New women’s soccer team, founded by women, will press equal pay cause
By Gillian R. Brassil
Kara Nortman’s path to owning a professional women’s soccer team began in Vancouver, British Columbia, when she went looking for a women’s soccer jersey during the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Nortman found some, eventually, without players’ names on the backs.
“I just didn’t understand why it was so hard,” Nortman said. “I was trying to get people to take my money. Why could nobody take it?”
A Southern California native from a sports-driven family, Nortman, a venture capitalist, soon became devoted to women’s soccer, following the top division in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and talking about the game with anyone who would listen — including actress Natalie Portman, whom she met at a fundraiser. Both soon became active supporters of the U.S. women’s team’s fight for equal pay, and after last summer’s Women’s World Cup, they decided it was time to involve themselves more personally in the game.
“Natalie texted me three times, just one line: ‘Let’s bring a team to LA,’” Nortman said.
On Tuesday, their dream became a reality when the NWSL announced that it would expand to Los Angeles in 2022, with a team bankrolled by an ownership group that includes not only Nortman and Portman, but also tennis star Serena Williams and her husband, tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian; media consultant Julie Uhrman; and more than a dozen former members of the U.S. women’s team.
The Los Angeles team, which said it would release its name and stadium plans before the end of the year, will be the only team in the NWSL to be owned almost entirely by women. The ownership group of 33 people also includes several women of color, including actresses Uzo Aduba, Eva Longoria and America Ferrera, and talk-show host Lilly Singh.
Perhaps befitting such a diverse ownership group — which also includes World Cup winners Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Abby Wambach — the team came into being in a nontraditional way. The owners decided on a mission before approaching the league, then consulted members of the U.S. women’s national team and their players association to better understand the needs of women’s pros. The mission was clear from the start, said Uhrman, the club’s president: “Champions on and off the field.”
Part of that motto, she said, would be embracing the fight for pay equity for women by bolstering media coverage of the league, securing new sponsorships and, ultimately, creating stronger revenue streams through increased viewership.
“It’s our goal to have women’s professional soccer players make a living only playing women’s professional soccer,” Uhrman said.
Becca Roux, executive director of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, said the combination of female investors, former women’s pros and people of color on the new team’s board of directors had the potential to be game-changing steps for not only the NWSL, but for other major leagues. Williams and Ohanian’s 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, is also listed as an investor.
“We’ve seen other athletes — mostly men — join ownership of sports teams in recent years, but not so much women because they often didn’t make enough money in their careers to buy into a sports franchise,” Roux said.
Many challenges remain for the NWSL. The league’s new commissioner, Lisa Baird, has helped stabilize the league since taking over earlier this year and helped attract several deep-pocketed sponsors to help underwrite its summer tournament. But the NWSL also requested and received a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program this spring to cover the salaries of its players, who despite a recent raise still earn as little as $20,000 a year.
There are nine teams in the NWSL, and a 10th, in Louisville, Ky., is set to join in 2021. The NWSL kicked off its eighth season late last month amid the coronavirus pandemic with a so-called bubble tournament in Utah. The semifinals of the event, the Challenge Cup, were to be played Wednesday. The league will crown a champion with a nationally televised game Sunday afternoon.
Plans for a coaching staff and players of the new Los Angeles team, which for now is called Angel City, will become more concrete in 2021, league officials said. But the work for change off the field will start sooner, through a partnership with the LA84 Foundation’s Play Equity Fund, which promotes access to sport for young athletes, particularly those of color.
“You just need a ball, some dirt and some grass, which makes it the most played sport in the world,” Nortman said. “Getting access to soccer and other sports into those communities is critical.”