The long limbo for the Chicago Red Stars has finally ended — and in a fitting fashion. The team won its first match under new ownership, led by Laura Ricketts, with a 2-0 win over the Washington Spirit last weekend following the official closing of the sale on September 1.
Before former majority owner Arnim Whisler had even announced his intent to sell the NWSL team in December, Ricketts was already expecting the Red Stars to go on the market. Last October, Red Stars players collectively issued a statement asking for the team’s board to “(find) a new majority owner.”
“Looking at it, just given my experience, having been an owner and operator of the (Chicago) Cubs for the last 13 or so years, and just everything that I’ve learned, all the expertise that I can leverage to put towards this really distressed asset,” Laura Ricketts told The Athletic ahead of the closing of the team’s sale. “(I) started thinking about, ‘Okay, maybe this is something that really makes sense.’”
That players’ open letter, sent in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Sally Yates report, following her investigation into misconduct across the NWSL, made clear at the time that there was no path forward for the Red Stars as they existed under Whisler. The players said the report showed the “extent of (Whisler’s) dishonesty” concerning the team’s culture and his knowledge of the actions of former head coach Rory Dames.
The months between the club going on the market and the closing at the start of the month have not been easy ones. The Red Stars struggled in the offseason to retain its free agents, losing franchise players like Danny Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat — essentially their entire starting midfield. Though completely out of their control, Mallory Swanson’s torn patellar tendon in April was another major blow to this season. Currently, Chicago is in 11th place, with six wins, two draws and 10 losses — and the worst goal differential in the league at -17.
Off the field, things weren’t looking much better as the sale process dragged on. The Red Stars have been without a general manager since May following the dismissal of Michelle Lomnicki, a former Red Stars player, after “a lapse of judgment” involving a youth affiliate club she helped lead hiring a suspended former NWSL coach, as detailed in this report from The Athletic.
“One of the things that has weighed on me so much over the past several months as we’ve tried to bring this deal to a close is the limbo that the players have been left in,” Ricketts said. “Especially given some of the events from earlier this summer, even. It just feels like, ‘Gosh, it’s one thing after the other that these players have had to endure.”
While Ricketts danced around the details, the sale process was a long, frustrating journey. But in the end, it got across the line and was approved by the NWSL board of governors at the start of the month. The purchase price was $35.5 million, and another $25.5 million has been earmarked to go directly into the club.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Ricketts said. “This one has taken a while.”
Ricketts and her brother, Thomas, have been the majority owners of the Cubs for over a decade along with their other siblings through a family trust. While much of her family identify as Republicans, including her brother Pete who is a U.S. Senator for Nebraska, Laura Ricketts has served as a major Democratic fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Ricketts with President Barack Obama at a ceremony honoring the 2016 World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. (Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Emails from the family patriarch, Joe Ricketts, reacting to racist jokes and containing Islamophobia, still impact public perception of the family, despite Joe’s lack of involvement in the Cubs or their other ventures. Last year, the Ricketts family pulled out of the bidding process for Chelsea, despite being one of four final shortlisted bids. The group cited the bidding process as the reason.
Ricketts is the odd one out in her family, at least politically. “It’s other people making decisions about my life, and my country, and my child’s education … I wish we didn’t have so much money in politics, but that’s not the world we live in. If we don’t play here, we forfeit. And I’m not willing to forfeit my rights,” she said in a 2015 interview about her fundraising efforts.
In June, Laura Ricketts was one of eight new investors in the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, with 10% of the team sold at a $85 million valuation. Ricketts had started considering the Red Stars before the opportunity with the Sky opened, but in the end, the two announcements happened only a couple of months apart.
“All the stars kind of aligned,” Ricketts said. “Pun intended.”
Different from her stake in the local WNBA team, in the NWSL, Ricketts would be the one leading the ownership group. She knew she needed to assemble a deep roster to help. She said she started brainstorming with her wife and her brother Thomas. Who were the obvious people to talk to? Who would be interested in investing in the NWSL?
“It was very important to me right from the get-go that this be woman-led and that it’d be a diverse women-led investment group,” Ricketts said. She was very familiar with how Angel City FC assembled their ownership group but felt it wasn’t the right choice for the Red Stars.
“I think that was super exciting and very attractive, but not really something that’s very Midwestern Chicago,” she said with a laugh. “We have our own celebrities here.”
As Ricketts pointed out, the opportunities for women to invest in professional sports are slim. The NWSL and WNBA have increased those opportunities, but it’s not the right call for everyone.
