What it takes to build a new pro women’s soccer team for LA

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Sep 20, 2015; Birmingham, AL, USA; United States midfielder Shannon Boxx (7) goes for the ball along with Haiti player Nerilia Ondesir (9) during the match at Legion Field. The USA defeated the Haiti team 8-0. Photo by Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters.

LA is getting a new professional women’s soccer team that will go into action in 2022. There’s no name for it yet. For now, it’s operating under the title Angel City.

It’s attracted a lot of interest from the business world, Hollywood, and women’s sports. That includes Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain, Eva Longoria, Mia Hamm, and Shannon Boxx. 

KCRW speaks with Boxx, who played on the U.S. women’s national team, winning three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup. 

Also joining the conversation: Kara Nortman, co-founder of Angel City and partner in the tech venture capital firm Upfront Ventures.

KCRW: Kara Nortman, how did you decide to get involved in creating a new pro women’s soccer team in LA?

Kara Nortman: “It really started at the 2015 games. … Shannon was a part of inspiring it. … I brought my three daughters, and it was one of the greatest community sporting experiences I'd ever been to. People were painting faces. And the play on the field, with the most elite players in the world, it was just amazing. 

But I couldn't find jerseys to buy. And then when I got home, I couldn't find content to watch. And when I could find it, it was a single camera from far away. And so that kicked off this curiosity I had, around why I couldn't get anyone to take my money. 

And I subsequently got to know Becca Roux, who runs the Players Association for the women's national team. And I became very interested in helping her, and learning and understanding how do we make sure these women get paid?

We were going through some similar things in my industry in tech. And through those things in tech, I helped start a nonprofit called All Raise. And I met Natalie Portman, who helped start an organization called Time's Up. And we were supporting pay equity and gender equity issues in our respective fields. 

... I was talking to anyone who would listen, this was in 2018, about my passion for women's soccer and the elite athletes in the United States. And Natalie said, ‘Hey, you know what, I love soccer.’ And about a year ago, she sent me a text message saying, ‘Why don't we look into buying a team?’ And I thought she was kidding. When she said it for the third time, same line over text message, I realized she was serious. ... And so I started looking into it, and it kind of took off from there. 

… It's the first women-founded, women-led, women president, and majority women-owned professional sports team in the country.”

Shannon, you played for the LA Sol, which was around for one year.  Brazilian player Marta [Vieira da Silva], who some consider the greatest women's player of all time, was also on that team. Talk about your experience on that team. 

Shannon Boxx: “The LA Sol was, I think, a magical year for me. … Playing in three different leagues, three different women's professional leagues, I played on a lot of different teams, in a lot of different cities. And to be able to play in my home city and to feel that both were connected — I got to be home, but I also was playing the sport that I loved. I got to play in front of my friends and family. That experience alone was amazing for me. And I played amazing, and I think because I was just happy. I was happy to be in the place that I was in. 

And then you look at the team, and it was one of the best teams I've ever played on as far as talent. … We ended up winning league, and lost in the league championship, but I will never forget that year just because of the way that we played, but also how we were off the field.  

… And so to lose that team, I was devastated. It was a thing that we kind of saw coming. They had kind of told us that they are in for a year, and that we have to try to find another investor, and we just couldn't make it happen. And it was just devastating to know I was leaving my hometown to go somewhere else to play.”

The maximum salary for a player is $50,000 a year and the minimum is $20,000. How do you live on that salary in a city like LA? What is life like as a professional women's soccer player in America?

Boxx: “You're definitely not playing for the money. You're playing for the passion of the sport and the idea that you get to be a professional athlete. It was tough. 

I was playing in the professional league before I was on the national team. So I had the same situation that a lot of players have: Going to your city that you play for, for six months, playing. And then having to come home for six months, sometimes living with your parents again because you can't afford to live on your own. …  And then trying to find another job. And pretty much that's what I was doing. And to find a job for only six months is really difficult. 

So you kind of lean toward things that you know you can do: coaching, individual sessions, and group sessions, and little things that really aren't making you a lot of money either. So it becomes very difficult. And I know a lot of players who finally had to retire and give it up, give up their favorite sport because they just couldn't handle the living situation.”

The new LA team is set to debut in 2022. There's a lot to get done. Kara what are you doing to make this team a reality?

Nortman: “When we were starting the team, or considering starting the team, we talked to hundreds of people, including players, owners, union leaders, etc. And one of the things we heard is it's not just about paying the players, it is about investing in … an innovative strong office. 

So for me as a venture capitalist, it always starts with your north star leader and how they think about building a team. So that's led by Julie Uhrman, and she’s begun to build her business team. This year we're going to focus on the next set of announcements and work behind it. 

We'll be announcing our colors and crests. We're spending a lot of time with the community, building a team that resonates with the community and where the community is engaged from the ground floor. 

And then we'll announce our stadium deal and tell everybody where we're going to play, ticketing, sponsorships, etc. So that will all be over the next six to 12 months. 

And then we build out the soccer side, which is really fun. … We have a lot of sage players and even coaches around the table who will hopefully give us feedback on that front. And then we'll move into actually building the team.”

Salaries are low in women’s soccer. How do you acquire great talent if you can’t pay them a high salary?  

Nortman: “Everybody wants to play here and we're very lucky. So I think people are willing to make sacrifices while the league is building itself into larger and larger revenue streams. 

And I think the first goal is to get players … to a salary level where this is their full time job. Or being in the N.W.S.L. [National Women's Soccer League] is their first job and being on the women's national team, if they are a part of that, is their second job. 

It's kind of been the reverse, right? And it's only started to change in a way where these women are cultural icons … activists and role models in addition to being players. And you’ve got to build the revenue streams. 

… I'll just give you a quick example. I grew up in LA in the 80s and 90s. I remember when Magic Johnson got his $1 million a year for 25 years contract, and it blew everyone's minds. And now you have NBA players making $25 million in a year. But it comes from media revenue and sponsorships revenue, not just ticket sales.

So this market is sort of ready to turn. The 10 owners around the table and the really strong front office, and Lisa Baird, and the commissioners are all coming together. And with distribution, media revenue and all of these different things, we should be able to pay players more, but we start by getting them a living wage. And then from there, you build. 

… This is the path we have to go on. And we have to do it collaboratively with all the different constituents and with an understanding of what it takes to get there because it won't happen overnight, but it will happen.”

Between the current economic crisis and past failed ventures, what are you doing to ensure that doesn't happen here? 

Nortman: “The Sol brought in 10,000 fans a game. LAFC and the Galaxy sell out their stadiums. Every time the women's national team comes, they sell out their stadiums. The Portland Thorns are getting 20,000 fans a game. 

So I’d say one is just the rising popularity of the sport, due in large part to all the work Shannon and many of the players involved [have done].

… Then from there, the really big thing is you can actually watch it. Ten years ago, you either were on CBS primetime or you were not. And there were a handful of different kinds of distribution channels. Now, literally, it's Tik Tok, it's Switch, it's Instagram stories, it's Amazon, in addition to CBS, NBC, etc. So you can actually get people to connect to a team and then watch it. 

… Today's viewer, tomorrow's viewer, and fans live in digital and physical space. And so you're going to see incarnations of Angel City not just in the physical world, but in the digital. And there's a lot of different kind of ways and ideas we have to bring that to life. So I think there'll be new revenue streams that we're experimenting with for the very first time.”

Credits

Guests:
Shannon Boxx - Former US Women’s National Team player and former player with the LA Sol, Kara Nortman - Partner in the tech venture capital firm Upfront Ventures; co-founder of Angel City

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel