Natalie Portman wanted to change the culture of football. So she founded Angel City FC | NWSL
JThere are few better places to hold a preseason training camp than at Pepperdine University in Malibu, whose football field seems to soar above the shimmering Pacific Ocean. It makes for a memorable opening scene for Angel City FC.
The beginning of a typical American expansion team is often difficult: fighting for decent players, for fans, for attention, for an ounce of dignity after lopsided losses. But Angel City FC, making their National Women’s Soccer League debut this year, is far from typical. Although they don’t play their first game until Saturday in the NWSL Challenge Cup, things already look a lot different here.
The team’s female-led ownership group includes a stunning line-up of A-list movie stars, legendary athletes, and great USWNT retirees. The group raised capital like a tech start-up, with funding rounds that attracted more stars along the way. The team will play at the luxurious Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. From the outset, the club strongly upheld its values of community and female empowerment. And the buzz is palpable: Angel City FC has sold over 14,000 season tickets to date and has seven supporter groups. The operation seems to have “blockbuster” written all over it.
But the founders say all this glamor exists solely to advance the club’s goals and values. In fact, that’s why Angel City FC was created.
In April 2019, Natalie Portman attended a USWNT game with her friends Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba and Jessica Chastain. Portman, a founding member of Time’s Up, sought to draw attention to the fight for equal pay for the US women’s team. Later, as Portman watched the Women’s World Cup that summer, she was captivated by how the personalities and mission of the American players 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 can quickly change culture,” Portman told the Guardian via email.
But Portman was bothered by the fact that even the best female footballers often had no retirement plan and little to live on when they left the game, unlike their male counterparts. Abby Wambach and others spoke about it at a Time’s Up conference.
“A lot of [Wambach’s] speech inspired us to create a different model,” says Portman.
Portman says she didn’t play or watch the sport growing up, and, unlike your average fan, she never secretly dreamed of controlling a team herself. But that’s what she decided to do: she would found a team that would be everything she wanted to see women’s football become.
Portman shared his idea with Kara Nortman, a venture capital executive in Los Angeles who also participated in Time’s Up. Nortman regularly played basketball with a technical manager named Julie Uhrman, and one day Nortman asked Uhrman the question: could she help figure out how to create a team?
The time had come. Around the world, women are advancing in sports leadership positions. And the opportunity presented itself: Los Angeles did not have a women’s professional soccer team. Wambach and Alexis Ohanian – co-founder of Reddit and husband of Serena Williams – became the first investors. Shortly after, the stars continued to align… pun intended. Longoria, Garner, Aduba and Chastain became co-owners. The ownership group now includes (deep breath): retired soccer 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 medalist gymnast Shawn Johnson East, Cobi Jones and Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade and their child of three years the girl. In all, Angel City FC has more than 60 co-owners, two-thirds of whom are women.
“We got to the point where we didn’t have to look for investors anymore,” says Uhrman, co-founder and president of the team. “They came to us because they wanted to be part of Angel City and understood the role they would have to play as an investor. That makes the best kind of owner because they care about both the objective side and profit side.
The goal includes a fund for players and ensuring that athlete safety and fair treatment are the determining factors in 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 that the club earned $35 million in sponsorships, a figure that dwarfs that of other NWSL teams.
The team’s predominantly female hierarchy seems particularly prominent after last year’s NWSL harassment scandal.
“It’s huge,” Foudy explained in an email. “It’s a completely different mindset and approach. Instead of thinking that we should just be thankful we have a league and accept things as they are (as has always been the case for me and my generation), Angel City approaches all decisions with this mentality of, ‘How can we build this into something amazing for players and for our community?’ It’s so refreshing, honestly.
The club’s sporting director is retired England striker (and former Guardian columnist) Eni Aluko. His first hire was to persuade fellow Englishman Freya Coombe to leave New York/New Jersey’s Gotham FC and become the head coach of Angel City.
Hours after announcing Coombe’s role in August, Angel City confirmed their first signing: two-time World Cup-winning striker Christen Press from Angeleno of Palos Verdes. The Press’ Angel City FC contract made her the highest paid player in league history.
The club’s 24-woman roster includes various players selected in the expansion draft, as well as college draft selections and signings from overseas. Notable additions include defenseman Sarah Gorden and goaltender DiDi Haracic, who played for Coombe at NJ/NY Gotham FC. Still, it’s hard to say how well the pieces will fit together.
“This league is amazing to watch because any day any team can beat any other team,” said Marisa Pilla, NWSL commentator for CBS Sports. “It’s difficult to be an expansion club that stands out, but I think [Angel City] will be a competitive team this year. I think they will be in the hunt for the playoffs.
With all the stardust surrounding Angel City and the values the club wears on its sleeve, the team will undoubtedly have a big target on their backs in the league. But club officials seem confidently laid back about it in a very Californian way.
“We built Angel City FC with the idea that we want to entertain the world,” says Uhrman. “We’re from Los Angeles, we’re all storytellers, so we’re taking this challenge as a no-brainer for what we want to accomplish.”
And besides, even the first setbacks went well. Players weren’t actually supposed to train at Pepperdine; Angel City’s training ground is at Cal Lutheran University, where the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams also train. But the Rams playoffs forced Angel City to temporarily relocate. Angel City officials are obviously hoping some of the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning mojos will stick around as they move in. But more than winning, the ultimate goal is to give players exposure – the kingdom coin in this part of the world – and all of its ripple effects.
“Our dream is to make women’s football as popular as men’s football around the world,” Portman said.