Academy Award–winning actress Natalie Portman and a group of predominantly female founders were awarded the rights to bring a National Women’s Soccer League team to Los Angeles in 2022.
Portman and tech venture capitalist Kara Nortman, media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian, who led the investment with his fund, Initialized Capital, are sidelining the traditional ownership model. Founding the NWSL’s 11th team through an expansive investor ownership group that includes a number of Hollywood, tech, venture, media and sports stars, the startup-like setup is itself as notable as the names behind it.
Twelve former U.S. Women’s National Team players, including FIFA World Cup champions Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Lauren Cheney Holiday and Abby Wambach were also announced as part of the founding investor group, as are actors Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba, America Ferrera and Lilly Singh, as well as author Glennon Doyle.
A handful of other entrepreneurs, as well as executives from Netflix and Baby2Baby round out the 32-member initial ownership group, which has also received local support. Well before the announcement, residents formed a grassroots local supporters group to help an L.A.-based NWSL team gain traction.
“Normally in startups we think about finding product-market fit, and this is one of those [situations] where the market is very much asking for the product already. L.A. is ready,” Ohanian told Sportico. The Reddit co-founder also made a personal investment into the team on behalf of his wife, tennis star Serena Williams, and their daughter, Olympia—now likely the youngest owner in sports at two months shy of three years old.
“I’m looking at this as a business decision. Yes, I believe there are a lot of good social reasons for this to be a successful enterprise, but this is first and foremost a capitalist one,” Ohanian added. “This is where esports was five years ago, except these teams are far more marketable; the athletes are far more popular and have already transcended the sport and culture. And while I am all for [what] this represents—a generation of athletes who should get paid what they’re worth, who should get treated fairly and equally—I also know this is tracking in the right direction. The free market is actually going to show that this has been undervalued for way too long by far too many people.”
Without a team name or venue partner announced yet, the group—which established WFC LA, Inc. as a limited liability company in June with Uhrman listed as CEO and president—is calling itself “Angel City” as a nod to its future home. Angel City will join the Portland Thorns and OL Reign, located in Tacoma, Wash., as the league’s third West Coast team, and it will follow Racing Louisville FC, set to debut in 2021, as the NWSL’s next expansion franchise.
“After spending time with the USWNT players, their union rep, and getting to know some of the owners of the NWSL and the league’s supporters, it became clear having a team in L.A. could not only elevate the league and players’ exposure, but also bring these incredibly talented women to the city of L.A.—my city,” Portman told Sportico. “We have the ability to engage, promote and support the best players in the world in the most popular sport in the world on a yearly basis, not just every four years.”
The expansion announcement comes on the heels of the USWNT’s 2019 FIFA World Cup win—where a record 1.12 billion viewers tuned into official broadcast coverage of the tournament—growth that continued with the NWSL’s own audience domestically and internationally. The league’s 2019 average attendance was up 21.8% over 2018 and 71.8% over its inaugural 2013 season. The ongoing Challenge Cup tournament in Utah drew a record-setting audience of 572,000 viewers for its opening match, marking a 201% increase over the NWSL’s previous high of 190,000.
Los Angeles is already home to nine other professional sports teams, including two Major League Soccer teams, but has not had a professional women’s team since 2010, when the Los Angeles Sol of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League dissolved.
“It’s clear that Los Angeles in particular is a huge soccer market. Every time the USWNT comes to play, they’re selling out Dignity Health Sports Park,” Uhrman said of the home of the Galaxy, one of the city’s MLS teams, which seats 27,000 fans. “We felt like that was the recipe for success: having this incredible ownership group that believes in our mission and our purpose and having a fan base that already exists, that is really willing this to happen.”
In addition to the rights to the newest NWSL expansion team, the group announced a community partnership with the LA84 Foundation. Now a formal supporter of the Play Equity Fund, which works to increase youth access to sport within underserved communities in Los Angeles, Angel City is focused on sport as a vehicle for social justice and gender equity as much as it is concerned with its on-field product.
“Our story from the beginning was different—from starting with three founding women to building a movement before even having the money, stadium, rights or fans [to now] being able to grow our list of founding investors,” Portman said. “We believe in setting higher expectations on and off the field, for our team, players and fans. Success to us isn’t only on the field, but our impact in our community, payback to our players and entertainment of the world. We are not a legacy team but a team of activists, athletes and entrepreneurs who are used to challenging the status quo and reshaping expectations.”