Earlier this month, Zambia’s Racheal Kundananji became women's soccer’s most expensive player ever, signing for her new club for a world-record sum of close to $800,000.

Given her previous employers were Spain’s Madrid CFF, many casual observers would assume the most likely team to pay a world-record sum, and potentially one of the most attractive destinations across both the women’s and men’s games, would be Liga F giants Barcelona, who won the UEFA Women’s Champions League last season and are untouchable on a domestic level. However, this was not the case.

Instead, Kundananji will now be living on the US West Coast, competing in home games at the PayPal Park venue, and playing for one of the two latest entrants to that nation's top-tier National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – California’s Bay FC.

That franchise, which along with the reincarnated Utah Royals will bring the NWSL up to 14 teams for the upcoming 2024 season, is run by a consortium led by global investment firm Sixth Street.

The consortium was awarded expansion franchise rights for the 2024 campaign in April 2023 and is making an overall $125 million investment to launch the club. At least $70 million of that, according to reports, is being used for the development of infrastructure and facilities.

Bay FC will play their first NWSL game on March 16 as they take on Angel City in an all-Californian contest in Los Angeles. Several iconic former NWSL players are sitting on the new franchise’s board.

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With around three weeks to go before the team’s much-heralded NWSL debut, Sportcal (GlobalData) has spoken in-depth to Bay FC chief executive Brady Stewart, who became the first employee of the club when she was hired last June.

Stewart, who was previously an executive at iconic clothing company Levi Strauss & Co, explains the thinking behind the club’s commercial approach, what their short and long-term goals on and off the pitch are, and how she feels about the major new domestic rights deal unveiled by the league in November.

She starts by explaining the growth and expansion aims – both short and long-term – for Bay FC: "Our initial goal is to establish ourselves as part of the sports base here in the Bay area, but our long-term goal is to be a global sports franchise.

“We’re growing fast and trying to build something great at the same time. Right now we’re a brand new franchise, but the sky’s the limit.”

“You have to start with that vision – if you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t know how to get there.”

She adds that while these may seem like lofty initial aims, because of the “fast-paced and intense” activity within the growing Bay FC front-office team – Stewart was the first employee at the franchise, and there are now over 50 – she has confidence that the club will be able to “execute flawlessly” by the time the 2024 NWSL season gets underway. Opening night at home for Bay FC comes on March 30, against Houston Dash.

As Stewart puts it: “the complexity [of what’s left to do] is very high, and the time left is very low. But, we have a great team here, everyone is personally committed to building Bay FC and we’re all in it together.”


Bay FC will for the foreseeable future play their home games at PayPal Park in San Jose, also home to the San Jose Earthquakes of the men’s Major League Soccer.

The franchise has struck a five-season deal to that effect, with Stewart saying the venue “is built for soccer,” and that “the Quakes have been great partners.”

Indeed, while she admits that sorting out a permanent home of their own is an eventual long-term aim, she says that “the top real-estate priority right now is the training facility, and then we’ll be tackling the stadium.”

The club is currently working out where its long-term training hub will be, a facility that its CEO says will aim to be a center for all Bay FC sides – including youth teams – and “a destination for the sport globally.”

At the moment, training takes place at San José State University, although this is very much seen as a temporary solution.

She adds that “we just right want the right home for the team.”

“We’re looking at becoming representatives of the whole Bay area, from San Jose to San Francisco.”

Permanent training facilities specific to NWSL teams are not just a Bay FC desire, as Stewart admits – the new owners of the Portland Thorns plan to build similar infrastructure, for example.

Commercial growth

So far, Bay FC has brought in Sutter Health, a Northern California-based healthcare company, as a founding partner, front-of-shirt sponsor, and official medical provider, through 2028. Stewart claims the deal is “the largest in the NWSL.”

The franchise, she adds, is “being very deliberate and specific” in how the commercial team is looking at potential brand partners.

Stewart says: "We try and intentionally find brands who want to lean in and create change with us. We don’t want shallow partnerships, we’re looking to establish really deep meaningful relationships with brands that share our values, in terms of driving women’s sports.

“We’re looking to make sure our corporate partners are as committed as we are to connecting with our communities and driving our fanbase.”

The Bay area, and California more widely, is home to numerous innovative tech brands, and Stewart points out that “we’re lucky to be situated as we are – we’re in the seat of innovation and we already have an incredible corporate base of potential partners here, most of whom are likeminded.

"We’re enjoying the process of engaging with that business community.”

