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Julie Uhrman on Angel City’s NWSL debut, having a startup mentality, and growing a global brand

Angel City’s star-studded lineup of investors and unique, community-driven business model saw the women’s soccer club become a major story even before its NWSL debut. Julie Uhrman, the team’s founder and president, tells SportsPro how the LA-based franchise is doing things its own way to achieve its goal of driving both equity and impact.

28 October 2022 Sam Carp

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Julie Uhrman puts her phone down on the table in front of her, leans back in her chair and smiles.

“It’s super fun,” she says, when asked what it’s like to be part of a women’s soccer franchise in 2022. “Just owning a women’s football club, knowing that the sport has the opportunity to explode.”

Armed with a background predominantly in technology and entertainment, Uhrman’s is a name that has become increasingly familiar in sports industry circles. As a founder and president of Angel City FC, the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion franchise launched in 2020, she has implemented a business model that is already being talked about as a potential template for other women’s sports teams to follow.

Most sports teams don’t make money. So we didn’t want to do something totally different and have the same outcome as everyone else.

Julie Uhrman, Founder and President, Angel City FC

Uhrman (pictured above, right) answers this correspondent’s questions as if in a hurry. But over the course of a punchy 23-minute conversation, during which she outlines her belief that the NWSL can soon become the third most popular sports league in the US, as well as her ambition for Angel City to be thought of in the same way as brands like Manchester United, it becomes clear why she doesn’t have time to waste.

Indeed, Angel City have gone about things their own way. For starters, the team’s lineup of investors reads more like a VIP guestlist for a Hollywood movie premiere than a soccer club ownership group. The idea to establish a new professional women’s soccer team in LA started with Natalie Portman, the American actress and activist, who alongside Uhrman and Upfront Ventures managing partner Kara Nortman is one of the club’s three female founders.

The franchise’s lead investor, meanwhile, is Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder and husband of tennis great Serena Williams, while other members of the team’s star-studded, female-led ownership group include Christina Aguilera, Eva Longoria and Billie Jean King, as well as Jennifer Garner, Abby Wambach and Lindsey Vonn. All told, Uhrman says Angel City have 99 owners, who join quarterly Zoom calls to discuss how they can get involved, whether it be by attending matches or supporting corporate partners.

But you have probably read all of that somewhere else before. The best indication of how Angel City plan to operate as a business came in February this year when, in an unusual step for a professional sports team, the club announced a Series A financing round.

“It’s very much a startup mentality,” Uhrman explains, speaking to SportsPro in September at the Leaders sports business conference in London. “We intentionally didn’t bring hardcore sportspeople onboard originally because we didn’t want to be limited by what has been done. When we first started pitching, it was very much in line with how sports teams get funding today. We wanted to find a controlling owner that would own 80 to 90 per cent of the club and would fund it, and we would operate and develop it for them.

Uhrman was first approached about Angel City by Hollywood movie star Natalie Portman

“The flipside was Kara, Natalie and I are doing all the work. We’re the ones that are passionate and believe in this and know what’s possible. Why are we giving this away? So, we flipped the model to fund this like a startup. Instead of asking for money when we’re failing through capital calls, we want to ask for money when we’re succeeding and there’s opportunities for growth.”

Angel City’s early success is, however, down to more than its group of A-list investors. Sportico reported that the aforementioned financing round valued the club at US$100 million, an unprecedented amount for a women’s sports team – not to mention one that was only unveiled a little more than two years ago. That is testament not only to the anticipated growth trajectory of the NWSL, but also the identity that the club was able to create before even setting foot on the pitch.

Uhrman says that much of the two-and-a-half-year runway she and her team had to build Angel City was focused on creating an organisation ‘where mission and capital come together’; a sports team where success isn’t only measured by what happens on the pitch, but also by the impact being delivered within the community.

Marrying those two things might sound like a foreign concept within the world of soccer, where owners have historically been prepared to accrue significant losses in the pursuit of trophies, but Angel City’s ability to do so has been at the core of their nascent journey to date.

“We wanted to build a platform that stood for equity and impact,” Uhrman begins, “where we could have the greatest amount of influence, make the greatest amount of impact, which ultimately would drive the greatest amount of revenue.

“Most sports teams don’t make money. So we didn’t want to do something totally different and then have the same outcome as everyone else. We wanted to do it differently and have a different outcome. Ironically, that outcome is actually being profitable.

“So when we were pitching this idea that we’re not building a soccer club, we’re building a platform that stands for equity and impact, traditional investors had a really hard time with that pitch. And the reality is that message resonated with actresses and athletes who understand the power of the platform.

“The ask from them was not a certain cheque size, but it was leveraging their platform to build attention and awareness for Angel City, so we could draw greater attention for women’s football, women’s sports, so we can ultimately drive equity. Because that’s always been our goal.”

From the boardroom pitch to the playing pitch

Angel City had already become a story before making their NWSL bow, but the unique aura surrounding the team meant there was added intrigue when it eventually made its debut in 2022. Ultimately, the club was unable to channel the momentum to carry itself into the playoffs, finishing eighth in its inaugural campaign and missing out on the postseason by four points.

Uhrman describes the team’s first season on the pitch as a “learning experience” and vows that the club’s investment is “going to grow pretty significantly” on the playing side of the business.

“[The team] are our product,” she continues. “Winning on the pitch makes everything else easier. They’re exceptional athletes that deserve the same level of care and attention that their male counterparts want. So how do we provide them the best-in-class elite training facilities and equipment and resources? We’re not there yet, we know that. But we know what we need to do to get there. I think that’s been the biggest learning curve for us. And we’ll right it for next year.”

