The Chicago Red Stars are mathematically still in playoff contention despite being in eleventh place in a 12-team league. Their late-season push has kept them part of the larger conversation around the NWSL as the most competitive league in the world, with three wins in their last five games. Their most recent victory, against playoff contenders Washington Spirit, came just two days after.
Ricketts, one of the first women and LGBTQ+ owners of a major U.S. professional sports franchise, is the co-owner of MLB's Chicago Cubs and a minority investor in WNBA's Chicago Sky. She led a new ownership group of businesswomen and civic leaders with deep Chicago connections to finalize a deal to buy the Chicago Red Stars franchise from former majority owner Arnim Whisler. The former chairman put the team up for sale after the club was repeatedly investigated and named in multiple reports for abuse and misconduct during his stewardship.
The new group is considered a fresh start for a franchise that has navigated under structured dysfunction since its time in the NWSL, and her motivation for getting involved with the Red Stars stems from her own deep love of sport and a desire to grow the women's game specifically in the Midwest.
"I really think that we're on the brink of a new era with women's sports. It's been an evolution, but I think we're about to see more of an explosion, honestly," she told CBS Sports.
"I think Chicago, and the Midwest generally, just have a very genuine down-to-earth, honest, hard-working ethic. I think that's the character of the Midwest. Hardworking, dig in, jump in to help someone else. I feel like I've had that instilled in me by my parents, and I was inspired by it. I aspire to be that way, and it's just one of the things I love about Chicago and the people here."
Finding the right group
When Ricketts began vetting her network and friendships for like-minded individuals for an ownership takeover, it was a nearly year-long process that began with what would set the group apart from others across the league.
"I love what they're doing at Angel City. All the celebrities that they have, and not that celebrities can't be genuine, but that sort of flashy ownership is really exciting -- but that wouldn't work here in Chicago. But I feel like we've put together local celebrities, which are the hardworking, smart, creative, personable, lovely, intelligent, powerful women that we put together to lead this ownership group. So I feel like we've done sort of our Midwest, or our Chicago version, of what they've done there in building an ownership group."
The group is led by Ricketts but also includes Angela E.L. Barnes, chief legal officer of IDEO; Traci P. Beck, M.D.; Debra Cafaro, chairman and CEO of Ventas, Inc., and partner in the Pittsburgh Penguins; Laura Desmond, chair and CEO of smartly .io; Sidney Dillard, investment banker and partner at Chicago's Loop Capital; Megan Murphy, owner, LaCrosse Milling Company; Editha Paras, non-profit executive; Col. Jennifer N. Pritzker, IL ARNG (retired), founder of the TAWANI Enterprises Inc.; strategic communications consultant Hilary Rosen; Jessica Droste Yagan, partner and CEO of Impact Engine; and entrepreneur Tom O'Reilly, and the Engelhardt Family.
"The people in our investment group are people that I've known for a long time and are good friends. I know we are passionate also, and are all about this for the right reasons, and are smart and creative and clever," she said. "When we started down this road, you can point to all the smart people who are passionate about this in your life, and it's not clear they're all gonna want to invest. I don't think it's an obvious investment for women. I don't think that they're invited to invest very often. I also think there's the hurdle of the perception that you need to be a billionaire to invest in professional sports. It's not a liquid asset, it's not without risk, etc, etc. But I will say there were a few people I knew that were kind of the obvious people that I would ask who I think are going to be just great owners."
Turning surviving into thriving
Despite the club still being in contention for a playoff spot, they're also on par to have their worst-ever season in club history. The team has been among the top four playoff teams since 2015, reaching three title games in the last three years (Challenge Cup and NWSL Championship), and still sneaked into the playoffs as a six-seed in the 2022 postseason.
An unfortunate staple of their previous culture was that of a team that excelled through the abilities of their talented players with minimal resources while navigating toxic environments brought on by superiors. It's a narrative that Ricketts wants to help change and one she and the new owners want to address immediately. Through rebuilding relationships across the organization with players and fans.
When the final sale closed, the new majority owner was in the D.C. area during the Red Stars' recent win for a light introduction with the players. The ownership group also had an immediate letter to fans posted to the website as a first step in connection with a fractured fanbase. But those were just the first introductory, steps for Ricketts. There are multiple areas that will need attention and more conversations for Ricketts to have.
"I do think that we need to get in and really get engaged and get a better sense of the lay of the land. We know some from our due diligence, and the fans know, because there are some of the things we're going to need to address," she said.
"I like to refer to them as challenges/opportunities, because there's always an opportunity and a challenge. I think I would say after the players though, I want to talk to all the staff and the employees and the front office, really get to know them, and get a sense of how well-staffed this organization is. I would not hesitate to bet right now that we're going to need to add staff."
Immediate areas of investment
The final sale of the franchise closed at $60 million, with $35.5 million going to the former owners and the remaining earmarked toward club operations. The club has had no general manager since terminating former player Michelle Lomnicki. It was a dismissal that was ultimately resolved through litigation and a position that only recently existed after former head coach Rory Dames functioned as a dual coach and general manager. Dames was allowed to resign ahead of the coming to light of allegations of abuse and mismanagement which were reported in the Washington Post.
Additional operations staff, sporting executives and investment toward current infrastructure are on Ricketts' list of things to do for the new ownership group. They include both immediate and longer-term scenarios. The club will need to close out the 2023 season and prep for an offseason that will have another double expansion and NWSL draft.
"We're gonna have to gear up pretty quickly to get ready for next season. I know there are things like training facilities that we're gonna need to invest in and among other things," she said.
"We're going to have to obviously hire a new head of sporting, a director of sporting, or GM, that's going to be an immediate concern of ours. It's something we're already giving thought to. Then, I think, ultimately, we're going to have some new executives as something that we're also giving thought to. The structure of the executive leadership, and who and how that looks, and who might be able to fill those roles in a way to really lead this team forward in this new chapter."
The Red Stars currently play their games at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Chicago Fire previously played there before breaking their lease to now play in Chicago at Solider Field. The Red Stars aren't quite primary residents of the Bridgeview facilities as the Fire and their youth academies still train at the SeatGeek facilities. The MLS franchise has begun construction on new training grounds for 2024, but the Red Stars still have plans to use the stadium as the home base in general.
"I want to look at things like the season ticket holders and corporate partnerships. Start with things that are going to help immediately impact the bottom line for this team," she said. "Then we'll start to look at some of the longer-term challenges. Not that we aren't already, but I think that it's really the human contact, the relationships, the understanding of the nature of the staff and where we're at."