Kansas City Current's new NWSL playbook: a $135m investment in the future

RIVERSIDE, Missouri -- Chris and Angie Long are doing their best to stay on their feet.

The husband and wife duo, co-owners of the National Women's Soccer League club Kansas City Current along with Brittany Mahomes, are conducting a tour of the team's training facility that is set to be unveiled later this month. And like most construction projects there is a lot that will get done at the last minute. There is dust everywhere, plenty of exposed wiring, numerous buckets of paint and a stray hardhat or three. As they show off the various rooms in the facility, they are picking their way through the debris.

At one point, ESPN asks Chris if this will get done in time.

"Well, I think there will be ..." he says, at which point Angie jumps in with complete certainty: "We're moving in on [June] 13th."

In many ways, the 17,000 square foot training facility, in its current state, is an apt metaphor for all that is happening with the NWSL. There is much work to be done -- infrastructure needs to be bolstered, and the league is still addressing allegations of misconduct against coaches. But in Kansas City's training ground, one can also see the league's promise, one that by becoming more professional has the ability to maximize both revenues and its players' potential.

The new training grounds are a site that when completed will be one of the crown jewels of the NWSL, as will the 11,500-seat bespoke stadium the team is building on the Missouri side of Kansas City. The stadium is set to open in 2024, and in anticipation of future growth, the venue is expandable to 20,500.

This is what happens when an NWSL team receives an unprecedented level of investment. According to Chris, the stadium's price tag is set to top $120m. The training facility will cost another $15m. While other organizations, like the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash and Orlando Pride have invested in the women's game, they were piggybacking on companion teams in MLS. Angel City FC has entered the league amid plenty of fanfare, surpassing 15,000 season tickets sold. But the approach of some other NWSL organizations has been more of an expense-limitation exercise.

What the Longs are doing is well beyond what the NWSL has seen previously given the standalone nature of their investment. They are among a new wave of owners intent on treating their ownership like a business with expected returns.

"This isn't a charity. This is most definitely an investment," Angie says. "If you don't invest, you're not getting a return. If I look back over the prior 25 years, I think there's a problem of non-investment, either because people were in it because it just felt like a nice thing to do, or because they were in it for the purposes of developing players for a national team, rather than a league that exists for players, for fans, or owners, for sponsors, just like any of the other major league in this country."

Chris adds that one aspect of the NWSL's business that has been underestimated is the power of facilities, and the ability to control more revenue through naming rights, ticketing, concessions and the way partnerships are done.

"More revenue levers absolutely create a higher level of IRR [internal rate of return] than what people traditionally thought of when they thought about soccer or anything else," he says.

"Now's the time"

The Longs' background is in business, not soccer. They both started out working for J.P. Morgan Chase straight after graduating from Princeton, where they first met. Chris went into private equity and credit investing, Angie starting in sales and trading. They are now at Palmer Square Capital Management, where Chris serves as CEO and Angie CIO. The company's total assets exceed $22b.

The Longs caught the soccer bug in a roundabout way. Angie played soccer in her youth but was an All-American rugby player at Princeton, while Chris was a varsity basketball player. They were season ticket holders to the previous NWSL team in town, FC Kansas City, which was a founding member of the league when it launched in 2013. Yet it was a trip to the 2019 World Cup in France with daughter Mary, where she played in youth matches, that drove home the power of the sport. The passion of the fans made a huge impression, as did the level of support back in Kansas City. They saw multiple shots of fans watching World Cup games in the city's Power & Light District.

"We were like, 'Oh my God. We have to get a team here. Like, we've got to do it,' " Chris says.

A subsequent correspondence with friend Kara Nortman, one of the founding investors in Angel City FC, pushed the Longs to turn a dream into reality. When the Utah Royals came on the market as owner Dell Loy Hansen was forced to sell the team after he reportedly made racist comments and oversaw a toxic workplace culture, the Longs stepped in and bought the team, bringing it back to Kansas City.

