Angel City FC has been the definition of a splashy entry into NWSL. From their star-studded roster of founding investors to the announcements of stadiums and sponsorships, they’ve maintained a fairly steady presence in the news despite not officially launching until 2022. But that long runway to actually putting a team on the field is precisely what’s allowing them to be careful in assembling all the pieces.
Head of corporate partnerships Jess Smith sounds like she’s up to the task after working for years in sales and sponsorship, from MLS to NHL to MLB. She spoke with AfXI about Angel City’s ambitions, setting properly lofty goals, and the work they’re doing to try and realize that vision while staying true to their core principles.
She starting things off with the team’s three pillars, or ways they hold themselves accountable to expectations off the field: equality, essentials, and education. It’s how the team categorizes values that support their ultimate mission statement. They’re committed to supporting Black-owned businesses and LGBTQ communities. They’re working with the LA84 Foundation, which gives grants to non-profit youth sports organizations in California and provides coaching education, and working on ways to address things like food and housing insecurity for young athletes. 10% of ACFC’s sponsorship funds will go towards making impacts in their three pillars.
That’s all part of the pitch to sponsors and investors alike, Smith said. The club has been “founded on purpose,” and so when she was discussing with president Julie Uhrman how they wanted to walk into any room with a sponsor, they decided they had to tell everyone putting money down how they were going to be part of these socially-driven changes. That meant not just announcing partners, but also announcing things like year-over-year funds going into nonprofits and community discussions.
There is a danger, though, when you make these kinds of values-driven principles foundational to your identity. Every investor, every sponsor, has to align in some way with those values, and it opens the club up to criticism should someone fall short. With most celebrities, athletes, and even corporate officers on social media in some form, it’s easy for fans to keep track of the minutiae of people’s lives and to quickly pick up on any incongruency. Smith said that they’re aware of the pitfalls. “It’s definitely something that we’re aware of and we always want to make sure that we react accordingly if we think there’s an actual issue there,” she said. But for the most part, they want to trust their partners, and they want fans to understand that these partners are also their own entities, who have different projects and personalities outside of what Angel City represents.
With so many founders though (they’re at two pages of listed founders and counting) there’s also the worry the message can get muddled or diluted. Smith acknowledged they do have a significant number of partners. These founders have joined with different commitment levels (a club spokesperson said they’re not sharing the specifics of that financial structure), but they all match at the root level in terms of their alignment with the club’s values. Currently, ACFC is using buckets like star power, athlete, and tech/venture. But, Smith cautioned, the team isn’t just bringing on investors for star power.
“There isn’t a moment where we’re just saying hey, you can be involved and then wave at us from a suite and then you wear this jersey for us,” she said. “The reason that they’re all involved is because they believe in the purpose. So it’s a different pitch than other potentials ports ownership opportunities. Certainly not planning to bring it to all of them in a blanket manner, but the expectation is that you’re going to be a part of the solutions. We’re going to call you, we’re going to ask for help, and we’re going to need you to amplify things for us that align with you.”
They’ve had a mix of approaches so far, with some brands coming to them, some work sourcing potential targets coming from them, and some networking through their founders. “We’ve had some significant brands want to be a part of what we’re building from the very beginning, including Heineken, and a couple more that you’ll see announced here in the coming weeks,” she said.
Internally, there’s a lot of work to be done, right now with a focus on 2021. It’s fairly early in the process, given the 2022 start date, but that just means that 2021 has to be played right in order to springboard them into ‘22 with the right energy. But the timeline is playing well with potential sponsors, Smith said, and it allows them not to rush things.
“We’re doing it kind of in two phases,” she said. “So right now we’re really focusing on our jersey partners. So there’s the different spaces they can own, as well as our founding partners. We’re only going to sign on six to 10 partners to come along for the 2020 ride with us, so the partners that you see as onboard are going to be integrated into all these building moments for us in 2021.”
Among those building moments: announcing the crest and colors, as well as player signings and bringing on a technical director. There’s no concrete timeline yet - especially given the way COVID-19 has impacted everyone’s attempts to plan long-term - but she did point to the end of Q1, or possibly Q2, in 2021 as when they’ll have more information to share.
By then, they’ll also have more concrete ideas about goals: for membership, supporters, followship, sponsorship revenue, season ticket holders, and more. They have a target brand valuation in mind for 2022, and they’re currently overdelivering on expectations for projected revenue and hope to do the same with jersey revenue. Smith said they’re incorporating a very data-driven approach towards setting these goals and what they’re working towards, revenue wise (that tech/venture bucket comes in handy for them here, she said). In demographics data, they’re looking at categories like day one supporters, LA sports supporters, and soccer supporters to help drive ticketing and sponsorship. It’s a deeply granular approach, it sounds like, and it’s never a bad thing to have more data to back up the proposition that women’s soccer sells.
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky optimism. This is ambition driven by the knowledge that plenty of entities have left money on the table when it comes to women’s sports. Think about 2019 Women’s World Cup ad revenue exceeding expectations - by nearly double earlier estimates. Or the myriad problems around getting a USWNT jersey ahead of the tournament, only for the 2019 women’s home jersey to become Nike’s #1-selling jersey ever sold in one season on Nike.com. Or the scarcity of 2019 WWC merchandise and the relative lack of advertising for the event on the ground. FIFA itself doesn’t know how to properly value women’s soccer. The people trying to sell the sport are literally selling their own product short.
“We’re here to change the game,” said Smith, who’s highly aware the women’s game has been undervalued for many years. Part of her job has been hiring qualified people, building teams and data, and strategizing based on the numbers so they find an appropriate value. They’re building packages, Smith said, to compete with other entities and leagues. And if Angel City can push their valuations up, it’s their hope that will act as a signal to investors and cascade through the league, allowing other teams to also push up their valuations. It’s a real rising tide lifts all boats attitude.
When asked what she wants out of ACFC’s launch, assuming everything goes to plan, Smith said immediately “Record-breaking revenue on all fronts. To set a new bar.” Lest you think it’s all about the dollar signs, she also added, “Win a championship so it shows that we’re talented on the field.” There are way too many former players among the founders - people like Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Tisha Venturini Hoch, Angela Hucles, Shannon MacMillan, Saskia Webber, Ronnie Fair Sullins and Lorrie Fair Allen, Rachel Buehler, Lauren Holiday, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, and someone named Mia Hamm - for the team to not try to be as competitive as possible. Or as one former player put it to Smith: “You know we’ve gotta win, right?”
“We’re going to be showing up, obviously depending on the world’s health,” Smith said of their 2021 plans. “Supporting the NWSL in total, women’s sports in total, LA sports in total. We’re going to be at tailgates. This is our year to show that we’re everyone’s biggest cheerleader before we go to market in 2022.”