However, she confirms that the club is also “in conversations with other options based outside California.”

In addition, Stewart reveals that 2024 will see the franchise begin conversations with brands around naming rights to the aforementioned permanent training complex (when one is secured).

The Sutter deal was brokered by Legends, the premium experiences company owned by Sixth Street with which Bay FC unveiled a commercial partnership in October last year.

The club agreed to a multi-year partnership for the firm to strategize premium seating and ticket pricing with a data-led strategy. Legends will also conduct a digital marketing campaign to drive ticket sales for the 2024 NWSL.

On that front, Stewart says: “We’re working with them on our sponsorships, ticketing, and merchandise sales. They’re world-class partners, really helping us accelerate our growth and commercial engine.”

Legends is also conducting a a digital marketing campaign to drive ticket sales for the 2024 NWSL season.

For its part, meanwhile, Sixth Street has been media shy on its involvement publicly, although last April, when the expansion was unveiled, its co-founder and chief executive Alan Waxman wrote in a LinkedIn post: “There are moments in time when, as investors, inflection points begin to take shape. Patterns start to develop, and you can almost see the trend happening in real time.

“We believe we are at one of those moments with women’s sports, and women’s soccer in particular.

“We’re witnessing a typical pattern for growth companies at the beginning of an inflection point. All you have to believe is that economic reality eventually catches up to the data. And as it does, similar to the global men’s soccer franchises, we will start to see professional women’s teams become national and global consumer brands.”

A rising tide lifts all ships

Stewart is extremely positive about the general state of play right now regarding the NWSL, particularly when discussing the major new media rights deals the league signed off late last year.

Domestic media rights through the 2027 campaign have been signed off with broadcasters ESPN, CBS (the incumbent partner), Amazon, and Scripps.

The networks will pay a combined $240 million over the four seasons – $60 million annually – with CBS, currently in its fourth year in partnership with the NWSL, retaining the rights to the league’s season finale.

The NWSL’s current CBS deal is worth around $1.5 million per year but requires the league to pay for its game production, which costs eight figures per year.

Notably, the $240 million rights fee is significantly higher than what the Women’s Super League reportedly earns in England.

118 matches per season will be split between the quartet – 27 for Prime Video, 50 for Scripps, 21 on CBS, and 20 via ESPN.

Stewart believes that “the most important thing for the media rights deal is getting the game into more people’s homes and making it more accessible to watch.

“I love that the deal is across multiple platforms and networks, so if you’re a consumer and fan, wherever and however you choose to watch games, you can find them – across linear, streaming, cable.

“To build the fanbase, we need to keep getting NWSL action into people’s homes.”

Talking more broadly, on the subject of overall NWSL expansion, Stewart says that her franchise is starting out “in a moment where people are just waking up to the business potential of women’s sports. We’re at the beginning of a growth cycle for women’s sports globally – the NWSL and US women’s soccer are a part of that.

“We want the whole league to grow with us – we want to help rise the tide for everyone."

These comments come soon after the NWSL’s commissioner, Jessica Berman, confirmed that the process of selecting its 16th expansion side (to join a Boston-based team already locked in to make its debut in 2026) has already begun.

Before the Californian and Utah entries this year, the previous biennial expansion round saw Angel City and San Diego Wave join the league in 2022.

Berman has said the due diligence process the league is now undertaking will last between six and nine months.

Building a fanbase

In terms of the steps Bay FC has taken in trying to drum up a support base from nothing in the local area, the club launched its inaugural brand campaign in January and has been intensely active across the usual plethora of social media accounts.

On this front, Stewart claims that over recent months, the club has seen its audience across digital platforms grow by 400%, and engagement in its offerings on social media grow by 850%.

The club is also currently building “data-led and digital infrastructure” that the CEO claims will be used “to build deep fan relationships.”

She adds that this will potentially give Bay FC a competitive advantage over time – in terms of conversations with potential commercial partners, a deep well of customer data will no doubt make the club an attractive proposition for brands.

There is also a boots-on-ground element to the club looking to engage with the local community. Bay FC hosted close to 100 events in the area during the latter half of 2023 and has also hosted watch parties for major women’s soccer matches.

In addition, locally-based sporting icons are being used to unveil members of the Bay FC player roster.

As Stewart explains: “Our thinking is – how can we best create a long-term, multi-generational, fanbase that ends up supporting a global sports franchise?

“I was employee number one, we’re at 50 now.

“It feels like everyone’s super committed and passionate to be off and running. This is the experience of a lifetime, for sure.”