Kara Nortman is big on writing plans. In fact, she does it all the time. But around a year ago, while on vacation, she wrote one as quickly as she’s ever written one before.
The plan recently revealed itself to be Monarch Collective, a US$100 million, first-of-its-kind fund that will exclusively invest in teams and leagues in women’s sports, as well as adjacent revenue streams such as media and gaming. Formerly of Upfront Ventures and IAC, where she led an investment in Tinder, Nortman is one of two managing partners at Monarch alongside fellow venture capitalist Jasmine Robinson, who was previously manager of investment and business operations at the San Francisco 49ers and a former partner at Causeway, a fund focused on sports, media and entertainment.
Like many projects in women’s sports, this idea was born out of frustration. Its origins can be traced back eight years to the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada, when Nortman recalls not being able to buy US women’s national team jerseys for her daughters or find regular coverage of the title-winning players in the media. Things have changed since then, but Monarch believes it can help accelerate the ongoing cultural shift in sport.
Speaking now, Nortman tells SportsPro that Monarch is planning to make four to six investments, has a keen eye on soccer, and could even bring the multi-club ownership model to women’s sports. Ultimately, the goal is to prove that increasing funding for female athletes and competitions will drive greater returns and be the catalyst for more financing further down the line.
That is something Nortman is sure of already. You can hear it in her voice.
“This is a long-term education path for people who don’t see it now,” she says. “Those are some of my favourite people to talk to. There are some people who don’t see it with some self-awareness. Then there are people who just aren’t there. Then there’s a whole lot of people interested in women’s sports for multiple reasons. For some it is its impact, for some it’s an inflation hedge, but for a lot of people they see it as the one place where showing up with a different strategy can actually drive financial results.”
Nortman knows plenty about that already. For the uninitiated, the American is a co-founder of Angel City, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) outfit which has gained plaudits for executing a business model that has successfully balanced purpose and profit, putting ten per cent of its sponsorship revenue back into the Los Angeles community. The team’s strategy has also been more akin to a startup than professional sports organisation, with the club raising significant funds from a Series A financing round that reportedly valued the franchise at US$100 million.
Kara Nortman is one of three founders of Los Angeles-based NWSL expansion franchise Angel City
However, Nortman says she never thought of Angel City as a “one and done” and wants to show that the model is replicable around the world. She namechecks “global sports” like basketball, motor racing, cycling, rugby, cricket, tennis and golf when asked where Monarch is looking to invest, but makes clear that the fund will be heavily focused on soccer in the US and Europe.
Whether that means minority or controlling ownership will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The plan could include working with family offices in the US or existing regulatory bodies and leagues in Europe. Fundamentally, Nortman says Monarch’s intention is to be “creative dealmakers” and stresses that the fund has been set up to be flexible.
“We have a very focused and disciplined strategy in terms of how many investments we’re going to make, how we’re going to show up and work, and the kinds of people we want to work with – and that will be really consistent,” she states.
“The way we look at it is it’s different league by league and team by team. We’ll structure product that makes sense first and foremost for them, and we’ve set up our limited partner base to be able to do that.”
Nortman’s eyes light up as she talks of embarking on fact-finding missions to soccer clubs in Europe, an experience she compares to “praying at the Vatican” and “learning from long-term religions”. She has even sat in the supporter sections at grounds like Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park to get a feel for fan culture and is an avid user of the Fantasy Premier League game, which she credits as a leading example of how tech can help sports properties build a community.
With a self-confessed fascination for organisational design, Nortman has also been studying multi-club ownership, a strategy that is increasingly favoured among investors in men’s European soccer but is yet to be tested in the women’s game, which is still maturing commercially. Still, Nortman admits she has tried to learn from the likes of City Football Group (CFG) and Liverpool owner Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and says “everything is on the table” for Monarch.
“Multi-club is on my radar because there’s definitely reason to do it,” she continues. “We’re spending time meeting with people on the analytics and business intelligence side, and I keep asking questions like ‘why does it need to be proprietary?’ On the women’s side I think you can be a lot more collaborative. You create firm boundaries on the sporting side, but [share] best practices.
“So I’m looking at multi-club, academies, analytics, gaming, media rights, but we’ll do a limited number of hands-on things with a few partners we get to know early. So if it’s at the stage where 100 people are looking at it as an inefficient market, we’ll still look at it, but we’re then going to look for a very specific syndicate where we can actually do substantive work.”
Whichever properties do end up in Monarch’s portfolio will benefit from the expertise of advisors who work at companies like Netflix, 49ers Enterprises, the players associations for the USWNT and National Football League (NFL), Adobe and Softbank. Nortman, who herself has 25 years of experience in tech, says the fund has other “famous people” onboard who are yet to be disclosed, noting that Monarch wants to bring in individuals who are keen to learn how to invest before talking about them publicly “at the right time”.
Indeed, the launch of Monarch comes as investors who have traditionally hedged their bets on men’s properties start to realise that there is money to be made in women’s sports. This month, for example, saw Sixth Street, the US-based investment firm that has provided funding to the likes of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, pay a US$53 million expansion fee for an NWSL team in the Bay Area.
💥💥ANNOUNCEMENT💥💥— NWSL to the Bay (@nwsltothebay) April 4, 2023
Women's pro soccer is coming to the Bay!
Join us in this new chapter for Bay Area and women's sports and show your support for #NWSLtotheBay #NWSL pic.twitter.com/Xz1RZlw3FR
The involvement of VCs of that calibre will bring greater legitimacy, but many of those beginning to invest in women’s properties position them as part of a broader portfolio – rather than a priority.
That isn’t true of Monarch, whose role Nortman says will be as a collaborator rather than competitor. Her hope is that the fund shows a future wave of women’s sports investors how it can be done. That, according to Nortman, who sure enough is embarking on another vacation two hours after this interview, this time to Italy, is her plan.
“We really look at driving financial returns and cultural returns,” she explains. “We think the way to get the world to pay attention is to have one of the highest returning funds – not just because you got in there and parked yourself in something that just went up. But because you actually showed up, did work.
“Because ten years from now there should be many funds, and we want to be the one that’s got a talent pipeline, has playbooks, and who people really enjoy working with.”