Women's professional soccer is back in L.A. Here's why Angel City FC is ready to thrive

Women’s professional soccer is back in L.A. Here’s why Angel City FC is ready to thrive

FULLERTON-CA-MARCH 19, 2022: Angel City FC supporter groups cheer on their team at the first game of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup against San Diego Wave FC at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, March 19, 2022. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times) (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been 13 years since Angelenos could root for a home team in a women’s professional soccer league.

While two Major League Soccer clubs call the Los Angeles area home, the last time the city hosted a women’s team was in 2009. The short-lived L.A. Sol played at the former Home Depot Center in Carson but folded after just one season.

On Friday, fans at the Banc of California Stadium will witness the official return of the women’s game to Los Angeles when National Women’s Soccer League newcomer Angel City FC takes the field in its inaugural match against the North Carolina Courage.

The expansion team is backed by a group of nearly 100 investors that include A-list celebrities Natalie Portman, America Ferrera and Eva Longoria, as well as 13 former U.S. Women’s National Team players. The investors — and $35 million in sponsorship deals — come at a time of rising fan interest and a growing movement to elevate women’s sports.

As a player for the L.A. Sol, Shannon Box always knew she wanted to eventually help grow the women’s side of the game. Now, the former USWNT midfielder and soon-to-be National Soccer Hall of Famer, is doing that in her hometown as an investor in Angel City FC.

“I think what’s happening right now all around the world, especially in the United States, is that the focus is on women, women’s sports, women equity, equal pay,” Boxx said.

Los Angeles Sol teammates

Shannon Boxx, center, celebrates with Los Angeles Sol teammates during a Women’s Professional Soccer match in 2009. The team folded after its first season. The league closed in 2012. (Gus Ruelas / Associated Press)

Success on the international stage

Angel City enters its inaugural season as interest in women’s sports continues to grow worldwide.

Last week, a UEFA Women’s Champions League semifinal match broke a record in attendance for a women’s soccer game. A record 91,648 fans watched the match between Barcelona and Wolfsburg at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.

In the United States, NWSL attendance had been on the rise prior to the pandemic. The league also saw attendance bumps during the years that the USWNT won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019.

“You’re starting to see more and more fans who are wanting to come out because the quality is so good,” Boxx said. “I’m looking at players now compared to when I played, and we were amazing then and now the quality is getting so much better.”

Star athletes outshine their clubs online

Worldwide competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics give players a big stage to connect with a larger audience. The players, including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press, have become household names and built their own brands by connecting directly with the public using social media.

This has helped change the business model in the world of sports, especially for female athletes, said Ceyda Mumcu, associate professor of sports management at the University of New Haven.

“Historically, the business model has been focused on the leagues and franchises, but within the new business model, it is more athlete-driven than the team- or league-driven,” Mumcu said.

In many cases, athletes have larger social media followings than the teams and leagues for which they play.

“Individual athletes are generating more of a business case than the team,” Mumcu added.

San Diego Wave FC forward Alex Morgan and Angel City FC forward Christen Press during a NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match.

San Diego Wave FC forward Alex Morgan and Angel City FC forward Christen Press compete for the ball during a NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Torero Stadium in San Diego. Both Morgan and Press have more social media followers than the National Women’s Soccer League. (Justin Fine / Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Among NWSL athletes, 12 current and former players have more followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube than the league itself, according to an analysis by KORE Software, a sports and entertainment marketing company.

Angel City’s Christen Press and Julie Ertz, who is not playing this season because she’s having a baby, each possess social media followings that rival the NWSL and the club. And San Diego Wave FC’s Morgan has more than four times as many followers than the women’s national team, which has nearly 5-million fans across various platforms.

But followers and posts aren’t everything.

A typical post by Morgan brings in nearly 200,000 likes, comments, shares and video views across various platforms. Posts by Ertz and Press earn about 50,000 engagements on average.

Even if some players have a larger following than individual NWSL teams, the clubs still drive more engagement online because they post more frequently. Angel City FC leads the league in engagements per post, followed by the Portland Thorns. The L.A. team has received 6-million interactions and video views, followed by the Thorns with 2 million.

While quadrennial events like the World Cup and Olympics are great for visibility, they are not enough to sustain the sport. That takes an energized fan base that’s motivated to attend game after game.

“I do believe that the national team has created so much success, and it’s kind of trickling down now into the league because you want to watch them on a daily basis,” Boxx said. “Instead of only every four years, you’re now getting a chance to watch all these great athletes … every weekend.”

An enterprise led by women

As the fanbase grows, so does the pool of potential sponsors and investors.

By March, Angel City FC had secured more than $35 million in sponsorship revenue. In February, the food delivery service DoorDash signed a deal with the club for its logo to appear on the team’s jerseys.

Rather than seeing a sponsorship as a charitable donation or a “cause,” backers are seeing it as good business, said Julie Foudy, a two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and an analyst and commentator at ESPN.

“They see this as an entity that is getting to a (demographic) they really like … and so they’re coming in with large numbers,” Foudy said. “And I think it’s just a lesson to women involved in professional sports to not undersell yourself and to bet on women and to believe in that.”

As an investor, Foudy was drawn to the project because it is primarily owned and led by women. And she’s not alone.

Angel City has attracted the largest group of investors out of the 12 NWSL teams. The roster of backers includes names from Hollywood, music, tech and icons from other sports such as Serena Williams and Billie Jean King.

Angel City is not the only team to add a diverse slate of investors to its board. In 2021, the Chicago Red Stars followed suit by announcing its own expanded ownership group.

So far, Angel City has played six preseason games in the NWSL Challenge Cup, where Foudy has seen enthusiastic support from fans and the team’s six supporter groups. Foudy, who played for the San Diego Spirit from 2001 to 2003, also predicts a future Southern California derby between the San Diego Wave, also a new expansion.

“This hunger for [having] women’s soccer back in L.A. is tremendous,” Foudy said. “Then to have a team in San Diego as well … I do feel like that’s two gifts given to Southern California.”

Angel City kicks off its first season game against the Courage on Friday at 7:30 p.m. So far, the team has sold more than 15,000 season tickets and, as of Thursday afternoon, single-game tickets were still available.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.