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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jill Ellis still wants to win

Jill Ellis, the president of the San Diego Wave, chats during a video meeting at her office in San Diego, Calif. on July 11, 2023.

By Claire Fahy

When Jill Ellis stepped back from coaching after winning back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019 with the U.S. women’s team, her wife, Betsy Stephenson, thought the number of soccer matches watched in their house might decrease.

She was wrong.

In 2021, Ellis became president of the San Diego Wave, an expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League. The couple and their daughter relocated to Southern California from Florida, and the TV in their living room remains tuned in to all-day soccer marathons.

On a recent Saturday, Ellis, 57, scrolled through streaming apps, watching competitors as well as her own team, all while offering commentary on lineups, players who had promising futures and, of course, calls by referees that she did not agree with.

“What my journey has highlighted to me is, if you have the belief in something being great, it can be great,” Ellis said. “It has been an incredible journey to this point for me to see this, but we’re not done yet.”

After spending years guiding the U.S. women’s team to the apex of international soccer, Ellis is now fully focused on her work in the NWSL, which — following two failed attempts to establish a women’s league — has reason for long-term optimism, 11 years after its founding.

The Wave joined the league at the same time as Angel City FC, a team based in Los Angeles. Both organizations are run by women, with ownership groups willing to invest substantial amounts of money into the clubs. And each has found a devoted fan base in its community.

This year, four of the 12 teams in the NWSL are on track to bring in over $10 million in revenue, including three that were founded in the past three years: the Wave, Angel City and the Kansas City Current. Across the league, attendance is up 32% compared with last season, and the Wave leads all teams with an average attendance of more than 20,000 fans per game, breaking the league’s single-season record.

After posting the league’s best regular-season record, the Wave played OL Reign, of Seattle, last Sunday with a chance to do what no expansion team has done in its first two years: win the NWSL championship.

Things didn’t go the Wave’s way in that match, with the Reign winning 1-0 to advance.

But win or lose, the Wave’s performance is personal for Ellis. After she left the U.S. women’s team, she began consulting for billionaire investor Ron Burkle, who wanted to start a new NWSL club. As she listened to him describe the type of team he wanted to create, she realized she could be the one to do it.

“I was like, ‘Ron, you know, I didn’t go to Wharton,’” Ellis said, referencing the business school at the University of Pennsylvania. “But I think I can build a club, and I want to run the whole dang thing.”

So instead of pacing the sideline and analyzing opponents for vulnerabilities, Ellis is watching games from a suite, sizing up attendance figures and weighing how much fans should have to pay for parking. Ellis has embraced the more logistical aspects of her new job, receiving a crash course in terms like “dynamic pricing” and “digital marketing,” and deciding if the Wave’s uniform shorts should be pink or white (she went with pink). She proudly points out that it was her idea for there to be a wave motif passing through the uniforms’ numbers.

One thing Ellis didn’t need to learn, though, is that the key to the franchise’s overall success would be wins on the field. The first player she signed was someone she knew very well: Abby Dahlkemper, a defender whom Ellis recruited to the University of California, Los Angeles, coached at the 2019 World Cup and decided to build the Wave roster around. For the Wave’s second signing, Ellis went with Alex Morgan, the face of American soccer. Neither of them needed much convincing.

“Anything Jill is involved in, excellence is included in that,” Dahlkemper said.

When it came time for Ellis to find a manager, she was committed to hiring a woman. Another club president told her that there weren’t many good female coaches in the hiring pool, prompting Ellis to inform him that he had clearly been looking in the wrong places. She hired Casey Stoney, a former England player, who was named the league’s coach of the year for the 2022 season.

It was part of Ellis’ plan to make the Wave an example of how a franchise run by women could succeed.

“Respectfully, when you’ve been to Mount Everest a couple of times with the World Cup, it’s like, I want to do something different,” Ellis said. “It was less about sport and more about, What can we do to make this better?”

In 2020, Ellis and U.S. Soccer, the national governing body for the sport, started the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund to provide financial aid and mentoring to women who were pursuing coaching licenses. Amy Rodriguez, who played for Ellis on the U.S. women’s team, was part of the first class of active players to get a coaching license covered in part by the scholarship. She was recently named head coach of the Utah Royals, which is set to join the NWSL next season. Rodriguez, who previously coached at the University of Southern California, said Ellis was quick to reach out with her congratulations and offer support.

“She’s such a helpful mentor in that way,” Rodriguez said. “She said multiple times: ‘I want to see you succeed at this. I want you to do well. We’re so excited for you.’”

Ellis knows firsthand how influential a successful team can be. During her tenure, the U.S. women’s team became an international symbol of inclusivity. That was meaningful to Ellis, who said that she was closeted for the early part of her adult life and suffered from depression as a result. Watching her players be themselves — such as Abby Wambach kissing her wife after the United States won the Women’s World Cup in 2015 or Megan Rapinoe’s defiant stance toward President Donald Trump during the team’s 2019 run — was as rewarding to Ellis as their on-field achievements.

“I think it was destiny,” she said. “It was inspiring to see the players living who they truly are, and being proud of that and supportive of each other.”

Last year, her daughter presented her with the news that Ellis would be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Earlier in her career, before she was open about her sexuality, Ellis avoided award ceremonies for fear of what people might say or think. This time, she didn’t shrink from the honor or hide parts of herself while accepting the accolade. As she stepped up to the lectern to give her speech at the induction ceremony in May, Ellis thanked Stephenson.

“I never had a teammate in life,” she said, “until I met my wife.”

“Women’s soccer would not be where it’s at today without Jill Ellis,” Dahlkemper said. “I think it’s hard to find a coach that is a great soccer coach, but also a great manager of people and players as well.”

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