Sunday, October 2 2022

There are few better places to hold a preseason training camp than at Malibu’s Pepperdine University, whose football pitch seems to hover over the shimmering Pacific Ocean. It makes a memorable opening scene for Angel City FC.

A typical American expansion team’s start is often rocky: Fighting for decent players, for fans, for attention, for a shred of dignity following lopsided defeats. But Angel City FC, who debut in the National Women’s Soccer League this year, are far from typical. Although they don’t play their first match until Saturday in the NWSL Challenge Cup, things already look quite different around here.

The team’s female-led ownership group includes a mind-boggling roll call of A-list movie stars, legendary athletes and retired USWNT greats. The group raised capital like a startup tech company, with funding rounds that attracted more stars along the way. The team will play in the luxurious Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the club has been strongly vocal about its values of community and female empowerment. And the buzz is palpable: Angel City FC has sold more than 14,000 season tickets so far and boasts seven supporters groups. The operation seems to have “blockbuster” written all over it.

Related: Are the Portland Thorns the ideal template for a women’s football club?

But the founders say all that glamour exists solely to advance the club’s goals and values. In fact, it’s the reason Angel City FC was created.

In April 2019, Natalie Portman attended a USWNT match with her friends Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba and Jessica Chastain. Portman, a founding member of Time’s Up, sought to bring attention to the fight for equal pay by the US women’s team. Later, as Portman watched the Women’s World Cup that summer, she was enthralled by the way the American players’ personalities and mission seemed to converge.

“Watching my son idolize players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan the same way he did Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema, I realized that amplifying female athletes could rapidly shift culture,” Portman tells the Guardian by email.

But Portman was bothered by the fact that even top female footballers often have no retirement plan and little to live on when they quit the game, unlike their male counterparts. Abby Wambach and others spoke about this at a Time’s Up conference.

“Much of [Wambach’s] speech inspired us to create a different model,” Portman explains.

Portman says she didn’t play or watch sports growing up, And, unlike your average fan, she never secretly dreamed about controlling a team herself. But that’s what she decided to do: She would start a team that would be everything she wanted to see women’s soccer become.

Portman shared her idea with Kara Nortman, a venture capital executive in LA who was also involved in Time’s Up. Nortman regularly played basketball with a tech executive named Julie Uhrman, and one day Nortman put the question to Uhrman: Could she help figure out how to build a team?

The timing was right. Worldwide, women are making strides in sports leadership positions. And opportunity beckoned: Los Angeles didn’t have a women’s professional football team. Wambach and Alexis Ohanian – Reddit co-founder and husband of Serena Williams – became initial investors. Soon after, the stars continued to align … pun not intended. Longoria, Garner, Aduba and Chastain became co-owners. The ownership group now includes (deep breath): retired football legends Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Shannon McMillan, Rachel Van Hollebeke and others; Billie Jean King, Sophia Bush, Serena Williams, James Corden, Christina Aguilera, Rachel Zoe, NHL star PK Subban, gold-medal-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson East, Cobi Jones, and Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade and their three-year-old daughter. In all, Angel City FC has more than 60 co-owners – two-thirds of whom are women.

“It got to the point where we didn’t have to seek investors,” Uhrman, the team’s co-founder and president, says. “They came to us because they wanted to be a part of Angel City, and understood the role they would have to play as an investor. That makes the best type of owner, because they care both about the purpose side and the profit side.”

The purpose side includes a players’ fund and ensuring that athlete safety and fair treatment are the driving factors for all decisions. Portman says that through the club’s partnerships with sponsors, they’ve planted seven gardens at local elementary schools, donated sports bras to young players and delivered thousands of meals to the hungry. Angel City puts 10% of sponsorship revenue back into the community. And about that profit side: Uhrman recently announced the club earned $35m in sponsorship, a figure which dwarfs that of other NWSL teams.

The team’s majority-female hierarchy feels especially significant following last year’s NWSL harassment scandal.

“It’s huge,” Foudy explains in an email. “It’s a completely different mindset and approach. Instead of feeling like we should just be grateful to have a league, and accept things as they are (as it always has been for me and my generation), Angel City approaches all decisions with this mentality of, ‘How can we build this into something amazing for the players and for our community?’ It is so refreshing, honestly.”

The club’s sporting director is retired England striker (and former Guardian columnist) Eni Aluko. Her first hire involved persuading fellow Englishwoman Freya Coombe to leave New York/New Jersey’s Gotham FC and become Angel City’s head coach.

Hours after announcing Coombe’s role in August, Angel City confirmed their first signing: two-time World Cup-winning striker Christen Press – a native Angeleno from Palos Verdes. Press’ Angel City FC contract made her the highest-paid player in league history.

The club’s 24-woman roster includes various players picked up in the expansion draft, plus college draft selections and signings from overseas. Standout additions include Sarah Gorden in defense and goalkeeper DiDi Haracic, who played for Coombe at NJ/NY Gotham FC. Yet how well the pieces will fit together is difficult to answer.

“This league is incredible to watch because on any given day, any team can beat any other team,” says Marisa Pilla, an NWSL commentator for CBS Sports. “It’s hard to be a standout expansion club, but I think [Angel City] will be a competitive team this year. I think they’ll be in the playoff race.”

With all the stardust surrounding Angel City and the values the club wears on its sleeve, the team will no doubt have a big target on their backs in the league. But club officials seem self-assuredly laidback about it in a very Californian way.

“We’ve been building Angel City FC with the idea that we want to entertain the world,” Uhrman says. “We come from Los Angeles, we’re all storytellers, so we take on that challenge as a given for what we want to accomplish.”

And besides, even early setbacks have turned out all right. The players actually weren’t supposed to train at Pepperdine; Angel City’s training ground is at Cal Lutheran University – where the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams also work out. But the Rams’ playoff run forced Angel City to temporarily relocate. Angel City officials are obviously hoping some of the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning mojo will linger as they move in. But more than winning, the ultimate goal is giving players exposure – the coin of the realm in this part of the world – and all of its knock-on effects.

“Our dream is to make women’s soccer as valued as male soccer is throughout the world,” Portman explains.

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