Why Angel City’s Alexis Ohanian, other investors bet on women’s soccer
Alexis Ohanian has made millions by investing in people and ideas that others overlooked or undervalued. Three dozen times, he says, he wrote the first check for a start-up that went on to become a billion-dollar company.
But the decision to invest in Angel City, the start-up women’s soccer club that will make its NWSL debut Friday, was perhaps the biggest no-brainer of his career.
“Ten or 15 years from now, when people look at Angel City FC, I think they’ll actually see this one as being the most obvious,” he said.
Ohanian doesn’t have to go any further than the breakfast table for evidence the old paradigm about women’s sports is no longer valid. During the past four years his wife, Serena Williams, has generated so much interest in women’s tennis the U.S. Open women’s final now draws higher TV ratings than the men’s championship.
“There’s a million people on Twitter right now who are going to say no one watches women’s sports,” Ohanian said. “The message I have for them is facts don’t care about your feelings. The data shows Americans would rather watch two women in the U.S. Open.”
Angel City FC’s female majority ownership group, including Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, are fired up about the opener Friday.
So it’s not a huge leap to suggest Americans would rather watch women’s soccer as well. In fact, they already do. More than 30 million people tuned in to see the U.S. win the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, the largest domestic TV audience for a soccer game in history. And this month’s NWSL Challenge Cup match — a preseason game — between Angel City and the San Diego Wave was watched by 456,000 viewers on CBS, about 180,000 more than the average MLS telecast got last season.
If supporting women’s sports was once seen as something of a noblesse oblige for well-heeled investors like Ohanian, it’s now viewed through the unblinking eye of the free market, where winners and losers are measured in profit and loss. And the women are more than holding their own.
“It takes it out of the realm of what feels right and puts it in the realm of cold capitalism,” Ohanian said.
“To be clear, being profitable is absolutely goal No. 1.”
Need more evidence? Angel City hasn’t played a regular-season game yet and it has already has 15,300 season-ticket holders, more than the Galaxy, which had a 26-year head start. The glass ceiling, it would seem, is cracking.
“Professional women’s sports appear to be poised to take off, if it isn’t on the way up already,” said Steven A. Bank, the Paul Hastings professor of business law at UCLA and a close observer of women’s soccer in the U.S. “That may not mean making money for investors in the short or medium term. It’s still a long play. But it’s not merely the passion-project investment that it might have been a few years ago.”
Ohanian says the greatest asset for Angel City and the NWSL isn’t so much soccer, but the women who play it.
“Many have already transcended the sport,” he said. “Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press. These are women who are already in the zeitgeist, right? That’s pretty valuable.”
“Because of social media,” he continued “the fan-player relationship is just growing and growing. You have players in women’s football who are actually very intelligent and very dynamic. They are natural storytellers on social media.”
As a result Morgan, a captain for the women’s national team, has twice as many social-media followers as Christian Pulisic, captain of the men’s national team, which just qualified for the World Cup. That increased following will eventually lead to increased ticket sales, higher TV ratings and more women’s soccer fans, exactly the kind of trends Ohanian looks for in his investments.
When entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, venture capitalist Kara Nortman and actress Natalie Portman landed the rights to place an NWSL franchise in Los Angeles 22 months ago, Ohanian wrote a check for around $600,000 to get things started. He’s added to that in every round of investment since.
“You have to really believe from Day 1,” said Ohanian, warming into a pep talk that is part college football coach, part Southern preacher. “The goal here is not to be the best club in NWSL. The goal is not to be the best women’s professional sports club. The goal is not to be the best football club.
“The goal is to be the best sports franchise in the world. I need the bar to be there because like any start-up we invest in, that’s where it has to be.”
Complete coverage of Angel City’s inaugural season in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Mark Wilf has never heard that sermon, but he believes the gospel. Fifteen years after he and his brother Zygi bought the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, the Wilfs made their own bet on soccer, dissolving their minority share in the MLS club in Nashville to buy the NWSL and MLS teams in Orlando, Fla.
Like Ohanian, who said the idea of creating opportunity for his 4-year-old daughter factored into his Angel City investment, Mark Wilf also thought of his four children, all who played youth soccer, when he bought the Orlando teams. The goal wasn’t just to support the sport, however. It was mainly to make money.
“I’m a great believer in women’s soccer, women’s sports, women’s empowerment. All the things that come part and parcel with the NWSL,” Mark Wilf said. “So yeah, there’s a personal piece to it.
“But it’s a business first and foremost.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Weeks after the Wilfs closed the deal last July, the NWSL was engulfed in a series of scandals involving allegations of sexual misconduct, coercion and abuse that led to the resignation or removal of commissioner Lisa Baird, general counsel Lisa Levine and five of the league’s 10 coaches.