While things might not have gone according to plan from a competitive standpoint, Angel City’s debut season surpassed expectations by every tangible measure commercially. The club initially hoped to have 5,000 season ticket holders for its first campaign and ended up with 16,000, 90 per cent of whom have renewed for 2023. The average crowd for the team’s home games at Banc of California Stadium was 19,000 and four matches at the 22,000-seater venue sold out.

Even in a market as saturated as LA, a city riddled with some of the most glamorous, decorated franchises in global sport, Angel City have been able to offer something different.

“For us in LA, it’s about building an experience,” Uhrman says. “It’s about building a gameday experience that’s unlike any other thing that they could do on the weekends. We want to build an experience for every type of fan. LA is an incredibly diverse population, we have an incredibly diverse, inclusive fanbase where there’s a real sense of community and belonging. And so we have put together an experience to make sure that there’s an experience for everyone, there’s a price point for everyone, and really try to create that ‘FOMO moment’ where you have to be there.”

Angel City enjoyed strong crowds during their debut season and 90% of season ticket holders renewed for 2023

Angel City would have even greater control over that experience were they to play in their own stadium, with the team leasing its current home from Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise Los Angeles FC. Uhrman recently confirmed to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that discussions are “advancing” for a new practice facility but suggests that a new arena is not part of the club’s immediate plans.

“Stadium businesses are difficult,” she notes. “Our lower cost base is because we don’t have [our own] stadium. There’s nothing really to prove for us in building our own stadium. We’re already selling out the Banc of California Stadium, so we’d have to build a bigger stadium.

“Where I think we have an opportunity to grow is in sponsorship, in ticketing, in merchandise, developing additional revenue streams, and then ultimately building a business model that is profitable.”

Proving purpose pays

Where Angel City have really been able to establish a point of difference is through their sponsorship philosophy, which sees the club reinvest ten per cent of the revenue they receive back into the community. That model has proved particularly popular with brands at a time when an increased focus on purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is changing the dynamic of partnerships between sponsors and rights holders.

This year, Uhrman says Angel City will be reallocating just over US$1 million to local organisations, with the funding being split between its three impact pillars of equity, essentials and education. All told, she says the club has more than US$43 million in committed sponsorship revenue across 27 partnerships. That includes the most valuable kit deals in the NWSL, headlined by a main shirt agreement with food delivery service DoorDash, which is reportedly paying a low eight-figure fee to place its brand on the front of the team’s jerseys for five years.

We believe that there’s greater value in supporting women’s sports today than there is supporting men’s sports.

Julie Uhrman, Founder and President, Angel City FC

Angel City’s sponsorship portfolio includes other familiar names such as Chevrolet, Heineken and Gatorade, but Uhrman points out that the club’s partnership roster also features companies that had never done deals in sport before, including footwear manufacturer Birdies, fashion brand Curateur and personal health company Ritual.

Indeed, Angel City have proved to be an antidote to the idea that purpose and profit can’t go hand in hand. And such has been the success of the club’s sponsorship model that Uhrman says she has even received calls from other sporting organisations asking how they make it work.

“When it comes to pricing, we really just value Angel City, the sport of women’s football, and the growth we’re about to see,” she points out. “We believe that there’s greater value in supporting women’s sports today than there is supporting men’s sports. You get a significantly greater share of voice, you get better positive sentiment with your customers and your fans, and if there’s shared values, there’s even greater impact.

“So we come in strong and we don’t negotiate, because there is the ten per cent back to the community, and we want to make sure that we’re working with a partner that is value-aligned. At the end of the day, I may be asking for half a million, that same asset may be worth five million in MLS. We’re not there yet, but we’re not going to come off half a million because it’s too expensive.

“We know they’re getting a steal and we know the impact is going to be greater.”

Why Angel City won’t be limited to soccer

Angel City’s immediate focus is naturally on the NWSL, which Uhrman believes could be only behind the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) in terms of popularity in the US in “five, ten years’ time”. But she also describes the organisation’s soccer team as the “first expression” of its ambition to become a global brand.

According to Uhrman, that could mean branching out beyond soccer and eventually having more subsidies underneath the overarching Angel City umbrella.

“It could be other football clubs, it could be other teams, it could be consumer products,” she says. “But the idea is we lead with purpose, we want to have a positive impact, everything we do gives back to the community as well as drives revenue that fuels this engine. So there’s no reason we have to limit ourselves to football.

“Obviously we want to be really successful, we want to invest in it. But I think we have proven that we can use football as a way not only to shift culture, but also bend the curve towards equity, because that’s our ultimate goal. We can drive to equity by having lots of different touchpoints with our consumers if we’re successful in building a brand that resonates with people.”

Uhrman says the long-term plan is for Angel City to become a global brand

It remains to be seen whether the Angel City model is one that could be emulated further afield. After all, not every women’s sports club will be able to lean on a team of celebrity investors, nor will they all be based in locations that can match the pageantry of LA.

But for this particular NWSL franchise, it appears to be the right strategy for right now.

“The way that you think about Liverpool and Man United and the [New York] Yankees and the [Dallas] Cowboys, we want Angel City to be in that group of clubs as well,” says Uhrman. “Where you know about us from the product that we put on the pitch, you know about us from the impact that we make, you know about us from how we build a business model differently and who’s invested and involved in it.

“And how we have played an integral role in growing women’s football globally.”

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