After going from last place to NWSL finalist, Gotham FC adds key new investor

Nothing about Gotham FC’s playoff run has come easily.

On October 15, the players and staff of Gotham FC waited for a few agonizing moments to find out if they’d squeak into the playoffs. It was Decision Day, and they had just wrapped up a 2-2 draw with the Kansas City Current — not good enough to control their destiny. As the final whistles blew for North Carolina and Houston, the celebration could finally begin.

They started their playoff run as the six-seed against the Courage on the road in the quarterfinals, before making the trip out to the West Coast to square off against the defending champions, Portland Thorns FC. On Sunday night in the pouring rain, Gotham had to wait a little longer for their first shot at a NWSL Championship, needing extra time and a superb goal from substitute Katie Stengel to advance again.

“The weather, the elements, it didn’t matter,” owner and club chair Tammy Murphy told The Athletic on Monday. “We were determined, and we played like pros. I could not have been more excited.”

For Murphy, who has been a part of Gotham’s ownership from the beginning, when the team was still Sky Blue FC, the semifinal win represented years of work and progress that had been anything but smooth (“turbulence” was Murphy’s word choice). NJ/NY Gotham FC is a team a long way off from the Sky Blue FC of 2018, which made headlines for poor training conditions, including a lack of running water and even actual toilets at the training site.

“We’ve just all been working so hard to make sure that we are as excellent on the field as we are off the field, in every space. It’s a work in progress, but we have made incredible strides,” she said.

Last season, Gotham finished dead last on the NWSL table, picking up only four wins, a draw, and 17 losses. They were 20 points off the playoff pace; the club finished with a shocking -30 goal differential.

“Last year, we were really focused on the soccer side of the organization. Look at where we are now,” Murphy said.

Gotham hired head coach Juan Carlos Amorós on a three-year deal, acquired forward Lynn Williams via trade and signed World Cup winner Esther González, amongst other moves led by general manager Yael Averbuch West. On Tuesday, Amorós was announced as the 2023 NWSL coach of the year.

This year, Murphy said, the focus has been on ownership and the business side. “We can go wherever we want to go, and I am super enthusiastic,” she said. “I’m always the one who says, ‘Let’s just put our heads down and get it done.’ That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re just getting it done. There’s so much opportunity now that we have Carolyn coming in. It’s fantastic.”

That Carolyn is Carolyn Tisch Blodgett, announced on Wednesday as Gotham FC’s new minority owner and strategic investor, as well as the club’s new alternate governor on the NWSL board. Tisch Blodgett is the founder of Next 3. She oversees the firm’s investments and serves as a strategic advisor for her family’s ownership group of the New York Giants. Tisch Blodgett is leading the investment into Gotham, backed by Laurie, Jon and Steve Tisch. She also has an extensive background in marketing, having led global marketing at Peloton — helping to bring not just money but valuable skills to her new NWSL role.

Tisch Blodgett told The Athletic that she and her family had started Next 3 as a sports investment platform to ensure they were at the forefront of the changing nature of sports. When the company started, they went into research and listening mode: “Where do we think sports is? What do we think sports is going to look like in the next 30 years? And sign after sign pointed to women’s soccer, and specifically the NWSL.”

When she started considering potential investments, Gotham wasn’t the only team she was looking into. She kept coming back to the story of her grandfather buying into the NFL, though. Before Preston Robert Tisch became 50% owner of the Giants, he had the opportunity to buy the full shares of other teams. But h was a New Yorker. “We are the third generation now,” Tisch Blodgett said. “We couldn’t write a better script than coming into the New Jersey/New York women’s soccer team.”

The Giants connection is certainly one that could help boost the profile of Gotham FC — but it’s really Tisch Blodgett’s experience that Murphy referred to time and time again. To be fair, Gotham had some links to the nearby NFL team before Tisch Blodgett entered into the picture, thanks to both former Giants quarterback Eli Manning and the team’s CBO, Pete Guelli, already present in Gotham’s collection of minority investors.

“We aren’t as big as the Giants,” Murphy said. “We don’t have as many people in the marketing, the sales, the ticketing area as they do. But I think just having that somebody who has a little bit more experience than we do, who has been there and done it, this is going to be a home run for us.”

