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First LA, then the world – NWSL’s Angel City sets sights on becoming global brand

  • Natalie Portman and Serena Williams among expansion team’s 33-strong, female-led ownership group
  • League’s first team in California scheduled to launch in 2022; venue partner yet to be announced
  • Team’s executives have high hopes that “the world will pay attention” to efforts on and off field

Angel City, the provisionally-named National Women’s Soccer League expansion team in Los Angeles, is almost two years away from playing its first game – but the organization is already demonstrating a global ambition that has not been seen in the league before.

Earlier this year, the NWSL gained its first major foothold in Europe when OL Groupe, the parent company of French women’s soccer team Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, took over the Seattle-based Reign FC in a $3.51m (€3.15m) deal.

OL Groupe became the first international majority owner of an NWSL team. A key part of the project is to expand the awareness of the Olympique Lyonnais brand in the United States and that of the rebranded OL Reign in Lyon and in France.

To date, however, no NWSL team has expressed a determination to capture the attention of the global women’s soccer community in the way that Angel City has from the get-go.

Angel City secured immediate attention, both nationally in the US as well as internationally, when the team formally launched in July. This was in large part due to the team’s star-studded ownership group, which includes Hollywood actress and Oscar winner Natalie Portman as well as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, his wife tennis superstar Serena Williams and even their two-year old daughter Alexis.

In the 33-strong ownership group, other investors include celebrities such as America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria, as well as high-profile former US women’s national team players including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, among many others.

The organization’s principal founders are Portman, technology venture capitalist Kara Nortman, media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, and Ohanian who has led the investment through his firm Initialized Capital.

The other partners are minor investors, who will help support and promote the franchise, as well as lend their experience and expertise in their respective fields. The expansion fee has not been disclosed.

Notably, it is one of the first female majority-owned and led ownership groups in US sports, alongside the upcoming Major League Soccer expansion team in St. Louis, Missouri. The two-year-old Alexis Olympia Ohanian, meanwhile, is believed to be the youngest co-owner of a professional sports team in the States.

Angel City will be the NWSL’s first team in California and, at present, its 11th franchise when it enters the league in 2022, following the arrival of Racing Louisville FC next year. Being based in Los Angeles will also give the league a valued presence in the country’s second-largest media market.

The franchise does not have an affiliation with either of the local Major League Soccer teams, LAFC or Los Angeles Galaxy. This is in marked contrast to the majority of NWSL teams who have direct ties to their local MLS and United Soccer League franchises, providing much-needed structural support in a league which has only begun to find its feet this season under the leadership of new commissioner Lisa Baird after years of instability and uncertainty.

Angel City is the provisional name of the team, which will be formally announced later this year, as will its venue partner. The Los Angeles Times reports that conversations have taken place between the team and LA Galaxy about the possibility of playing at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.

By joining the NWSL in 2022, Angel City will have almost two years to prepare for its launch by raising awareness among the local sports and corporate communities.

The organization has made an immediate mark. As of late July, Angel City had 25,300 Twitter followers, more than double that of fellow expansion team Racing Louisville (10,500) and not far behind the established Chicago Red Stars (28,400). Angel City also had 57,700 followers on Instagram.

According to Ohanian, Angel City will be a “lifestyle, apparel, and sports organization”, indicating wider business plans. In a blog post, Ohanian said Angel City’s launch – which came with “zero marketing spend” – earned an estimated media value of $31m across social, online news, print news and broadcast. Within 36 hours, Ohanian added, the team also gained more than 60,000 social media followers, 3.4 million native impressions and one million views, as well as a sold-out merchandise drop.

Meanwhile, the team has taken steps from the outset to develop community relations by partnering with the LA84 Foundation’s Play Equity Fund, which promotes access to sport for young athletes, particularly those of color.

SportBusiness spoke to Uhrman, who is the team’s president, about how the organization came together and what its goals are in the short and long term.

How pleased have you all been with the reaction to the launch of the team?

I’m overwhelmed and incredibly grateful. The amount of support for US women’s national soccer players, for the league, for the city of Los Angeles…and just the general joy that we’re going to bring the best athletes in the world to Los Angeles has been incredible. The outpouring from business people in different sectors to around the world is just something that we never anticipated.

