Entertainment

Gender equality. Natalie Portman’s plan to blow up soccer in the United States

Natalie Portman has just introduced her own club, Angel City FC, which isá  competing in the North American Women's Soccer League

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Just blocks from Amazon Studios headquarters in Santa Monica, next to a startup developing high-protein, low-carb bagels, are the offices of one of Los Angeles’ hottest new brands. Inside, it’s light and airy, with design touches like exposed pipes and industrial light fixtures, plus a few dogs peeking out from under desks.

But there are a few details you won’t find anywhere else: a plastic-wrapped, neon-colored floor near the main entrance and a wall dominated by photos of women: Angel City FC soccer players, their fans, and of the new team’s senior staff, mostly women, many of whom are gathered around nearby desks.

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The conversations that they are having on that February morning are, without a doubt, different from what is being talked about in the neighboring offices. News has just broken that members of the women’s national soccer team, which represents the United States internationally and won the 2019 World Cup, have agreed to a historic $24 million equal pay agreement with the national governing body of the sport, the US Soccer Federation In addition to awarding retroactive salaries to current and former players, US Soccer has also committed to equalizing compensation between the men’s and women’s national teams.

“It’s a huge statement for women’s sports,” says Angel City president and co-founder Julie Uhrman, sitting in a folding chair on a sunlit patio next to her club’s office. The women’s national team gets more viewers and attention than the men’s team, she points out, prompting fans to buy more merchandise. “Finally, payment equity is recognized, it was something we were looking for a long time ago.”

Equity, in income and opportunities, is the mission of his club, one of two teams that has just started its first season in the National Women’s Soccer League (known by the acronym NWSL), which is already ten years old .

High profile

Since its founding two years ago, Angel City has made headlines for its star-studded board. Uhrman, who has a background in technology and entertainment (she previously oversaw streaming services for Lionsgate and business development for virtual reality startup Jaunt), co-founded the team with actress Natalie Portman and Kara Nortman, managing partner of Upfront Ventures, the largest venture capital fund in Los Angeles. Reddit co-founder and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian is the team’s lead investor, and the club’s other backers include A-list actors (Eva Longoria, America Ferrera), tennis legends (Billie Jean King, Serena Williams) and several former players. of the American women’s soccer team, such as Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy.

The group of shareholders united around the idea that their company was bigger than football. “We love soccer,” says Portman. “But we also have a secondary mission, which is to improve the state of conditions for female athletes.”

For Angel City, this goal involves creating an ownership model that asks investors to act more like founders and engage with the team at all levels. The club has also developed an industry-first sponsorship program to attract brands not traditionally aligned with sports and is finding new ways to support its players on and off the pitch.

For his Angel City project, Portman addedó  as shareholders to other celebrities such as the tennis player Serena Williams

AP

For his project in Angel City, Portman added other celebrities such as tennis player Serena Williams (AP /) as shareholders.

In a league where the minimum salary is $35,000 and the maximum is $75,000, there’s a lot of work to be done. (Even reserve players in men’s Major League Soccer earn a minimum of $65,500.) But it’s not just about the money. In 2021, the male head coaches of 5 of the 10 teams in the league were fired or resigned due to allegations of misconduct, including racist comments, sexual misconduct, and verbal abuse. In September, The Athletic published an explosive story in which multiple players accused North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and making inappropriate comments. (Riley, who was fired, has denied most of the allegations.) Lisa Baird, once praised for her success in growing the league as commissioner, resigned after it emerged that she had known about Riley’s claims for several months. General Counsel Lisa Levine also resigned. Two investigations into what happened are pending.

previous experiences

Behind all of this is the fact that the NWSL is the third incarnation of a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. Previous versions failed due to financial instability. That legacy has had a lasting impact. Fear of hurting the league or doing something that might slow its momentum “can perpetuate a culture of silence, which can perpetuate a culture of abuse,” says Meghann Burke, executive director of the NWSL Players Association.

Beyond these challenges, the business potential is enormous: Unlike MLS, which competes for male players and viewers against long-established leagues around the world, the NWSL has some of the best talent in the world and a native audience.

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In order to develop a fandom vibrant around a sports league, people should care deeply about its rivalries and players, says David Berri, a sports economist and professor at Southern Utah University. And with US women’s soccer, he says, “the emotional bond is already there,” thanks to a dominant national team. (Most members of the national team also play on NWSL club teams.) If the championship continues to grow the number of spectators and attract the best players, it could, given enough time, stand alongside the world’s most popular men’s leagues such as the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

Angel City is ready to play a key role in this ambitious goal. First, however, you need to prove that your business model is profitable.. “I have the best athletes in the world playing a global sport in a city of champions,” says Uhrman. “Now we are going to build the club with authenticity, thinking of it as a brand.”

Angel City’s example is being replicated by other teams. Angie Long, co-owner of the Kansas City Current NWSL team, was a classmate of Nortman’s from Princeton University and chief investment officer of Palmer Square Capital Management, a fund that manages more than $22.1 billion in assets. She spoke with Nortman after the 2019 World Cup about what it takes to buy a team and get it to market and, with her husband, Chris, and fitness entrepreneur Brittany Matthews, launched a club in Kansas City (the former of the city ​​had closed in 2017). The Current, now in its second season, has embraced Angel City’s 10% community sponsorship model. “We absolutely thought it was a phenomenal idea, a way to bring the sport and the community together,” says Long. A few months ago, the businesswoman and her partners in the Kansas club announced plans to build a soccer stadium on the banks of the Missouri River, which will require a WSL investment of US$90 million and will have a capacity for 11,500 spectators.

There are signs that the league is moving forward at a good pace. In 2021, the league’s media mentions and impressions grew 334% from 2020, according to sports consultancy Navigate.

In February, 19-year-old player Trinity Rodman signed the largest contract in NWSL history. The four-year extension with the Washington Spirit reportedly closed at $1.1 million. Last November, a record 525,000 viewers tuned in to watch the NWSL finals, a 216% increase over the 2019 finals. And this April, a preseason matchup between Angel City and the San Diego Wave scored 456,000 viewers. on CBS. “It’s a lot of people watching women’s soccer,” Uhrman said on Twitter.

Even so, only five of the 146 league games in the 2021 season were broadcast on CBS. The rest was available on your service. streaming, Paramount Plus, and cable CBS Sports Network, along with Twitch. But the league’s broadcast rights to Twitch expire in 2023, and the CBS deal expires in 2024, meaning more lucrative deals could be coming.

Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former President Bill Clinton, is another celebrity who isá  investing in a women's soccer club, in this case the Washington Spirit

Getty

Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former President Bill Clinton, is another celebrity who is investing in a women’s soccer club, in this case the Washington Spirit (Getty/)

Collective negotiation

Meghann Burke, goalkeeper for Asheville City SC and director of the NWSL Players Association, helped negotiate the league’s first collective bargaining agreement in January. She says part of the reason the players signed a longer-term five-year deal was the clause that they will receive 10% of net broadcast revenue if the league is profitable in years three, four and five. of the CBA. “We talk a lot about wanting to bet on ourselves and being willing to take risks because we believe there is a great opportunity for growth,” says the union representative of the players.

That is Angel City’s position as well. Ohanian, for her part, is very confident in the future of the women’s football business. When she gets hateful tweets about how she’s wasting her time investing in women’s sports, she saves them in a special Dropbox folder. “They give me energy,” she says. “Every time I get another investor update on Angel City or see more progress, I just think of those tweets and feel even more motivated.”

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