Julie Uhrman, Co-Founder of Angel City Football Club
Julie Uhrman, Credit: Angel City Football Club
I’ve been myself an entrepreneur for quite a while and spent most of my career in finance, entertainment, and gaming. I was the founder and CEO of a company called Ouya, which was an Android based video game console. We got our start on Kickstarter, which had a lot of parallels to the Angel City Football Club. With Kickstarter, you sell your vision to the audience who wants it so much that they invest in you before it exists. And that was a little bit of what happened here with the ACFC. We had a vision and a dream, that was very different from how sports clubs are traditionally owned and invested in. But we found the people that believed in us and helped us.
Angel City is founded by three women: actress Natalie Portman, Kara Nortman, who’s a venture capitalist here in Los Angeles, and myself. Natalie was involved early on with the “time’s up” movement, where she spent a lot of time with Kara. During that time, they met with a lot of US Women’s National Team players and the executive director of the US Men’s National Team, as they were going to embark on their lawsuit against US Soccer for pay equity. They were talking to these women to understand the inequality in women’s sports, specifically in women’s soccer. Natalie also sat down with Abby Wambach, who’s also one of our supporters. Abby Wambach was getting the Icon Award at the ESPY´s at the same time as Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning. While Kobe and Peyton were talking about what they’re going to do after sports, having earned millions of dollars in their career, Abby had to go home to pay a mortgage, not knowing where her next paycheck would come from. Ironic, that they all received the Icon Award, and yet they were treated completely differently.
For some reason, women don’t have the same media coverage, they’re not playing in the same stadium, they’re not given the same amount of promotion or marketing. So they’re already at a disadvantage. The question was, how can you get to an equal level playing field, if you’re at a disadvantage to begin with and no one’s actually going to give you the same opportunities?
When Natalie went to a friendly match at the Bank of California Stadium, where the US national team was playing, she brought her friends Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain to support women’s soccer and these players. They got a significant amount of attention just for supporting it. These female athletes went ahead and won the World Cup in 2019. Natalie thought about it and said, “we should bring up a women’s professional team to allay the idea of changing equality in women´s sports. If you really want to affect change, you need a seat at the table. You can talk about it, if you can show the games, but you really need to have a seat at the table to make change.”
Kara and I have known each other for over 20 years. We went to rival high schools and played basketball against each other. She knows me as an entrepreneur, and told me that Natalie had this crazy idea and asked me, if I could help them to figure out how to make it real. And at the time, I didn’t even know there was a National Women’s Soccer League – and I am a huge sports fan. So to me, that just showed what incredible upside there is. You truly have the best athletes in the world, they all play in the United States, they all play in a professional league, and nobody knows about it. These are literally the best ingredients to create something spectacular, if you invest in it. But you have to tell the story and make sure people know that it exists.
When the three of us came together, we wanted to lead with purpose. Our goal was to get women equity. But how do we build an organization with a mission like this at its core? And secondarily, we learned in our research, that most sports teams don’t make money. It was very hard for us to want to build something, that intentionally wouldn’t make money. But we also knew that there is a significant upside in women’s sports if you invest in growth, because we we’re starting at Ground Zero. We had no media coverage to begin with. No fans. No sponsors. But we knew, if we build an incredible product that people want, the dollars were going to follow. And so we designed it initially to be an organization where mission capital could coexist, and where we would never trade off a positive impact with driving revenue.
Honestly, having the idea to bring a Women’s Professional Soccer Team to LA, was not a slam dunk. Financial investors didn’t really understand the concept of building an organization, where mission capital come together. They wanted to know what the return would be. In sports, investing is a very long-term hold type investment. Then there were others, who thought this would be more like a charity, where their granddaughter would play, and they would write a check. It took us a while to find the right investors, who understood that we wanted to do both – and have a global impact. That our intention was, that other teams around the world would follow our model, build upon our model and continue to grow.
Having Natalie as the initiator and as someone with this large network of female actresses, definitely helped to get the word out. They understand how to use their platform to advance their social impact endeavors, as well as to build their brand. They understood what we were trying to accomplish. Alexis Ohanian is our controlling owner and the former CEO of Reddit. He runs 776 Ventures and he’s the husband to Serena Williams. He also understood the need and the goal to get to pay equity, because he lives with Serena, who has fought for years to get to equal prize money in her tennis career.
We are not only the owners and initiators of this, we are also storytellers and we believe, that if you get people to create an emotional connection with these players, with this club, with this community, with this league, we have the ability to grow. So we recognized at the beginning, that we are more than just a soccer club. In fact, we are a platform that stands for equity and impact.
