Later this year, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) will welcome its 12th entry.
The US competition was set up in 2012. It is the most successful attempt to date at establishing a professional women’s football in a country whose world champion national side have long provided one of female sport’s most powerful team brands.
Based in Los Angeles, the brand-new Angel City FC are currently making their on-field debut in the NWSL Challenge Cup. They opened with a 1-1 group stage draw against San Diego Wave on 20th March.
Yet the real attention has been stirred by the Angel City concept off the pitch. Since a starry launch in July 2020, the club have courted investment that encourages female leadership and unites figures across sport, entertainment and technology.
That drive has been led by president Julie Uhrman, a former media executive and gaming entrepreneur, together with Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman. A founding group of investors included the likes of American national team icon Mia Hamm, Netflix vice president of original content Cindy Holland, and actors Jessica Chastain, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner.
For Portman, it is an opportunity to elevate the women’s game. “Watching my son idolize players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan the same way he did Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema,” she said in a March interview with the Guardian. “I realized that amplifying female athletes could rapidly shift culture.”
The new venture has already excited fans in Southern California. 16,000 NWSL season tickets have been sold at the Banc of California Stadium, which Angel City will share with men’s Major League Soccer team LAFC.
For Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who led the initial round of investment through his Initialized Capital fund, Angel City are arriving to meet a step-change in the commercialisation of women’s team sport. The team have already secured sponsorship from major brands like Gatorade and food delivery company DoorDash, banking $35 million in revenue.
“The problem with a lot of women’s sports organisations is the default mindset that historically many of them have been run [with] is charity,” Ohanian said, speaking at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas in March. “We heard these conversations early with the NWSL, and it needed to change because it’s insulting.”
According to Uhrman, Angel City has “more sponsorship revenue today than two hands’ worth of men’s professional sports teams”, while their kit “is the highest-grossing of any women’s team in the US”.
That running start has coincided with a burgeoning trend where leading female athletes’ investments are being directed towards social change. Tennis great Serena Williams – another Angel City investor and, incidentally, Ohanian’s wife – landed $111 million at the end of February for an early stage venture capital fund that will aim to support female and minority founders. Initially established to distribute seed funding for startups, Serena Ventures already has holdings in 60 companies across sectors including fintech, online education and blockchain technologies.
A Grand Slam winner from a younger generation, 24-year-old Naomi Osaka, has begun her first steps on a similar path. Alongside a broad portfolio of traditional endorsements – not to mention a stake in the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage – the Japanese star is the founder and chief executive of Kinló, a suncare brand specialising in products for people of colour.
In March, Osaka also became an ambassador for crypto exchange FTX, taking an equity stake in the company and an undisclosed sum of cryptocurrency.
“We have seen the statistics about how few women are part of crypto by comparison, which kind of mirrors the inequality we see in other financial markets,” said Osaka. “Cryptocurrencies started with the goal of being accessible to everyone and breaking down barriers to entry.”
That is the pattern being set. However Angel City fare in 2022, the commercial influence of women in sport is on a clear upward trajectory.
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