Everything is possible in Angel City. Boardroom sat down with key figures behind the NWSL club’s innovative and unprecedented business model.
Angel City FC began as a figment of Natalie Portman’s imagination. Now, the club is a tangible piece of history.
Last Friday, April 29, Angel City began its inaugural NWSL campaign with a bang. Opening night was very L.A., with A-list celebrities walking the pink carpet before the match. However, there’s an important delineation to make between this spectacle and most Hollywood soirées: Angel City is not a vanity project.
On the pink carpet, NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman was choked up after overhearing Billie Jean King say she’s “been waiting for this moment for over 50 years” — to see proof that women’s sports can be taken seriously as “a value proposition.”
“The instant you think of the women’s game as a charity project, you fail it,” leading investor Alexis Ohanian told Boardroom. “You will never be successful if you’re thinking this is just a nice thing for the kids or a nice thing for little girls. This has every opportunity to be a world-class sports organization and not just setting a standard for women’s soccer, not just setting a standard for women’s sports, setting a standard for sports — period.”
Fact-checking Ohanian is easy; people are showing up in record numbers for the NWSL. A preseason game between the North Carolina Courage and the reigning champion Washington Spirit averaged 368,000 viewers days before Angel City topped North Carolina 2-1 before a sold-out crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium. Angel City boasts over 15,400 season ticket holders.
For Angel City, the support is bi-directional: 10% of all sponsorship revenue funnels back into the community that long begged for an NWSL franchise.
What Angel City has that no other club can claim, too, is a majority female ownership group in Portman, Julie Uhrman, Kara Nortman, and Ohanian — not to mention the numerous A-list investors from differing industries who signed on in their wake.
“Natalie is not just an owner; Natalie is the godmother of this team,” Julie Foudy, one of 14 U.S. women’s national team players serving as Angel City investors, gushed in October 2020.
It wasn’t as simple as Portman waving a wand — that’s not what the Oscar-winning actress and activist wanted to do, anyway. The simplest part of the process, though, was recognizing that so many people have fumbled a bag that’s so easily cashable over the course of decades. Seeing women’s soccer for what it has always been — an untapped vessel with endless potential, both in profit and impact — and acting on it.
“The team that I want to help build is one where in five years, in 10 years, the Manchester Uniteds of the world are looking around going, ‘How the hell did they do that?'” Ohanian said.
The clock started on Angel City because of Time’s Up, which was launched in January 2018 in response to the #MeToo movement.
Portman was part of the founding group of over 300 women in entertainment fighting for “safe, fair, and dignified” workplaces. Abby Wambach spoke at a Time’s Up event. As the retired USWNT record-holder described the treatment that she and her teammates had suffered in vast contrast to their male counterparts in soccer, Portman was inspired to expand her fight for equality.
Portman and Nortman spoke with several USWNT players ahead of their now-settled pay equity lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, filed in early 2019.
“Over the course of over a year, Natalie spent a lot of time with women who were at the top of their game, who get more viewership than their male counterparts, who are household names but they don’t receive the compensation of their male counterparts,” Uhrman explained to Boardroom. “And then, she’d go home and see her son wear a [Megan] Rapinoe jersey and a [Alex] Morgan jersey, and, the next day, a LeBron jersey. To him, they were equals. But in the eyes of the rest of the world, they weren’t equals.”
After the USWNT claimed gold at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France that summer, Uhrman recalls that Portman decided the time was right to will Angel City into existence.
“And so, Natalie and Kara brought me on to build Angel City,” said Uhrman, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
Despite their excitement, fundamental questions remained. Together, they met with Renata Simril of LA84 Foundation and Play Equity Fund to think through them intentionally.
What does it mean to use sports as a tool to address social injustice in our communities?
How do we address the inequities that young girls face, and how do we keep them in sports longer?
Is it systemic change or immediate change?
Soon, they reached out to their peers to establish an undeniable foundation for what is now an unprecedented ownership group that already has had ripple effects.
“You’ve got [Lewis] Hamilton and Serena [Williams] investing in Chelsea,” Uhrman posed. “You had Marshawn Lynch invest in Seattle [Kraken], right? Would that have happened if Angel City didn’t come out with our 100-plus owners? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think they would’ve thought it was possible. It was always being presented as a vanity play, and I think we changed the language. We are leading with purpose, but we want to drive profitability because that actually changes the game — when they both work together.”
“I think what makes this different is that most of us didn’t ever believe we could be a sports team owner,” she added. “It’s not even something you dream about, right? I mean, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’d love to own a team!’ But you don’t actually think that that’s a possibility. We’ve done that by creating such a diverse ownership group, which includes celebrities, athletes, business executives, entertainment executives, and people that just never thought they’d have a seat at the table in the sport that they love.”
Alexis Ohanian is titled as the leading investor, but he doesn’t want to be seen as the leading man on the Angel City marquee.
The Reddit co-founder and 776 Foundation founder had been wanting to either acquire or found an NWSL club before Nortman, Portman and Uhrman came calling.
“I’d been rage-tweeting,” he admitted with a laugh, “about what an amazing opportunity this was and how undervalued women’s soccer was in the U.S.”
“I sat down and immediately connected with these three founders, what they wanted to do, and more importantly, the approach that they were interested in taking,” he continued. “As I saw it, women’s football was an amazing opportunity in the United States because the individual women who are already unequivocally — at least in my opinion — the best in the world had already transcended the sport for the average American. A few years ago even, an average American knew Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan and the greatness of the U.S. women’s national team before they even knew about the NWSL.”
And everyone in the world certainly recognizes the greatness of Serena Williams, Ohanian’s wife of five years. Williams is unequivocally one of the greatest tennis players of all time with 23 grand slams to her name, but the paths she’s had to pave as a Black woman away from the court is her most lasting legacy.
