A group of women led by Laura Ricketts, minority owner of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and co-owner of MLB’s Chicago Cubs, have reached an agreement to purchase the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars. The deal is pending final approval from the NWSL Board and is expected to close by the end of the month.
Tuesday’s announcement from the group ends a season of uncertainty for the franchise that has been in disarray in the fallout of last year’s investigations into abusive behaviors and enablement across the league. In light of details from two separate investigations, and pressure from Red Stars players and league leadership, longtime team owner Arnim Whisler vowed to sell the team.
“Building a championship culture begins with treating our players with the respect they deserve as women and athletes,” Ricketts said in a statement. “We look forward to completing this transaction so that we can begin this new chapter for the team and the fans.”
Terms of the deal were not announced. NWSL team valuations have soared recently. The Seattle-based Reign franchise sold for $3.51 million in late 2019. By early 2022, the Washington Spirit sold for a $35 million valuation. Recent expansion franchise fees have commanded $53 million.
An NWSL spokesperson provided the following statement:
“Laura Ricketts and the proposed new ownership group are exceptional leaders and we’re pleased with the progress that has been made. A final sale will require the approval of the NWSL Board of Governors, and we’ll have more to say if and when that occurs.”
Ricketts is believed to be one of the first openly gay women to own a major-league sports franchise. She and the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs in 2009. Seven years later, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, ending the longest championship drought in North American professional sports. Ricketts was just announced as a new minority investor in the Chicago Sky in June.
The group includes: Angela E.L. Barnes, chief legal officer of IDEO; Traci P. Beck, M.D.; Debra Cafaro, chairman and CEO of Ventas, Inc. and partner in the Pittsburgh Penguins; Laura Desmond, chair and CEO of smartly.io; Sidney Dillard, investment banker and partner at Chicago’s Loop Capital; Megan Murphy, owner, LaCrosse Milling Company; Editha Paras, non-profit executive; Jennifer Pritzker, president and CEO, TAWANI Enterprises, Inc.; strategic communications consultant Hilary Rosen, and Jessica Droste Yagan, partner and CEO of Impact Engine; entrepreneur Tom O’Reilly; and the Engelhardt Family Office.
What it means
For starters, the Red Stars are staying in Chicagoland. Many on the inside insisted that would be the case, and NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told this writer on multiple occasions that “relocation is always the last resort,” but the venue situation at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, has long looked untennable. A local buyer — particularly one with the clout of the Ricketts name and the connections that the Cubs have — quells any thoughts of the league moving out of the country’s third largest media market in the middle of media rights negotiations (where the NWSL is attempting to command an exponential increase in fees from a partner).
“We wholeheartedly believe in and are excited about the future of the Red Stars and the NWSL,” Ricketts said. “There is unprecedented fan growth in women’s soccer globally, and we want to be a part of building on that momentum here in Chicago.”
What the group plans to do to upgrade its stadium and training facilities will be a major focus, but the Red Stars need investment across the board, including increased staffing. The franchise has also taken a huge hit in trust from players, leading to two straight offseasons of roster exodus. Results on the field have since suffered, with the Red Stars going from a perennial playoff contender to, currently, one point off the bottom of the table, with the most goals conceded this season.
Change will help. Players specifically lost trust in Whisler following the details they read in the Sally Yates and NWSL reports, calling out Whisler’s “dishonesty” about his knowledge of the abuse claims against former Red Stars coach Rory Dames. Dames coached the team from the inaugural NWSL season in 2013 through 2021 and was allowed to “resign” in the middle of the night about 24 hours after the Red Stars lost the NWSL Championship that season. The next morning, the Washington Post published a detailed investigation into allegations against Dames that spanned years. Whisler was removed as Red Stars chairman in October, two days after the Yates report was released confirming details of what the owner new about complaints against Dames.
Whisler has owned the team since its inception over 15 years ago, a history that includes three different leagues.