“It’s not a liquid asset, it’s an unusual one,” Ricketts said. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for people who aren’t billionaires to invest in professional sports. So, in any event, it took a lot of conversations, a lot of thought.”
Laura Desmond, chair and CEO of smartly.io (a digital advertising platform), is one of the dozen investors in the new Red Stars ownership group, and one of the first that Ricketts reached out to as they were both considering the Sky.
For Desmond — who was also part of that Sky announcement in the end — the chance to invest in women’s sports was a special opportunity.
“For many women executives, and for me, sports is a passion and it’s a purpose,” she said, on the same call as Ricketts. “You play when you’re younger, and you learn so many skills that come into play for you in a business career.”
But for many women, the usual path is that the sports careers get left behind as they shift to their careers. Ownership stakes offer a way back in and a way to use their expertise in a full circle kind of moment.
For all the new investors Ricketts brought in, she also started with a clean slate. The Red Stars had a varied set of investors that had been brought in by Whisler over the past few years — a number of them actively worked behind the scenes and were concerned over what they had seen from Whisler and the team’s board.
“I hope Laura Ricketts & Co. invest, advertise, innovate, find a better stadium solution and — most importantly — center, protect & serve the players. There were so many things I wanted to do but didn’t have the power/money/influence to,” former investor and sports personality Sarah Spain wrote in a thread on X (formerly Twitter). “I’m sad to be out but only because of what I hoped the experience would be, not what it actually was.”
There’s a chance to get that experience right, though no one has lost sight of the team’s past.
“Over the course of the last nine months, the work and the homework and the diligence, you have to dig into these things,” Desmond said. “I feel really confident that Laura and this investor group know what hard work looks like, knows what smart work looks like. We’re very comfortable in building the foundation, the next level, the level beyond and keep building towards the goal of a championship-caliber team and the best place to play in the NWSL.”
The current Chicago Red Stars are far from a championship-caliber team. But the sale’s done, at least. There are a handful of weeks left in this NWSL season, but the project ahead is all about 2024.
“There’s a lot that needs to be addressed immediately,” Ricketts acknowledged when asked about how the new ownership group plans to prioritize. They’ve been thinking about how to start the work for a while, even before closing the deal. There was no time to wait, whether that meant a jersey sponsorship or other, bigger projects. They don’t want to start next season at a disadvantage because of how long it took the sale to get across the line.
Ricketts rattled off a quick list: sponsorships, someone to lead the sporting side of the club, the front office staff and how much additional staff they’re going to need across the technical side and the executive side.
“I know that the training facilities need some kind of investment,” she said. “Obviously that’s one of the items, then there are some longer-term items too.”
The plan is to skip worrying about what comes first and just start working.
“We’re going to be attacking it all at once, honestly, because it won’t be long before the next season is here,” she said. “We really want to stand this team up and get in a really healthy, thriving place before the next season begins.”
Not on her immediate list, but the Red Stars’ stadium situation will need to be addressed as well. The Red Stars currently play at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., a venue that’s fairly inaccessible from downtown Chicago unless you have a car. The Chicago Fire moved to Soldier Field in 2020 for their MLS matches (though they do still occasionally play at SeatGeek for some games, such as in the U.S. Open Cup), and still train at the stadium for now. The Fire will move to a new training facility in the summer of 2024. The trend, across the NWSL, is increased investment in training facilities, from Kansas City to Michele Kang’s quest for 70 acres in the Washington, D.C. area for the Washington Spirit.
Still, SeatGeek Stadium does not feel like a long-term solution for the Red Stars. However, there are not a lot of options that could immediately provide a solution.
The current lease runs through Dec. 1, 2025, per Ricketts — and she admitted it’s a “huge question” for the team.
“In a sense, it’s a challenge, and in another sense, it’s an opportunity,” she said.
It’s still early in the process of her restructuring, and Rickett is simply unable to answer the question fully. Ideally, the hope would be that the team is closer to the city, but that’s another thing to add to the list for now.
Despite the number of bullet points on the to-do list, Ricketts was nothing but enthusiastic about finally being able to start checking things off.
“Even though this is a distressed asset and it has a challenged past, I feel like if you look at all the other signposts (of growth across the NWSL), then look at the new ownership group and the investment that we’re making into this club, I’m nothing but excited,” Ricketts said.
She loves hard work, she said. She loves a good challenge. The rest of the new ownership group does too, she promised.
“Look at the bones,” Ricketts said.
The Red Stars have been through it all, but they’ve survived. They’re still in Chicago, and there’s $25 million about to head directly into improving the team. What will Ricketts and the rest of the ownership group build upon those bones? Add that question to the list for now.