Together, Ohanian and Williams have impacted the next generation by making their now-four-year-old daughter Olympia the youngest-ever professional sports owner when she was two years old.
“A lot of what first piqued my interest in this was seeing her running around our house during the [World Cup] final in 2019,” Ohanian said. “I had gotten her a little Alex Morgan kit for the women’s national team. We were watching the final, and like any dad, I remarked to my wife, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if one day Olympia played on the women’s national team?’ And without missing a beat, Serena said, ‘Not until they pay her what she’s worth.'”
This February, Gabrielle Union and her three-year-old daughter, Kaavia James, followed suit by joining as investors. Their participation was announced as part of a funding round that also included Christina Aguilera, Rachel Zoe, Shawn Johnson East, Andrew East, and Jay Shetty.
Angel City’s model is built upon famous and successful people deciding to convert their social capital into economic capital, which will only lead to denser sociological influence. The widespread autonomy doesn’t end in the diverse front office, either. Sporting director Eni Aluko, a former England international player and lawyer with a Ted Lasso cameo to her name, also has equity in the club.
“There’s so many amazing names involved in Angel City that have done incredible things in their own sport or businesses — that have inspired me since I was a young kid,” Aluko told Boardroom. “Whether that’s Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach, Billie Jean King, these are all women that just are synonymous with success and change and breaking ceilings.”
“It’s just like this ripple effect of investment and purpose that I think a lot of people are bought into that you really feel it at Angel City,” she continued. “Are we gonna be Barcelona overnight? No. I think it’s really important to say that. But there’s a real intention behind the purpose of Angel City that I think is gonna take us a long way.”
The return on investment is obvious for every person who bought into Portman’s original vision.
“The numbers don’t lie. Data doesn’t care about your feelings,” Ohanian said. “You may not think that the women’s game should be as valuable or meaningful as the men’s, but when you’re seeing just as many people watching the women’s as the men, that’s it. That’s the free market telling you, actually, you’re wrong.”
And winning will help to appreciate Angel City’s inherent value.
The Reimagined Now
Christen Press was born to play for Angel City.
By signing Press as its first-ever player last August, Angel City didn’t just provide the L.A. native and two-time World Cup champion an excuse to come home. Not only is she living out a childhood dream born during the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup of playing before her hometown crowd, but she’s allowed to embrace the totality of who she is. Home isn’t just a physical place, Press knows now. It’s an internal feeling.
“I wanted to play at the highest level on a team that had ambition to win, and then after I heard about the club, I found out about the mission and the vision and the why,” Press told Boardroom. “It felt serendipitous because a lot of the values that this club holds are the values that I’ve prioritized in my own life. I was meant to play here. And it really called to me to play for a team that has equity at its core.”
Press is inventive as a goal-scoring forward, but her creativity thrives most as the co-founder and CEO of re-inc.
“I brought my characteristics as a player into myself as a CEO,” she said. “People always say, ‘athletes make great entrepreneurs.’ And I was like, ‘That’s a lie.’ And then I started to do it, and I did understand what people meant because there’s a relentlessness and a little bit of a craze [you have to have] as an athlete.”
The lifestyle brand was launched in 2019 by Press and other USWNT stars Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, and Meghan Klingenberg with a mission eerily similar to Angel City’s: “inspiring us all to boldly reimagine the status quo.” The vehicles are different — soccer for Angel City, eco-conscious and gender-fluid clothes for re-inc— but the purpose is the same.
Press feels empowered to fulfill her larger calling at her day job, and for the first time, she sees herself in the Angel City ownership group.
“For the entirety of my career, I’ve been trying to push the game forward alongside all of my teammates,” she said. “There’s a full job off the field, fighting for resources and trying to raise the standard. I think Angel City just represents that entire mission of a new future for women athletes — and progress. And to have female ownership and leadership, it offers a different model where now when we need something, and we’re speaking to the people that own and started this club, there’s less of this feeling of resistance — like we’re fighting against the man that has the money.”
Press isn’t the only player positively benefitting from proper representation. Angel City captain Ali Riley, acquired via trade from Orlando, couldn’t contain her emotions once the club began game action.
“It’s just such a cool concept of creating your own legacy, and so often as a professional athlete, you think about your legacy on the field or the court or the pitch, and it isn’t until the end of your career that you think about what you would like to leave beyond your playing days,” veteran defender Jasmyne Spencer told Boardroom. “I think what Angel City is doing is giving all of us an opportunity to start that from day one. For me, it is being an entrepreneur and really exploring this idea of sustainability and how I can influence people with that.”
For Press, every day has its own legacy.
“Legacy is kind of a funny word for me. It’s a big word,” Press said. “I don’t think about legacy. I think about impact, [and] I think about touching people’s lives. I’m a very existential thinker [and] kind of person, and even in hard times in my career, it’s not that I was a little girl that played football. What motivates me is that there’s people in the stands, and for those 90 minutes, they’re having fun. And they’re celebrating. And they’re with their friends and families. So, touching people is what really motivates me and the movement you can create.”
And for Angel City, true legacy is built before and after those 90 minutes.
“Plenty of sports organizations have to spend lots of time, lots of money, lots of ads trying to convince the communities that they operate in that they care,” Ohanian explained. “This organization, from day one, has been feeding folks, planting community gardens, doing real work to support the community. Nike’s donating sports bras to underserved young girls who want to play soccer for every ticket that we sell.
“When this is a 50-year-old organization, no one will need to fake or convince people that it cares about the city of Los Angeles because we’ll have 50 years of receipts from the start.”