"Just realizing the momentum, not just in the U.S. for women's soccer, but globally, and everything that was happening in Europe and their investment in teams, and what that was meaning at a national level, we just felt, 'Now's the time,' " says Angie.

"I wish I was 10 years younger"

The early parts of the regular season have been a struggle for the Current. The team has been without star players Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis because of injury, and the Current are sitting in 11th place in the 12-team league. The night before ESPN arrived to tour the new training facility with the Longs, the Current sustained what was appeared to be another gut punch. Kansas City played one of its best games of the young season, and carried a 2-1 lead into stoppage time against the league-leading San Diego Wave, only to cough up an equalizer to Alex Morgan.

Given the finish, one might expect team captain and holding midfielder Desiree Scott to still be stewing about the result afterward. But when the topic shifts to the changes that the Longs have implemented, Scott is all smiles. When it comes to the NWSL, she has seen just about everything.

Aside from a brief stint in England with Notts County, she has played in the NWSL since 2013. This included two earlier spells with FC Kansas City, the second time under the absentee ownership of Elam Baer, which ended when the league took over the club for failing to meet minimum standards and moved it to Salt Lake City. For Scott, the arrival of the Longs is almost too good to be true.

"I wish I was 10 years younger because the game is really changing, especially in Kansas City," she says. "Being here when the team originally was here in 2013, we were playing on high school fields, no locker room. Now to be playing at Children's Mercy Park, to have our own stadium coming in 2024, our own training facility, the game is just taking leaps and bounds forward. And the investment from the club, Angie, Chris -- to be a part of it and the growth is just an amazing thing to see."

The fact that Scott and her teammates will have a training site of their own, which not every club can say, will significantly improve their day-to-day existence. They've been training on fields near the new construction since May 2, so they've seen the building and its bells and whistles slowly take shape. The anticipation is palpable.

"I think it's a place just for us, somewhere you can walk in and feel comfortable, have your locker, everything," Scott says. "They're just ready for you to go, so you can just focus on training and getting better every day with no worries of where you need to be. It's just going to be our home. I'm big on that.

"And then also, I think just seeing the gym and how it's all going to be laid out is going to be pretty fun."

Who will follow?

From a distance, the building looks like a giant doorstop, with "Kansas City Current" and the team's logo emblazoned on the side.

Its layout compares favorably with other training sites around the country, both in Major League Soccer and the NWSL. There's an efficiency in terms of players' movement from the cafeteria to the locker room, the gym, the medical treatment area and the practice field. There are two grass fields at present, with a turf field set to be installed. Upstairs is where the team's front-office staff will work, allowing them an expansive view of the various fields.

The Longs did their homework in terms of getting input on what the facility should be able to house. They consulted with MLS teams, like Austin FC and Sporting Kansas City, and the one question they always asked was: What didn't you do right?

"Everybody had something, whether it was something was too small or little stuff like the boot room was too close to the locker room, and it smells -- you know, crazy stuff," Chris says. "We took all of that, internalized it. But we also spent a lot of time with the players. We spent a lot of time with the medical team with what they needed in particular. And then, we also of course, had experts like [the contractor] and the architect, so it wasn't done in isolation, and we had a lot of conversations around it."

The speed at which the training facility was constructed owes itself to using what is called "cross-laminated timber" for the beams and supports. Chris adds that the use of such materials means the construction has been 60% more carbon efficient than if steel was used.

"It's amazing. We started construction in September 2021. So it's been a very, very fast project," he says.

Now the question is: How many other teams will follow suit? Angie says the building of the new stadium is already helping with recruiting.

"We can pick up the phone and talk to any player in the world and they know who Kansas City is because of everything we're doing," she says.

Angie adds the West Coast teams are most definitely going to look into building their own training facilities. She has even heard of instances in which NWSL teams that share facilities with men's teams will have their space upgraded.

"You're going to have to do it if you're going to want to compete," Angie says.