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Rich Kleiman & Kara Nortman Highlight the Power of Investing in Women’s Sports

35V co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman joined Angel City FC co-founder Kara Nortman to outline how women’s sports leagues can set themselves up for success.

Even if Angel City FC fails to make the playoffs in its first NWSL campaign, Los Angeles’s newest professional sports team has been an unquestioned success early on — not just for its own brand, but for the league and women’s sports in general.

As of Sept. 25, Angel City has drawn nearly 19,000 fans per game, topping the NWSL by a wide margin. Big name players like Sydney Leroux and Christen Press have brought fans to their feet, and an ownership group led by co-founder Kara Nortman and huge names in its ownership group like Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Candace Parker, Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy, Lauren Holiday, and Alexis Ohanian are spreading the word that women’s sports ownership is a strong asset class.

Angel City’s and the NWSL’s success was a major topic of conversation last week when Nortman joined 35V and Boardroom co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman as part of a panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.

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“The best thing a lot of these leagues have going for them is the shift in ownership groups. Angel City has done an impeccable job of building a brand that, in some ways, is bigger than the NWSL right away, but it benefits the league,” said Kleiman, whose 35V with Kevin Durant is part of NJ/NY Gotham FC‘s ownership group. “With Gotham FC, I would say fairly that our interest was definitely triggered a bit by watching how they were creating their brand in L.A.”

Sports team ownership is not just lucrative, it presents an opportunity to be a front-facing steward of a major part of a city’s overarching fabric. With the barrier to entry largely too high in the NFL or NBA, North American soccer leagues like MLS and the NWSL have proven to be a reliable landing spot for many bold-face names across sports and business.

“The ability to have great CEOs and great entrepreneurs that are leading these teams now, leading these organizations, that’s going to be where the difference is,” Kleiman added.

Nortman said Angel City and the NWSL’s growth over the last few years have been greatly aided by social media platforms like Instagram, which will have a major part in widening the league’s distribution in its next media deal.

“Because of social media, we were able to convince people that it could work this time because women’s sports has never had media distribution,” Nortman said after previous U.S. women’s soccer leagues like the WUSA and WPS didn’t catch on. “So it creates this virtuous cycle. I might tell people we’re building a team for a bunch of reasons, but one is to show that we can build enterprise value of a club that’s as big as Manchester United or Liverpool or the Lakers someday. Back then, they would look at me in disbelief. Now, they look at me with much less disbelief.”

Nortman used her 14-year-old daughter as an example of Instagram’s impact. Her daughter started following women’s soccer players along with the normal array of beauty influencers. Then, because she saw those top players be so impactful on IG, she tried out for her school team. Nortman took the point further to proclaim that she wouldn’t have helped found Angel City if not for Instagram.

The team created a player-driven content studio to spread the word, and an incentive system to pay players a percentage of gate revenue.

After the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup in 2015, Nortman said she went to nine different stores to buy jerseys for her daughters and found just one single uniform with no name on the back, despite millions watching the tournament and packing stadiums. Online content was just as hard to find. Now, top players on social media make women’s soccer a constant conversation, not something that comes up every four years.

“The last two leagues weren’t funded sustainably and they probably didn’t have the right distribution to create a flywheel,” Nortman said. “You need your capital to really show up and understand how long the opportunity is going to take. And to have people around the table who are exceptional. We brought people into the league — into our team — who had never been in sports before. Media executives, gaming executives, tech executives.”

Rich Kleiman, EA COO Laura Miele, Kara Nortman, and Editor-In-Chief Fast Company Brendan Vaughan attend The Fast Company Innovation Festival (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Fast Company)

A major problem Kleiman saw in past sports leagues was that they were built and compared to the so-called four major American sports leagues. But there wasn’t the right strategy, infrastructure, or media distribution to make it work for their dedicated fan bases.

“These are communities that are ravenous. I’ve watched it,” Kleiman said. “These are experiences that are engaging. The opportunity to look at some of these sports and communities and market them in a different way, figure out a way to create experiences, create stories, and rivalries amongst these athletes and to market it according to that business, that sport, and that fan base and nothing else. You can’t have 100,000 people in a stadium and having young women and young men line up for hours to meet these stars and then not have a professional organization that works.”

Taking leagues Kleiman and 35V invested in like the NWSL, Premier Lacrosse League, Athletes Unlimited, and Major League Pickleball as examples, it’s about knowing how to activate and build around them rather than compare them to more established professional sports. But as we’ve seen with the WNBA, substantial growth isn’t going to occur without wide and proper media distribution. If you build that, it’s been largely proven, massive deals are attainable.

We just saw it with MLS’s 10-year, $2.5 billion media rights deal with Apple. With other streaming players like Amazon, and even Netflix and YouTube going towards more ad-based models, the type of audience Angel City and the NWSL reaches will undoubtedly become appealing, according to Nortman. It’s a young, diverse audience mainly in the age 17-35 demographic, but she said the league needs tonnage in order to grow.

That means more teams, more games, more people in stadiums. And by getting a huge media rights deal, broadcast revenue will grow, more teams will come in, and the overall value of the teams and the league will continue to multiply. It’s why she’s helping build the infrastructure for potential franchises in cities like Denver, Austin, and Boston without any financial stake, to grow the league, grow revenues, attract sponsors, and to improve player wages.

“What we really need to go is get more people in stadiums, and get owners who want to invest in the front office, marketing, databases, direct marketing,” Nortman said. “The future is bright, and we have a lot of those owners in the league, and we need more people like Kevin and Rich come in and bring awareness in a whole different way.”

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