SHAPING THE FUTURE OF WOMEN'S SPORT
In mid-October, the National Women's Soccer League's newest expansion club, Angel City FC, announced they had added several more celebrity names to their already star-studded list of investors.
Alongside the likes of Julie Uhrman, Serena Williams, Alexis Ohanian, Natalie Portman, Uzo Aduba, Jennifer Garner, Casey Neistat, and over a dozen former USWNT players, the franchise now also includes Billie Jean King, Ilana Kloss, Lindsey Vonn, James Corden, PK Subban, Cobi Jones and Candace Parker.
While these names have grabbed international headlines and drawn public attention to the NWSL, Angel City FC's glittering list of backers also highlights un of the biggest -- if under-discussed -- forces that could shape the future of women's sport: team ownership.
A brief glance across various lists of professional sports team owners shows an unsurprising pattern: the vast majority are wealthy, older white men. This applies to women's sports teams, too, such as those in the Women's National Basketball Association and NWSL, where almost every team is owned by an individual from this demographic, while emerging women's teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid are entirely dependent on a "big brother" model of top-down investissement from a men's club.
Some clubs and leagues have bucked the trend, leaning more towards majority fan-owned models, while others such as the WNBA's Seattle Storm have more diverse ownership groups.
However, Angel City FC is unique. Its owners are a diverse group of younger, savvier investors whose wealth has been generated in technology, sport, Hollywood and new media. Unlike traditional owners, these investors aren't just bringing argent to the team -- they're also bringing star power, reputation, connections, brands, and an entirely new audience to it, too. Furthermore, the growing number of owners/investors also acts as its own fail-safe mechanism whereby the financier collapse of one investor won't necessarily lead to the collapse of the entire franchise.
For Julie Foudy -- former US women's national team captain and part of the club's new ownership group -- this unique structure could point the way forward not just for the NWSL, but for professional women's sport, especially as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.
"Everyone's worried about what's going to happen to women's sports," Foudy told ESPN.
"You look at the ownership group that our group is... it's just a really cool group of actresses and women and creative types and creative minds that I just hope will think outside the box in terms of women's professional sports -- not just soccer -- and how to build out a franchise in this country. They're really interested in creating a road map for other women and other franchises.
"It takes a larger market, probably, to do it in terms of your city. But already, I'm looking and talking to people in northern California and New York, New Jersey région and there's a lot of interest. Again, people realising for not a lot of money and not a lot of investment, there could be a large return on investment."
Investors are already seeing the impact of that interest. Actress Eva Longoria, known for her role in the hit TV series 'Desperate Housewives' and a member of the Angel FC ownership group, has said she has received more calls about the club than she ever did about her own film and television work.
The pandemic has highlighted one of the major drawbacks of women's teams being owned and operated by people whose main priority is the men's game. Emerging from decades of indifference and exclusion, the still-fledgling women's sport industry is not yet capable of standing on its own two feet financially. Its reliance on the men's game, while necessary, also makes women's sport especially vulnerable to the aftershocks of decisions made without them at the centre.
Whether this ought to be the way forward for the women's sport industry is a question worth asking given, as Foudy said, its future lies in the hands of domestic clubs and competitions.
"I actually thought for all these years that FIFA would have been the driver of growing the game for women," she said. "In terms of funding of member associations, funding of countries and, to be fair, they have done some of that so I don't want to kill them entirely. But the real driver of the women's game has been these super clubs, has been the FA Women's Super League in England, has been the development of the French league and the Spanish league and Italian [league]."
"I think that actually has created more training environments for girls, more opportunities for girls, it's increased the level for a lot of those countries. The Italian [national] team look so much better than I've ever seen them, and I attribute that to some of the success with their women's league.
"There's countries who are finally -- and it's taken a long time -- they're finally getting that there's a market out there that they can tap into. And if we support our women, if we allow them the opportunity to play, well it obviously benefits the growth of that sport in their country but there's also money to be made. And I think that's honestly a positive sign because it means, then, people will invest when they see that.
"So I think you support that infrastructure, you add to it, you constantly are trying to provide incentives for these member associations that are known not to support the women's game, to create that grassroots infrastructure and club support, because that's what's going to develop these players. Not a World Cup at the top, but you've got to get it from the bottom up to bring them in and you're seeing the clubs get so much better at that."
Angel City FC have arrived into the women's football landscape with much glitz, glamour and fanfare. Their ownership model, unique among professional women's sport, is ambitious and forward-thinking, dissolving the traditional parameters of sport administration to become a more inclusive, flexible and, hopefully, sustainable model. While we may need to wait until 2022 to see what they can do on the field, the NWSL's new franchise is already showing what they -- and the rest of the women's game -- can do off it.