The National Women’s Soccer League is embarking on its 10th season this year by welcoming two new teams to the field. One of them is Los Angeles’ Angel City Football Club, which was founded by actress Natalie Portman and is backed by a star-studded group of female investors.
The club, which is the largest female-led ownership group in professional sports, is challenging industry norms by giving players a cut of the money made from ticket sales, providing better work conditions and offering training to help players find careers after soccer.
Last Friday, 22,000 fans sporting pink and black gear, faces and hair filled Los Angeles’ Banc of California Stadium to witness Angel City’s inaugural home match. The team now has more than 100 investors, including Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King.
“It makes me really happy, we’re at a tipping point. These are a lot of the dreams coming true that I used to dream as a younger person,” King told CBS News.
The club is already making player pay a priority — hometown hero Christen Press was the first to sign on to Angel City for a reported $700,000 contract over three seasons, making her one of the highest paid athletes in the league.
“This is belief in our business. This is belief that we have value,” Press said. “It’s not a charity to run a women’s soccer team. It’s a business opportunity and I think that’s inherently different and it feels different.”
Another co-owner is Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Shawn Johnson.
“I think as an athlete myself from the Olympics, I knew that USA Gymnastics as a company was using our name and likeness to profit their industry,” Johnson told CBS News. “Angel City obviously has created a business out of this to start a movement but a lot of those profits are going directly to the athletes, which I think is pretty cool.”
Heavy investment in female athletes has not been the norm, but a recent World Cup win and successful high-profile lawsuit for equal pay is helping change the game for soccer.
Angel City lead investor Alexis Ohanian said he realized the pay was low for female athletes while watching the 2019 World Cup Final with his wife, tennis star Serena Williams and their daughter, Olympia.
“I obviously have my own sort of personal agenda for this because little Olympia was running around during the 2019 World Cup Final in her Alex Morgan jersey and I mention to my wife, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice one day if Olympia played in the World Cup?'” Ohanian said. “And without missing a beat, Serena says, ‘Not until they pay her what she’s worth.’ And I said, ‘challenge accepted.'”
The challenge is deeply personal, as Olympia is also a co-owner of the team at just four years old.
“Frankly it’s been treated as a charity. I really believe the NWSL can be more popular than the MLS,” Ohanian said. “Our legacy of women’s soccer in the United States is that of greatness, right? It is World Cups, its Olympic gold medals… as we start to show the viewership numbers, the ticket sales, the sponsorship levels, the merchandising. All that stuff, more and more people will continue to gravitate towards the greatness of the women’s game.”
Other NWSL teams are duplicating the celebrity investment model. Tennis star Naomi Osaka invested in North Carolina Courage and the Washington Spirit is partially owned by Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager.
But to make all this work, Press said it comes down to one very basic sports concept.
“I think the goal for me is to win… the most impactful thing we can do for the world is to win, because that’s how they listen,” she said.
The NWSL’s 10th season is airing all year long on CBS, CBS Sports Network and Paramount +, including the Challenge Cup Final this Saturday.