Women’s Football Clubs are The New Esports Franchise — With More Upside
Women’s soccer is having a cultural moment in the United States and this Initialized investment, Angel City, embodies it. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team has consistently been the best in the world. The stars are icons who have already transcended the sport, attracting more than 14.3 million Americans, who tuned in to watch the team celebrate their fourth title in 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final. This audience is 27 percent larger than the number of Americans who watched the Men’s World Cup Final a year earlier. Yet somehow, women’s sports in the U.S. currently receive only 4 percent of sports media coverage.
Fortunately, social media is now ubiquitous and the gatekeepers of traditional sports media are going extinct. It should be no surprise that the online communities that follow the National Women’s Soccer League and women’s football in general are among the most passionate I’ve ever encountered.
Americans love greatness. We have the greatest women footballers in the world and they and their league have been absurdly undervalued. I fired off a tweetstorm a year ago after my family and I watched the women raise the trophy and remarked how maybe our daughter, wearing an Alex Morgan kit and running around chasing a baby football, might be a professional footballer one day. My wife Serena Williams responded, “Not until they pay her and all those other women what they’re worth.” Challenge accepted.
After digging into VC-backed clubs like Bessemer’s TeamSoloMid ($37M Series A); Founders Fund’s Cloud9 ($50M Series B) and Sequoia’s 100 Thieves ($35M Series B), we saw these women’s football clubs operate much like an Esports team — they’re consumer brands that build their community around the individual talents and celebrity of their athletes. They’re so similar, I even used the Sequoia funding announcement as a find & replace template for this announcement.
The key differences are: these women are bigger stars who have already become a part of U.S. popular culture. Football as a sport is globally more popular and easier to understand and follow. Brands are also keenly aware that women drive the majority of consumer spending in the United States and female athletic icons offer brands a unique opportunity to align with their rabid fans.
I mean no disrespect to Esports athletes or the industry, which I adore, still believe is in its early days and am backing through companies like Guilded. But the marketability and viability of women’s football makes the business case abundantly clear. The founding team behind Angel City also realized this opportunity and set out to run this business more like startup than a traditional sports club — despite being a very traditional sport. They’re using modern social media techniques to build community and re-imagine every part of the business. This covers everything from selling limited run merchandise with baked in personal “Thank You” videos from the owners to building in-house software for managing brand relationships and fan engagement.
Major League Soccer has grown significantly here in the U.S. over the last decade, with 26 teams now, the most valuable of which is worth $500 million. They have already built all the physical infrastructure we would need for matches. What’s left to create is essentially an Esports club worth of infrastructure — a fully branded clubhouse for training and creating content, business and partnership operations, merchandise, and, of course, the team staff and players.
That’s why we were excited to invest in Angel City, an organization that manages these iconic athletes and has already tapped into a super passionate community.
But Angel City isn’t just a home for these stars. More importantly, it’s building a sports and lifestyle brand that all sports fans (girls and boys) want to identify with, and a community within sports that they want to belong to. I’ve built more than a few communities in my day and I’ve never seen such early and ecstatic energy around a community.
We’ve got an amazing, majority-women ownership group including: Serena Williams and our daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., actors Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner, and Eva Longoria, late night talk show host Lilly Singh, former U.S. Women’s National Team players including twelve representing Southern California including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Rachel Buehler, Shannon Boxx, Amanda Cromwell, Lorrie Fair Allen, Ronnie Fair Sullins, Joy Fawcett, Angela Hucles, Shannon MacMillan, Tisha Venturini Hoch, and Saskia Webber, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and FIFA World Cup Champions Lauren Cheney Holiday and Abby Wambach, author and activist Glennon Doyle, Netflix Vice President of Original Content Cindy Holland, tech entrepreneur and filmmaker Casey Neistat, Founding Board Member of Baby2Baby Sabina Nathanson, U.S. Soccer Foundation Boardmember David Nathanson, Baby2Baby Co-President Norah Weinstein, and Bad Robot President and Chief Operating Officer Brian Weinstein.
As our country and world becomes more tribal than ever, sport is going to be even stronger in our lives — it’s the much safer way for us to “go to war” with each other’s tribes. Every other form of entertainment is purely subjective and infinitely competitive. But sports greatness is objective, as there are clear winners and losers, all on a comparatively level-playing field. There is also a monopoly of attention (and many leagues, even venture-backed ones, have tried to drink the milkshake of the waning National Football League and still haven’t come close).
On a bittersweet note, this was the last investment I led as Managing Partner of Initialized and I couldn’t have asked for a better finale. We don’t yet have a team, name, or kit yet, but Angel City debuted last week to enormous press last week with zero marketing spend, earning an estimated media value of $31 million across social, online news, print news and broadcast. The team gained more than 60,000 followers, 3.4M native impressions and 1 million views in 36 hours and sold out a merchandise drop. When I met the founders, led by the indefatigable President Julie Uhrman and co-founders Kara Nortman and Natalie Portman, I knew there was something special happening here. They have a unique vision and intuition for building an aspirational brand, as well as unparalleled empathy for athletes — especially women athletes.
There is incredible potential to build a mainstream consumer brand around the bigger movement happening right now in America that women footballers have led the way on. Megan Rapinoe was the first white pro-athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick — in 2016. The National Women’s Soccer League was the first professional sports league in the United States to come back from COVID-19 (and quite safely, I might add).
These women continue to be leading the way on and off the pitch, and the market is finally waking up to it.
This is just the beginning for Angel City, and we are thrilled to be a part of their journey. LFG. ⚽