Tisch Blodgett called the merging of her two worlds of sports investment/operation and her background in marketing in this new role with Gotham her “perfect dream all coming together.” When she considers the opportunity ahead, there are three areas she wants to focus on: turning their players into true stars; the fan experience side — whether that’s in stadium, watching the game at home, or engaging with the team; and building upon the community aspect of women’s soccer.

“There was a watch party (on Sunday) in Jersey City; there were about 200 rabid fans, dressed in all the gear, screaming, cheering,” Tisch Blodgett said. “Our opportunity coming in as owners and operators is really to help tell that story to the rest of New York City, the rest of the tri-state area, and then hopefully globally.”

Unlike a deeply entrenched NFL team like the Giants, who have existed since 1925, Gotham’s relatively young history — again, full of its share of “turbulence” — still means the team has plenty of work ahead to grow its profile, particularly in finding greater consistency and growth in attendance and other metrics.

According to the latest figures from Sportico, Gotham is currently valued at around $48 million, bringing in a little over $5 million in annual revenue. That’s far off the top of the league, but considering the market, aiming for $10 million doesn’t feel like an impossible task. Gotham will have to wait for generational fandom to truly kick in the way that it has for older men’s sports leagues, but there are many other avenues for growth in the meantime.

Building the consistency of their attendance numbers during the regular season has to be at the top of the list for Gotham. They set a new attendance record of 15,058 this summer in a match against the San Diego Wave, but Gotham struggles to keep the lower bowl of Red Bull Arena full week in and week out (the stadium’s total capacity is 25,000).

“We grew 42 percent year over year in the season that just ended, but the base is lower. If our average is 6,300 or so, the average in San Diego is about 20,000 and about the same in Los Angeles,” Gotham president Mary Wittenberg told the New York Times last month.

They also can’t take their foot off the gas in making improvements on the sporting side, especially now that they’ve reached the Championship. The investments the ownership group made over the past year have proven their worth — and there are plans for more.

“We are absolutely looking at training facilities,” Murphy said.

Currently, the team trains at a facility owned by the New York Red Bulls and has a temporary solution for their own dedicated spaces for staff to work. The trend in the NWSL, however, is investment into facilities, with teams like the Kansas City Current opening a $19 million training space for the team, and multiple others either actively in the works or looking for land.

“We’re looking at everything, anything. Everything is on the table,” Murphy continued. A Gotham FC training facility has been on the list for a while though. “We’ve scoured the market and I can tell you, we’ve been having weekly meetings about various opportunities and what’s best for us in the here and how, and what’s best for us in the long run. And part of that depends on where the league goes.”

With details of the league’s new media deal expected this week during the NWSL Championship festivities, two more expansion teams coming into the league in Utah and the Bay Area — and a $53 million expansion fee for Bay FC, another waiting on deck in Boston for 2026, the NWSL’s days of worrying about its basic existence feel like an increasingly distant memory. Gone are Gotham’s days of hoping a thousand people would cross through the gates at Yurcak Field out in Piscataway, NJ, too.

“There’s a fan movement happening, there’s the cusp of a new media deal, so there’s about to be a visibility moment. There’s a sponsorship moment, thinking about what Angel City has done in getting multiple millions of dollars in their jersey sponsor,” Tisch Blodgett said. “There’s all these signs pointing that the world is starting to wake up to women’s soccer. And we sat here for a long time, as professional owners, saying, ‘What do we want our role to be? Do we want to be watching from the sidelines or do we want to go help write that story?’”

“I always felt that we should be the gold standard. We should be the club in the league that everybody looks to,” Murphy said. There’s history here for Gotham, even if some of it is painful, and the team’s rebranding gave them both a fresh start and a more appealing identity to draw in fans. “We are in the number one market in the world. We have enormous potential.”

On Sunday, Gotham FC will have a chance to write another chapter of the team’s story with a shot to win their first NWSL championship and make team captain Ali Krieger’s final game one to remember. But no matter the result, the work for 2024 and beyond continues on.

(Photo: Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

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