For a time last fall, it was uncertain the NWSL would survive. But the league regrouped under new leadership, agreed to its first collective bargaining agreement with its players union and added new corporate sponsors — as well as new teams in Los Angeles and San Diego. Wilf, who took part in the search for the new commissioner, said the league is as strong as ever.
The past hasn’t fully receded, however: On Tuesday, three days before a new regular season kicks off, the NWSL announced that James Clarkson, the Houston Dash’s general manager and coach and the only manager remaining from the start of last season, had been suspended following a joint league and union investigation into allegations of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
“The ownership groups are really impressive. You have well-capitalized investors that are willing to invest,” Wilf said of people like tennis star Naomi Osaka, who has a minority interest in the North Carolina Courage; billionaire Ronald Burkle, who owns the San Diego Wave; and former first daughters Jenna Bush Hager and Chelsea Clinton, who last year were introduced as minority investors, along with hockey’s Alexander Ovechkin, in the Washington Spirt.
“We know it’s not an overnight thing,” Wilf continued “but with a new commissioner, with new staff coming in and a growth plan and new ownership coming, that’s really strong.”
It wasn’t always like that. Two previous attempts at establishing a women’s soccer league in the U.S. both folded amid financial pressure after just three seasons. The only team to play in Los Angeles County, the L.A. Sol, lasted only a year before it disbanded in 2010, leaving a void in region’s sporting landscape that Angel City has already begun to fill.
“We sold over $1 million in merchandise even before the jersey was available,” said actress Eva Longoria, another original member of Angel City’s owner/investor group, which has grown to nearly 100 people. “It’s really been well-received. People want this.”
Longoria, whose previous investments have included restaurants on Hollywood Boulevard and the Las Vegas Strip and a woman’s clothing line, was asked by Portman to buy into the team when it little more than an idea. It wasn’t a hard sell. Angel City would be about creating opportunities, empowering women and leveling the playing field. And it would be run by the largest female-led ownership group in professional sports.
Longoria was sold.
“This is the DNA of who I am. This is my activism and my philanthropy and my joy all mixed into one,” said the actress, who called it “investing with purpose, not just for monetary gain.”
Mia Hamm has spent years fighting to bring pro women’s soccer back to Los Angeles and will realize a dream when Angel City FC debuts this week.
That intersection, where investors can do well financially while doing good for society, is another unique draw for women’s sports.
“Right now investing in women’s sports is something a lot of people want to get behind,” Bank said. “Which makes it a win both personally, politically and financially.”
That pitch also won over Uzo Aduba, a three-time Emmy winner who attended Boston University on a track scholarship and found opera there, a discovery that changed her life.
“I have lived long enough to know that the point of this life is not to go through the door that’s open for you and close it behind you,” said Aduba, also an early investor. “It’s to keep the door open and hold it for others to walk through. If being visibly a part of something like Angel City is able to excite and ignite other people to help support other women to advance, so be it. “
“I think it’s a sound place to invest. Not only your money, but your time and attention.”
And Aduba, unlike Ohanian, doesn’t think it will take 10 years for that to become obvious.
Angel City Schedule
Home games at Banc of California Stadium
(all times Pacific)
April 29: vs. North Carolina Courage, 7:30 p.m.
May 8: vs. Orlando Pride, 5 p.m.
May 15: at Washington Spirit, 2 p.m.
May 21: vs. Kansas City Current, 7:30 p.m.
May 29: vs, NY/NY Gotham FC, 5 p.m.
June 3: at Portland Thorns, 7:30 p.m.
June 11: at Racing Louisville, 5 p.m.
June 15: vs. Houston Dash, 7 p.m.
June 18: at OL Reign, 7 p.m.
July 1: vs. Portland Thorns, 7:30 p.m.
July 9: vs. San Diego Wave FC, 7:30 p.m.
July 15: at North Carolina Courage, 4:30 p.m.
July 30: vs. OL Reign, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 7: at Orlando Pride, 4 p.m.
Aug. 14: vs. Chicago Red Stars, 5 p.m.
Aug. 19: at Kansas City Current, 5 p.m.
Aug. 28: at NY/NY Gotham FC, 2 p.m.
Sept. 11: at Houston Dash, 4 p.m.
Sept. 17: at San Diego Wave FC, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: vs. Washington Spirit, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25: vs. Racing Louisville, 5 p.m.
Oct. 2: at Chicago Red Stars, 3 p.m.
Angel City roster
Goalkeepers: DiDi Haracic, Brittany Isenhour, Maia Perez
Defenders: Vanessa Giles, Sarah Gorden, Madison Hammond, Paige Nielsen, Megan Reid, Ali Riley, Allyson Swaby, M.A. Vignola
Midfielders: Hope Breslin, Katie Cousins, Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel, Savannah McCaskill, Lily Nabet, Cari Roccaro, Jasmyne Spencer, Miri Taylor, Dani Weatherholt
Forwards: Simone Charley, Jun Endo, Tyler Lussi, Christen Press