Seattle Sounders and Carlyle ownership group completes purchase of Seattle Reign in NWSL

The sale of Seattle Reign FC is finally official. The Seattle Sounders FC ownership group and investment firm Carlyle partnered to take over the NWSL club. Adrian Hanauer, the majority owner of the Sounders, will serve as the Reign’s governor on the NWSL board, with Carlyle’s head of private credit, Alex Popov, named as the alternate governor. The Reign has also appointed a new chief business officer, with Sounders chief operating officer Maya Mendoza-Exstrom stepping into the new role on the NWSL side.

With two teams now under their management and in the same stadium, there is a chance for the Sounders organization to leverage its success on the MLS side to help cement the Reign’s presence in Seattle.

“There’s a commonality between what our founders and ownership have hoped for both of these clubs,” Mendoza-Exstrom told The Athletic. “The Sounders owners are local. They believe in both of these clubs as community assets, and what it means to put down deep roots in the community. None of us are bigger than the brand.”

The Reign has been in a holding pattern since the sale was first announced by previous owners OL Groupe in April 2023, before Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang took over Olympique Lyonnais Feminin. The French group acquired the Reign in 2019, then under the leadership of Jean-Michel Aulas, for approximately $3.5 million.

The sale price, along with that of most other clubs that have changed hands in the NWSL, has gone up considerably. OL Groupe confirmed the purchase price for 100% of the Reign’s shares by the Sounders and Carlyle was $58 million in March. At the same time, the Reign announced that the agreement between OL Groupe, the Sounders and Carlyle had been reached. Three months later, the deal was finally approved by the board of governors of both the NWSL and MLS.

The Reign have had a rough start to the 2024 season, currently in 13th place and managing only two wins so far, despite last year’s run to the championship against eventual winners Gotham FC. The club signed head coach Laura Harvey to a contract extension through the 2025 season, and general manager Lesle Gallimore (who joined the Reign organization in May 2023) is still in her role.

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Head coach Laura Harvey first joined the Reign in 2013. (Photo by Alika Jenner, Getty Images)

The Reign lost multiple key players this past offseason: Megan Rapinoe retired and Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett headed to Gotham as free agents. With new ownership in place, the promise of greater stability and long-term planning could help right the ship on the talent recruitment front.

Mendoza-Exstrom, who will lead the club’s business side, has been a fan of the team since the first NWSL season. “It means something different to put the shirt on, to have that badge over your heart and stewardship of something that you love. I don’t take that lightly. It’s an honor,” she said.

As to the immediate question of what comes next, she couldn’t help but joke, “See, we had a master plan in January, and we drew it up to have this thing closed in the busiest time of year for both clubs, right?” The Sounders just celebrated 50 years of their club, but on Friday, Hanauer addressed the Reign players to share the news that the deal had closed ahead of their Cascadia clash against the Thorns. The Sounders front office has been working with the Reign’s front office to try to get up to speed, knowing the transition would fall at a tough time for everyone, and ensuring the Reign knows they have access to greater resources if needed.

The larger work can begin once they all get through the next few weeks of nonstop matches. “It’s a chance to get in a room with folks and start planning. We’ve got to set some ambitious business goals for ourselves; that’s what this club deserves. And we’ve got to set a road map. Lesle’s got her work to do on the team side, to do that road mapping for how this roster is going to be constructed going forward,” Mendoza-Exstrom said.

The Reign moving to the same organization as the Sounders could also be considered a reversal of general NWSL trends, where many independent teams like the KC Current, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC are leading on the business side. At the start of the year, the Portland Thorns were sold by existing ownership Peregrine Sports, LLC (who also owns the Portland Timbers) to RAJ Sports, led by Lisa Bhathal Merage for $63 million.

For the Reign, the new ownership isn’t only the local MLS team, but private equity firm Carlyle. Carlyle has the majority stake in the Reign, but the Sounders will be the managing partner. Neither provided a breakdown of the ownership stake percentages.

The NWSL established new rules around private equity funds earlier this year, focused primarily on minority stakes — ensuring no fund would have investments in more than three clubs across the league, and limiting what percentage of a team’s equity could be held by a minority private equity investor.

The NWSL has already allowed a private equity firm to own a majority stake in one of its clubs, however, unlike the major men’s leagues in the U.S., Sixth Street provides the majority stake for Bay FC. The league ensured that Alan Waxman, CEO of Sixth Street and co-founder of the firm, could allocate capital and that he would serve as the club’s governor on the NWSL board. Sixth Street also leverages the expertise of former players Aly Wagner, Brandi Chastain, Danielle Slaton and Leslie Osborne, all of whom are investors. Carlyle will essentially follow in this model, with the Sounders as both the soccer experts and managing partners.

For Carlyle, the investment firm had considered multiple investment opportunities, but the partnership with the Sounders made the Reign the right one.

“We have focused on being good stewards of the club and good partners for the Sounders and for the NWSL. We have been exploring investing in women’s sports for close to five years now,” Popov told The Athletic.

“They’re not only bringing with them the knowledge of managing a soccer team, but also bringing the local community connection, and on top of it all, they’re already in that market. They already have the infrastructure they need to continue to grow the sport. From our perspective, that was a very crucial component of how to invest in the sport, in the league and how to continue to support it.”

Popov said the potential for the Reign is enormous, but they’re looking at investment into the team both on the field and in the front office, but also considering how to invest in physical infrastructure over time. Considering the consistent focus on facilities from NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and the success seen by the Kansas City Current and others, Popov said that basically, everything is on the table on that front. “Training facilities, recovery facilities, the actual stadium,” he said. “With us and our partner in the Sounders, we actually probably have more options to consider than others.”

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Megan Rapinoe’s farewell match currently holds the second-largest single-season attendance record in NWSL. (Photo by Steph Chambers, Getty Images)

Until this month, the Reign held the single match NWSL attendance record, with 34,130 in attendance at Lumen Field for Megan Rapinoe’s final 2023 regular season game. So far this year through five home games, the club is averaging 7,415 for attendance and has yet to crack five figures. In 2023, thanks in part to the record-setting send-off for Rapinoe, the Reign had an average attendance of 13,160.

The team has been training at Starfire (their original stadium) since the start of the 2023 season, which was also home to the Sounders. The MLS club moved to their new training facility and headquarters this year, located in Renton, which also is home to the team’s academy and the Tacoma Defiance (competing in MLS Next Pro). With both clubs now under the same leadership, that could be an easy transition to bring the Reign into the higher-level training facility.

As much as everyone will be looking for what improvements the Sounders and Carlyle will make for the Seattle Reign, there will also be an expectation for the history of the club to be honored and preserved. Stewardship was a theme of everyone’s comments — but Mendoza-Exstrom was a history major, and she felt that responsibility deeply, pointing to her own fandom with the 1991 USWNT and how it was shaped by Seattle. She spoke about the core challenge ahead of her: building the brand of Seattle Reign FC, one that had resonance and brand equity, and could stand on its own outside of the legacy of players like Rapinoe. But all of that work is still rooted in the team’s history.

“There’s a deeper foundation, even before the NWSL,” Mendoza-Exstrom said. “Then I look at what the players and the team and Laura (Harvey) have done since the league started, and where it is now. That’s the foundation, the good, the bad, all of it is the foundation. There are some absolute core values and truth, this unabashed, unapologetic commitment to lead on and off the pitch, that we are going to win.”

(Top photo: Seattle Reign)

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