averaged 11.4 million viewers.
During the pandemic, NWSL saw a spike in viewership after becoming the first league to return after the Covid-19 shutdown. Its Challenge Cup championship averaged 653,000 viewers in July 2020 on CBS. That was up from an average of 166,000 viewers who watched the 2019 NWSL title game. The 2021 championship averaged 525,000 viewers.
“The talent level continues to get better, which speaks to the high level that’s being played in the US,” Bird said.
The NWSL is coming off a rocky 2021 that saw league commissioner Lisa Baird resign after players leveled sexual misconduct claims against former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley. In April 2022, sports executive Jessica Berman took the reins as NWSL commissioner, and she’ll work with investment firm Inner Circle Sports to expand the league.
Bird, a New York native, pointed to the improved leadership of the league as a reason to feel comfortable investing in the Gotham team. “It’s about the talent on the field and what they stand for off the field,” she said. “That, to me, is a reason to invest.”
Should NWSL grow or sustain viewership growth, it could help investors see a return on investments in franchises. NWSL has rights deals with CBS Sports and Amazon that combined pay a reported $2.5 million. Those agreements run through 2024. Also, the league and its players agreed to their first collective bargaining agreement, which secures labor peace for the next five years. The deal calls for a $100 million investment by team owners.
All the arrows “are pointing in the right direction,” Bird told Forbes. Investing in women sports, she said, is “possibly the best investment you can make right now because of the level of growth.”