Madison will be home to a top-tier women’s professional soccer team as early as 2025, if improvements to Breese Stevens Field pass muster of the new USL Super League.
Big Top Entertainment, which owns the men’s team Forward Madison FC, announced the venture yesterday in a press conference with Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
The United Soccer League (USL) announced yesterday that it would launch in 2024 with 10 to 12 teams, and that Madison would be home to an expansion franchise in a subsequent year. Big Top Entertainment co-owner Vern Stenman said the professional women’s side would begin play in 2025 or 2026, depending on stadium improvements.
“We think the potential of this league and of this community and of this state is significant and something that we can really build an internationally known story right here at Breese Stevens Field,” Stenman said. “To get there, we need to do some work.”
USL also announced yesterday that the new Super League, initially announced over a year ago, would seek the sanction of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) as a tier-one league, meaning the league would stand equivalent to the eleven-year-old National Women’s Soccer League. Competing in a top-tier league requires teams to offer a higher standard of facility and minimum capacity requirements. Stenman said the first order of business would be additional and improved locker rooms, followed by new and better turf and increased seating capacity.
Paying for improvements will be “a shared responsibility, certainly among the team and city and hopefully other partners as well, Rhodes-Conway said. The city owns the 97-year-old stadium and contracts with Big Top Entertainment to manage it.
Stenman and COO Conor Caloia said there are no plans to try and build a new stadium.
“(Breese Stevens) is our home,” Caloia said. “This is the home of professional soccer in Madison.”
Stenman said Madison’s professional soccer already has what many teams are trying to build.
“The future of sports is in a place like downtown Madison,” he said. “Our partners in League One and soccer across the country, when they look at building a new facility, they want to build downtown in the cities that they’re in. We already have that.”
Stenman did say, however, that the team would have to find a full-sized indoor training facility in order to train in the Super League schedule, which will mirror the European professional calendar – beginning play in August and ending in the spring, with a six-week winter break. He said Madison would not host any home games between November 15 and March 15.
Big Top officials announced yesterday that it had been awarded a USL Super League franchise, but that it would seek additional investors to join in owning the new team, and would actively seek to add women to the ownership group. Additionally, the company committed to hiring a female general manager and head coach.
The company initially considered launching an amateur women’s team to compete in the developmental USL W League, where college and other amateur players compete over the summer. Forward Madison supporters were clear: that was a non-starter.
“It’s just been great that (Forward Madison COO) Conor (Caloia) and Vern (Stenman) have consistently reached out to us,” said April Kigeya, a cofounder of the Forward Madison supporters group The Flock. “They asked us about amateur women’s soccer, and I was one of the proponents (who said) absolutely not. If we’re going to bring women’s soccer we need to have paid women play soccer from an equity standpoint. They were gracious enough to take that feedback.”
The professional women’s team will compete at a higher level than Forward Madison, which plays in the third-tier USL League One.
“I want to thank the Flock, and all of the fans, for insisting that if we’re going to have women’s soccer in Madison, it’s going to be professional,” Rhodes-Conway said. “And in fact that we’re going to do it at a higher level than the men’s team. I’m really excited that women’s soccer in Madison is going to have the best of the best. We are going to be certainly the first and hopefully the only professional women’s soccer team in the state of Wisconsin. And this club is going to compete at the top tier of the women’s game, which means that fans are going to have the opportunity to see some of the best women’s soccer players in the country, and hopefully in the world, right here in Madison.”
Caloia said he’s confident that Madison’s professional women’s team, and the Super League more broadly, will be able to compete with NWSL for talent and attention.
“There’s 101 men’s professional teams in the US. For women, there are 12,” he said. “There’s a lot of great women’s soccer players that aren’t getting that chance to play professionally. We hope to fill that void. Madison, historically, in many ways, is kind of punching above its weight. We’ve done that on the Forward side of things. We are by no means the largest market, and we lead the league in attendance and every revenue category. So our hope is that we can pull together this community across the state and have success in a smaller market.”
The women’s team, for now known as Madison Women’s Pro Soccer, will not be the Forward Madison women’s team, but will have its own brand, name, colors and crest, all driven by the fans. Company officials said the process of engaging supporters and community members in that branding process will begin in about six months.
Big Top’s owners have also announced that they will launch a team in Milwaukee to compete in USL Championship, the second tier of men’s professional soccer, in 2025.