What was the process of putting the organization together? 

The idea for this came a couple of years ago with my founding partners Natalie Portman and Kara Nortman, who got to know each other through their work at Time’s Up [an organization that was founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement and advocates for workplaces free of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination] and were introduced to the US women’s national team through Becca Roux, who is the executive director of the US Women’s National Team Players Association. Over the course of a year they had a number of conversations about pay equity, female empowerment and how to make a difference in the community.

All of that came together when there was a USWNT match in 2019 [a friendly against Belgium at Banc of California Stadium that April] when Natalie wanted to draw attention to the pay equity fight and all these incredible women athletes. She invited a lot of her friends who are also celebrities to come to the match. They all continued to talk all the way through the 2019 Women’s World Cup, which the US women won. At the end of that Natalie said we should bring a women’s professional soccer team to Los Angeles and that the time is now.

Kara and I play in a women in tech basketball league over the summer and they asked me if I wanted to help them develop a business case to determine if it was financially feasible to bring a professional women’s soccer team to Los Angeles and then how we would go about it.

You have a unique ownership model, with 33 investors. Why did you decide to go down this route?

The intent wasn’t to go for 33 investors but as we started having conversations to find individuals that wanted to support the organization and promote the organization and help us build a platform and brand that should transcend the typical sports franchise IP – to really to be a global brand where we can entertain globally but also act locally – we found a lot of people who believe in our mission. They are like-minded in the idea that not only can we have an impact in our community but we can create a financially viable and hugely successful business.

Everyone understood that women’s soccer in the US was undervalued that there’s incredible growth opportunity, not only because of the calibre of play is so high but the players are truly stars in their own right and activists and builders and exceptional athletes. Their passion and enthusiasm to want to join us just made us want to bring them along.

How important is it that the vast majority of these co-owners are women?

I think it’s great. We have a group of women that are passionate about the impact on our community, shining a light on these incredible women athletes, and bringing something truly unique to the city of Los Angeles. We will be the only professional women’s soccer team here so we can really unite the city in supporting a single club.

How is the project being funded – and are you in the process of gaining additional funding?

We think about this as a start-up, we set specific milestones and as we achieve those milestones we hope that it is reflected in the value of our company and we’ll go out to seek additional investors, who can not only be impactful today but also set us up for the future. We anticipate continuing to raise money as we need and as our ambitions grow.

How will you look to grow a fanbase?

Our goal is to be champions on the field and off, and that extends way beyond the 11 players on the field. We’re creating a platform where soccer is the primary expression of our brand but building a strong supporters’ community that works with us to help establish our brand, to show up to games, to act locally in our community is really important. The balance of this year is really building that strong support system and foundation with the supporters’ group and really leveraging them and working with them to make sure we build this in the right way and in a way they can be proud of.

Will you specifically look to target the Hispanic audience in the area?

The soccer community in Los Angeles is incredibly diverse. There is a strong support from the Hispanic community and LGBT community, youth girls and boys as well as young families. Our intent is to build a brand and a value proposition and an experience that everyone can enjoy.

Why have you decided to go alone and not directly align with one of the city’s MLS teams?

We have a very different approach to the market both from how we’re funding it to this [being a] majority women-owned, women-run, women-led group…and we wanted to control our own destiny and set our own goals and missions from the beginning. We’re just seeing this differently, we’re writing our own playbook, which we believe is uniquely ours.

Have you started the process of looking for broadcast and commercial partners?

No, we have not started that process yet.

Just to clarify what is the name of the team, is it Angel City? 

We call ourselves Angel City today affectionately to represent the City of Angels. We are going to work with our supporters’ group to finalize our name. We want it to be very specific to Los Angeles and a lot of us are developing a strong emotional connection to Angel City as we speak. Angel City is the top contender for the name.

How important do you think it is for the NWSL to be in the Los Angeles market?

I think it’s incredibly important. We have the opportunity to promote and engage our audience and the world by bringing the best athletes here. Los Angeles has a history of turning athletes into legacies and creating championship teams and we have every expectation that we will do that as well…and the world will pay attention.

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