Why the NWSL's celebrity-backed Los Angeles franchise is the type of splash the league's been looking for

A view of the Los Angeles downtown skyline.
Los Angeles is getting an NWSL team, one that's backed with significant financial might. (Getty Images)

The National Women’s Soccer League has made announcements before that were hailed as game-changers.

Sometimes they made a splash because those who wanted the NWSL to succeed were looking for things to be positive about, and sometimes they were true steps forward for a fledgling league that has been forced to come a long way in a short time.

But never has there been an announcement quite like this.

A new expansion team in Los Angeles, which both trademark filings and sources indicate is slated to be nicknamed Angel City Football Club, features a deep-pocketed ownership group that is a who’s who of entertainment.

Investors backing the team range from actresses like Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, to digital stars like Casey Neistat and Lilly Singh, to sports giants like Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. When Angel City FC joins the NWSL in 2022, it looks like it’ll be among the most well-resourced clubs in American women’s soccer.

There have been attention-grabbing strides for the NWSL before, of course, but this feels like a particularly significant one. This may very well be the moment everyone looks back upon as signaling the turning point for the NWSL.

After all, just a year ago, sources expressed worry to Yahoo Sports about the state of the league.

A partnership with A&E Network — initially one of those “game-changing announcements” — fizzled out before the term of the contract even ended, a failure for both sides. The NWSL owners had been without a commissioner for years and couldn’t agree on hiring one, which led U.S. Soccer to reconsider its financial support for the league.

While sources connected to the NWSL had varying levels of doubt about the league’s future, the doubt was still always there. The NWSL, it seemed, was losing momentum.

Now, those concerns feel far away. Buoyed by the expert hire of Lisa Baird as its commissioner in March, the league has found its way again, with the Los Angeles expansion announcement as the ultimate proof.

What’s particularly encouraging about Angel City FC is the buy-in from several investors.

It’s not a team backed by one rich investor who can give up on a whim, which happened in previous U.S. women’s soccer leagues. Those spearheading the bid also didn’t struggle to find someone interested, which has been a problem in the past. Instead, it’s a large group of powerful people — mostly women — that seems to believe in what a women’s soccer club in L.A. stands for and is capable of sustaining the team for the long haul.

Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria smile and react at a podium.
Actresses Natalie Portman (left) and Eva Longoria are part of the Los Angeles NWSL ownership group. (Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

Even aside from the Angel City FC star power, though, the NWSL makes itself a far stronger property just by expanding into Los Angeles.

For years, the NWSL struggled with finding national sponsorships. Part of that was the lack of a strong commissioner; indeed, when Budweiser signed on with the NWSL last year, it was U.S. Soccer who brokered the deal on the league’s behalf.

But a much bigger problem was that the NWSL always lacked a true national footprint. How can a so-called national league not have a presence in the largest state in the country and the country’s second-largest city?

That might explain why for too long the sponsors section of the NWSL website listed Cutter, a bug repellant spray, and the National Mango Board, hardly the sort of powerhouse brands that signal an organization worth latching onto.

With the NWSL finally entering the soccer and celebrity hotbed of Southern California, the league is in the best position it has ever been in to develop meaningful partnerships, bring in sponsorship dollars, and attract broadcasters when its current deals with CBS and Twitch end.

In one fell swoop with Tuesday’s announcement, the NWSL looks as enticing as it ever has, and with Baird it has a commissioner capable of capitalizing.

NWSL now has the big thing missing from other women’s soccer leagues

What has been missing most from women’s soccer over the years, particularly on the league level, comes down to one word: money.

It’s never been the product itself. Just ask any fan of both the United States national teams — both teams can thrill, enrage and cause heartbreak (although the women have undoubtedly been more fun in recent years).

The personalities on the field were never lacking either, and that’s still true today. Very few athletes can hold court in front of a microphone the way Megan Rapinoe does and, ruffled feathers be damned, Carli Lloyd is so unflinchingly honest she’s bound to make headlines.

The market, which is evident from the huge TV ratings and crowds the USWNT attracts, is there.

But what women’s soccer has seemingly always lacked was money, the kind of money that showed true commitment and investment.

That was the case back in the early 2000s when the Women’s United Soccer Association folded because, at least in part, the first sponsorships that companies cut in the economic tumult of 9/11 were for women’s sports competitions.

It was true in the 2000s when the LA Sol folded in Women’s Professional Soccer, a sign of the league’s impending doom. Philip Anschutz, the billionaire owner of the Sol, is remembered as the man who saved Major League Soccer, the first and only top-tier American men’s league, because he dropped $100 million to prop up half of MLS’s teams, even as the league hemorrhaged money. And yet, he shut down the Sol after it lost just $2 million.

Lisa Baird speaks during an interview at the NWSL's Challenge Cup.
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird is more than capable of capitalizing on the NWSL's current momentum. (Photo by Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

“MLS survived because a billionaire man decided it was worth it to give his money and continued to give his millions and millions to fund the league,” is how former USWNT star Tiffeny Milbrett explained it in The National Team. “That’s a really big reason that league never folded. I just feel like the women never had that — that person who was willing to do it because the women deserved it.”

In the 2010s, when the National Women’s Soccer League launched, the biggest concern was again money. Like in past leagues, teams disappeared, whether it was the Boston Breakers or FC Kansas City, because they simply ran out of money or the people running them gave up.

But in 2020, another new decade has ushered in an entirely new era.

Joining the ranks of Angel City FC as a well-funded team, the former Seattle Reign came into the year with a new owner: OL Groupe, the parent company of French powerhouse club Olympique Lyonnais.

The company paid around $3.1 million for an 89.5 percent stake, which may not seem like much when Columbus Crew SC was sold for around $150 million in 2018. But a sale worth that much to an organization wielding the power and resources of OL Groupe would’ve been unthinkable for an NWSL team even just a few years ago.

If there’s an enduring flaw of NWSL’s financial picture, it may be that it is still very much a league of haves and have-nots.

Dell Loy Hansen, who owns the Utah Royals, is the level of wealthy that allowed him to buy a rare coin for $1.3 million last year, and he built new facilities for his trio of professional soccer teams before acquiring the NWSL team in 2017. Meanwhile, other independent teams that have been committed to women’s soccer for years, like Sky Blue FC and the Chicago Red Stars, have needed to make progress more gradually, constrained by a more conservative approach and the lack of shared resources, such as Hansen enjoys with Real Salt Lake.

But more and more, it looks like money may not be the issue for the NWSL that it was constantly for other leagues.

The balance is tipping in the favors of the haves — more teams than ever have the deep pockets to match high ambitions. And even the teams long seen as have-nots have gained better footholds in their local markets than ever, bringing revenues to new heights as the interest in women’s soccer grows.

After decades of women’s soccer supporters worrying about money, there may finally be some reprieve. That would be progress worthy of being called game-changing.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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