There were three phases of development for the ACFC. We had the idea in 2019, and we got the official rights to be an expansion team in 2020. We knew that we weren’t able to kick our first ball until 2022. Due to the rules within the NWSL about player acquisition and trade drafts, we couldn’t start building our team, until the fall/winter of 2021. So, in order to be in a place where the best players in the world wanted to play for us, we had to focus on building the ACFC brand first, to make it attractive to new players. The first step was to determine what our purpose was, which is to set higher expectations on the pitch and to start developing relationships with the community. To build the Angel City community, our fanbase, we knew that we would have to have fans that would come to the games and buy the merch, so we were able to invest in our players and invest in our club.
It was really about sharing who we were, what we stood for, what our values are and how we are going to live those values and so on. For the first year and a half we started doing community events, where every event had some element of service. We wanted to show, that we’re a club that not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. If we said we’re going to do something, we would do it. We wanted to build our community, provide impact to the community and really identify who we were.
The second step was to bring that into every aspect of the commercial side of the business. We started talking to brands and sponsors. 10% of all sponsorship dollars would go back into the community. For example: we were able to win DoorDash as our front of kid partner. We would obviously offer them presence in the stadium during the games, but we’re also going to partner with them to address food insecurity, which is a really important topic for the both of us. It just made sense, and it fit within our social impact pillars of equity essentials and education. This is essential, if kids don’t have food, they´re not going be able to play soccer. That was also something we could activate the whole year leading up to our first game. Living our values together, building community together, and then also show our community, that we do what we say and say what we do.
The third part was building the soccer piece of Angel City. We hired our sporting director in April of 2021, to begin scouting and talking to agents. And then we hired our inaugural coach for a coup in August of ´21. We announced our first player signing in September of ´21 with Christen Press and the US Women’s National Team. We then built out the balance of our coaching staff. In October, when the season was over, we were able to train and draft players and really work within the timeline of the club.
With the ACFC, we built something that we thought would appeal to players that cared about impact, purpose and about making a difference. Something, that is really bigger than the game, because that’s how we sort of think about it every single day. By the time all of the foundational elements were built, we started focusing on the team. And we’ve been doing that ever since. It is all coming together, even though we have a lot more work to do and a lot more impact that we want to have. But were consistently working on bringing on new partners, interfacing with community and figuring out what’s the difference that we can make.
I think expansion teams come with the narrative, that they are not traditionally successful, because it’s players that never played before and coaches that never coached before. You don’t have this arsenal of assets to get the best players. We don’t have years of allocation and money built up over years of trades, that we had acquired. So arguably, it’s really hard to be successful in the first year’s expansion team on the pitch.
What we had going for us though, as we’re Angel City: we’re in Southern California, we have this incredible ownership group, and we stand for more than soccer. We believe in setting higher expectations, we believe in having impact. And so does our company, and so do our players. We were aligned from the purpose and value standpoint. We definitely had easier conversations, but at the end of the day, we can only get one or two marquee players, whereas a number of the other clubs have multiple marquee players and players, that are on the national team. After all, everyone is competing, right? This league is designed for each team to be strong. It’s not designed to have super teams. So every team is strong, but if you lose a player, it has a significant impact on your performance. We have a 28-person roster, and everybody is so mission and values aligned. Our goal is to grow the sport of women’s soccer to be significant here in LA. – and to win on the pitch. As a result of that, we sold out our home opener. 22,000 fans, we’ve had over 90,000 tickets sold for every single home match. We generate the highest ticketing revenue in the league, the greatest attendance in the league. So it’s all coming together and it sounds very promising. And we are very proud of that.
We are a majority female ownership group, that totals 99, and every single one of them has done something to advance Angel City. We have quarterly board meetings that Kara, Natalie and Alexis are part of, but each of them has their different expertise. It’s not uncommon for me to talk to Natalie multiple times, get her advice and get her direction. It’s the same thing with Kara and Alexis. They are more involved than just attending a meeting once a quarter. And then of course, it’s so incredible when they get the opportunity to come to games. All those celebrities that came to the match with Natalie, e.g. Billie Jean King and Lindsey Vonn invested in ACFC too. We have 14 former US women’s national team owners that include Abby Welbeck, Mia Hamm, and Julie Foudy.
We want something for everyone. From the pregame experience to the runner show; to the game on the pitch to the after party. We want there to be something for the young girls, for the families, for the millennials and for the couples. We want to give them a reason to come back. And I think we’ve achieved that it’s more than just soccer.
Inspired Magazine © 2023 All rights reserved.