Angel City FC’s big year in the National Soccer League

The National Women’s Soccer League franchise, partially owned by Hollywood star Natalie Portman, completes its first season by beating its financial goals.

Hollywood blockbusters that start with a bang often fizzle out when the hype dies down. But by the time Angel City FC play their final home game of the regular season on Sunday, the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League expansion team will have surpassed their original franchise goals — and begun planning a sequel.

When Angel City began planning in 2020, they aimed for 5,000 season tickets in the first season. Almost 16,000 have been sold and season ticket renewals for 2023 are at almost 90%.

Angel City planned an average attendance of 8,000 to 10,000 at the 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium. It’s on track for about 19,000, including four sellouts.

Angel City netted $3.25 million in corporate partnerships, which it said was the highest in the NWSL in 2019. It sold $11 million that season.

“We found investors who understood the power of using their platform to not only advance a social cause or movement, but also understand the value of making money to make the whole engine work,” said Julie Uhrman, co-founder of Angel City and President.

Angel City had one advantage from the start: a roster of executives with an enviable social media reach. Founders include actress Natalie Portman and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, and investors read like a post-award show mixer: actors Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, and Gabrielle Union, and athletes Mia, among others Hamm, Candace Parker, and Lindsey Vonn.

Angel City’s quarterly investor calls, Uhrman says, are “the most amazing Brady Bunch of Zoom pictures you’ve ever seen.”

The results on the field are less clear. Angel City lost star forward Christen Press to a season-ending knee injury in June, and they are just short of a playoff berth going into the final week of the regular season.

It wasn’t a given that Angel City would find a place in LA’s crowded sports and entertainment market. The Los Angeles Sol of the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League retired after a single season in 2009.

However, the club has quickly built a lively atmosphere on matchdays.

The crowd performs a pre-game “three-clap” popularized by Angel City investor and former US Women’s Team star Julie Foudy. Pink smoke billows out at kick-off and when Angel City scores.

As a member of AC Pandemonium, one of six fan groups organized in Angel City, Sarah Wang plays a drum for 90 minutes. The 26-year-old digital media ad sales executive said she and other group members were fans of the US women’s team or distant NWSL clubs before LA landed a team.

“When we all came together for Angel City, it was a full-fledged passion that goes with every single event,” Wang said.

The origin story of Angel City sounds like the development of a prestige TV series. Team co-founder Kara Nortman, venture capitalist and USA women’s national team supporter, connected Portman through women’s empowerment and equality work. Portman helped found the group Time’s Up, which aims to end sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and Nortman is a founding member of All Raise, a VC-led group dedicated to promoting diversity in funders and founders.

Portman had seen former US women’s team star Abby Wambach speak when Wambach realized how badly the low pay during her career would affect her retirement. Portman and Northman shared the idea of ​​promoting women’s football.

Returning from the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, Nortman gushed about her experience there in front of fellow players in an ongoing pick-up basketball game for female investors and entrepreneurs – including Uhrman. Shortly thereafter, Nortman, Portman and Uhrman went to the “El Tráfico” game between LA Galaxy and LAFC of Major League Soccer.

“I was blown away by the experience LAFC created, the culture of the fans,” said Uhrman. “And in the center of the supporter’s area was a woman waving a sign that read ‘Bring the NWSL to LA.’ Natalie and Kara and I took that as a sign. And that was it.”

They bonded with Ohanian, who had seen the commercial power of female athletes firsthand through his wife Serena Williams, and who had attended the sold-out 2019 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match between the United States and France in Paris. Ohanian became the lead founding investor for Angel City and an evangelist for the women’s soccer business. Dozens of other well-known and financially strong investors followed.

“I am moved and delighted that all of our suspicions have come true: there is a huge, passionate fan base for women’s football,” Portman said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. “It was the most beautiful season to see our team come together, build a culture and earn the tremendous attention and dedication it deserves.”

Angel City prices its sponsorships similar to some men’s teams. It requires cash to be included in all sponsorship deals, and does not trade a sponsor’s goods or services for in-stadium signage, as some young teams or leagues do.

“It educates brands that aren’t worth their money, which isn’t true,” said Jess Smith, Angel City’s head of revenue.

Angel City publicly provides 10% of sponsorship proceeds to various community and charitable programs. Some other professional sports teams include community building or charitable elements in their sponsorship deals.

Angel City’s $11 million in sponsorship earnings would have put it ahead of what seven Major League Soccer teams are making in 2021 and close to what some NHL and MLB teams are making, according to Peter Laatz, global executive of IEG who creates estimates for its sponsorship intelligence database.

Fulfilling their full financial potential for Angel City and 10-year-old NWSL depends on securing the multimillion-dollar cushion that other pro teams rest on when they win or viewership falls. NWSL is in the second year of a three-year deal worth about $5 million in total, which is tiny compared to TV deals.

But Angel City isn’t waiting to keep investing. It plans to follow other NWSL teams, San Diego Wave FC and Kansas City Current, by building a purpose-built facility for its team. According to Uhrman, talks are moving forward to open a $25-$30 million training and exercise center, which is expected to open in 2024.

The club’s initial success may help show that women’s professional sport is more than the social mission some see in it.

Steve Malik, owner of the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage, said, “It turns out a social mission is good business.”

-The Wall Street Journal

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