Angel City

18 December 2020 - 4:14 PM



Interview with President of Angel City FC – the women's soccer team that counts Natalie Portman, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and the co-founder of Reddit as investors

  • Angel City FC is set to join the US National Women's Soccer League in 2022. While expansion teams are typically financed by one or more wealthy individuals and their networks, Angel City FC is raising funds like a startup, with specific milestones.
  • The club's vision is to make a social impact while being profitable and having success on the pitch. “It's not just about wins and losses, but it's about your impact outside the arena that matters just as much,” says club President.
  • Angel City FC will become the first major US professional sports team with a majority-female ownership group.
  • President Julie Uhrman says the ultimate ambition is to build a global brand "where mission and capital can coexist".

One of the first things visitors to the Angel City Football Club website see is an invitation – to "join the team that changes the game forever".

It's a bold claim, but one this fledgling club is determined to live up to.

Angel City FC is a Los Angeles-based expansion team scheduled to join the US National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) in Spring 2022.

However, president Julie Uhrman tells in an interview, its goals stretch beyond the pitch.

"We want to use this club – the players, the coaches, the front office, the investors – as a platform to set higher expectations. And we want to do that in two ways – through equality and impact," she says.

"We see the ultimate goal of that as being champions both on and off the field. And I think that's a really different way of thinking about building a sporting club, where it's not just about wins and losses, but it's about your impact outside the arena that matters just as much."

New investors may be brought in

When the club was unveiled in July, it announced a partnership with the LA84 Foundation, which makes grants to non-profit youth sports organisations in Southern California.

The headline, however, focused on Angel City FC's star-studded list of investors. Uhrman, a media and gaming entrepreneur, and Kara Nortman, a venture capitalist, are two of the three founders. Natalie Portman, the Oscar award-winning actress and activist, is the third.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and now a venture capitalist, is leading founding investor. Other founding investors include former US internationals Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm, well-known actresses like Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner and other prominent athletes including Serena Williams and Billie Jean King. Angel City FC will become the first major US professional sports team with a majority-female ownership group.

To fund the club's entry to the league, Uhrman says Angel City FC took a "very different" approach. 
While expansion teams are typically financed by one or more wealthy individuals and their networks, Angel City FC is raising funds like a startup, with specific milestones. When those milestones are hit, and as the club's financial needs develop, new investors may be brought in or existing investors asked to put in more money.

Develop other products

"Today, we have a beautiful stadium to play in. But in five years, we may be able to justify building our own stadium. I don't want to raise the money today at a lower valuation than I might or might not need in five years from now," Uhrman, who recently took part in the Sports Tomorrow Congress, organized by Barça Innovation Hub, says.

"We view Angel City as a platform. And we view Angel City Football Club as the first expression of that platform that stands for equality and impact. You could see us develop other products or services or move into other leagues to develop other teams that also have those same underlying principles of equality and impact.

"We recognise that we have this platform that is just bigger than the game of football."

The cost of forming an NWSL expansion team is "significantly less than setting up an MLS club". Billionaire David Tepper, the owner of NFL team Carolina Panthers, reportedly paid $325 million (€267.8 million) for Charlotte to enter Major League Soccer next year.

Thinking beyond ticket revenue

Uhrman says Angel City FC will not face some of the significant costs new MLS clubs have, for example building a stadium. Last month, Angel City FC announced it would share the Banc of California Stadium with MLS club Los Angeles FC.

"We believe that if we continue to bring in the right partners from a media perspective, from a sponsorship perspective, from an ownership perspective, and really invest, the valuation can absolutely grow because the cost base is less," Uhrman says.

"So it's easier for us to get to profitability if we're smart about growing our audience, engaging our audience and coming up with multiple ways that they can engage with the brand."

This means "thinking beyond" ticket revenue, typically the most important revenue stream for NWSL clubs. In a competitive sporting city, Uhrman knows the fan experience has to be memorable.
"It's not just about buying a ticket, it's about creating an experience that is so FOMO (fear of missing out), that once you have a ticket, you are going to move heaven and earth to actually go to that game," she says.

Sponsorship money is re-allocated to local causes

"What the league is missing is really including the players in the process. The players have an incredible platform themselves, where they can draw awareness and build excitement for the clubs and their teams.

"How do they make money off driving ticket sales? Selling merchandise? Getting butts in seats? They're part of the solution, too."

With the club set to focus on its sporting model and recruitment in 2021, a key task now is recruiting sponsors, with brewer Heineken USA recently unveiled as the club's first.

Under the club's commitment to "increasing access to resources, information and opportunities for groups who have been marginalised" it has devised a unique sponsorship model. Ten per cent of the value of each sponsorship will be re-allocated to local causes. For example, the club and Heineken USA have agreed to use 10 per cent of sponsorship funds to support the LGBTQ community in and around Los Angeles.

"What's really resonating with sponsors is our purpose-driven business, the idea that everything we do we want to have immediate impact in our community," Uhrman says.

Gives authenticity

"We are willing to not only leverage our coaches and players, which is fairly common, but also leverage our front office and our investors to build awareness and amplify what it is we're doing.

"The 10 per cent back is actually resonating really well with sponsors, because it gives authenticity to the work that we do in the community. And it gives authenticity to why we're doing that work."

From a commercial perspective, there is growing interest in women's football. The 2019 Women's World Cup saw record-breaking TV audiences and the Challenge Cup, one of two tournaments held in place of the NWSL Championship, saw the most-viewed matches in NWSL history.

In March, the NWSL signed a three-year deal for domestic media rights with broadcaster CBS and Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch.

By 2022, when Angel City FC enter the NWSL, there will be 12 teams in the league (there are 10 currently).

Cultural icons

Uhrman believes the NWSL remains "an incredibly undervalued league in the United States".

"When you really take time to look at it, it actually has the ingredients to be probably the most successful and have the highest percentage of growth in the next couple years than any of the other leagues," she says.

"These players are already recognisable, cultural icons. And if we can lean into that and start telling those stories, we're going to get more people to pay attention. And when they pay attention, what they're going to see is incredible athletes and an incredibly fun game."

In the first rounds of fundraising for the club, some investors struggled to understand if they were being asked to back a charity or a football club that may provide a financial return.

Natalie Portman was "very involved" in telling the story of Angel City FC to celebrity investors, Uhrman says.

"Our ultimate ambition is to be a global brand, which means we ultimately want to have global impact. But we want to start locally and then expand," she says.

We can build a club differently

"When we were developing the idea of Angel City, we wanted to build an organisation where mission and capital could coexist. Where we could lead with purpose, but also use our passion to drive to profitability.

"The most ironic thing about football clubs and any sports team in any league, is that most people know they don't make money. And yet everybody wants to be an owner.

"We want to show that we can build this club differently. With an ultimate goal of driving impact, but also being profitable."