Osaka. Williams. History. Legend. Ascension. Drama.
There were no storylines lacking on Wednesday night in the U.S., when the country tuned in to watch Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka face off on the other side of the world with a spot in the final of the Australian Open on the line. Williams looked fitter than ever, and was systematically striking her old demons down one by one. Osaka was cool, calm, and collected, looking less like the heir apparent to the throne and more like the present challenger whose time has already come. The match alone was worth much discussion, but the narrative followed most closely by soccer fans was one that still feels like a minor miracle: for the first time in history, a Grand Slam semifinal was going to be played by two NWSL owners.
Serena Williams’s inclusion in the upcoming Angel City ownership group has been well known for some time; it’s a family affair for the tennis legend, with her husband Alexis Ohanian taking point on the project and their daughter Olympia becoming the youngest sports owner in history. More recently, Osaka joined the ranks of ownership of the two-time NWSL champion North Carolina Courage. Since the announcement of her stake in the team, Osaka has been all-in on making her presence known, wearing Courage gear in her tournament press conferences and even debuting the club’s new home jersey during one of her practice sessions.
IT'S TIME! Already spotting the on ESPN2!#NoFinishLine #NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/kGo8wE0MqY— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) February 18, 2021
To say that this kind of high profile investment from a different sports sector is new for the NWSL would be an astronomical understatement, to the point where it’s unclear if the soccer community has fully reckoned with it yet. From a league perspective, having two icons – Naomi and Serena, no last names necessary – take a vested interest in what used to be a very small operation is a sign of a future that will likely be unrecognizable from where things began in 2013. For years, the NWSL committed to slow, steady growth with the promise of a stable long-term future. Well, the future is here, which made Wednesday night feel, if I dare say it: inspirational.
Inspiration can be a touchy subject in women’s soccer, with the sport having long been haunted by the ghosts of empty platitudes and the idea of paying it forward - known by long-time fans as the “little girls” discourse. For what feels like decades, women athletes have been expected to inspire the next generation, carrying the banner of progress while being undercut in both compensation and resources in the hope that someday some little girl out there will be able to live her dream. It’s a lazy, sexist trope, and one that begs off responsibility for seeing women in any different light than what they can give to children. It also comes from a lack of respect for what women’s soccer players are achieving as professionals right now, and a reluctance to actually make the changes that would allow that professionalism to flourish.
But what Williams and Osaka achieved this week contains shades that we likely can’t see just yet. Two Black women, in a society that does not value them the way that it should, succeeded this week in living in the present of their sporting careers and building dynasties for the future at the same time. They don’t inspire because they’re showing the world that anyone can have this success; they’re powerful because we know that they are part of a special few.
Even outside of women’s sports, the idea of the ascension of players to the level of owner is considered a pipe dream in the top men’s leagues. Some of this has to do with prohibitive cost - you have to be a billionaire to own an NFL or an NBA team. Instead of Michael Jordan’s investment in the Charlotte Hornets ushering in a new generation of player-owned teams, former NBA players are now investing in Australian men’s basketball simply because that’s what their wealth bracket can afford.
The NWSL can fortunately present a solution to this particular problem, and has recently aided the diversification of its ownership groups. In the most recent public sale of an NWSL team, when Reign FC was bought by Olympique Lyon in early 2020, the club was valued at 3.5 million dollars. The personal risk in taking on an investment in the league, while still substantial in its unproven nature, shrinks simply due to the necessary capital not being that high. With investment groups compiled of many people becoming a favored NWSL strategy, retired pro athletes - even those of the women’s game - have the ability to pool money together at a level that they can afford. A number of former U.S. women’s national team players accomplished this in Los Angeles, and most recently Briana Scurry and former pro gymnast Dominique Dawes have been able to invest in the Washington Spirit as part of a larger investment group.
But some of the gatekeeping of ownership also has to do with who is expected to get a seat at the table, and who benefits from making the path to ownership as exclusive as possible. In many leagues, the tension of control between owners and athletes spill over all the time in both predictable and unpredictable ways, especially in American sports that favor team-oriented drafts and trades. Player advocacy and control is frequently in flux and occasionally in conflict with the goals of each organization, with ownership operating on the opposite side of their labor force. MLS recently only barely avoided a lockout of their 2021 season, and some of the owners within that dispute also operate NWSL teams. While the NWSL is new, it isn’t immune to these traditional dynamics.
Enter in the beauty of women’s tennis, where the athlete is the brand, and possibly the only sport where women are currently paid their worth. In no small part due to the advocacy of the Williams sisters themselves (as well as fellow Angel City part owner Billie Jean King), women’s tennis is one of the only arenas in the world where a player can ascend to the heights of ownership viability simply through the strength of their athletic career. As we in 2021 are still discussing women’s soccer salaries in terms of five or six figures, Serena Williams has earned more than 94 million dollars in her career in winnings alone (with endorsements her career earnings are closer to 300 million). For years, she’s consistently been the yearly highest paid women athlete on the planet until she was overtaken by, you guessed it, Naomi Osaka. Osaka made over 37 million dollars between 2019 and 2020, and her commercial viability has only grown with every Grand Slam she’s won. These two are not simply “women’s game” rich; they are “elite athlete with f*ck you money” rich. They are proof that equity in resources can produce incredible things, and they are also proof that the bright future long promised to women’s sports can be reached right now. There is no argument for continued sacrifice that makes sense in the face of what Williams and Osaka have already achieved.
It’s from that vantage point that they have taken the opportunity not simply to inspire, or pay charity forward for future generations, but to make things better for their peers. Williams was asked about her part in Angel City before her fateful semifinal clash with Osaka, but the question was once again framed in a way that emphasized inspiring young girls to want to reach the same heights. However, what Williams highlighted in her answer was that her intent is less to make girls believe that they can be owners (as nice as that is), but to give the soccer players that she already admires the same material support that she benefited from in her own career. “I know how I have benefited from playing on the WTA Tour, and these athletes are so good at what they do,” she told reporters. “So it’s really awesome to be a part of supporting other women athletes.”
Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are the living embodiment of what representation can do to change a person’s life; Osaka will be the first to say that she doesn’t have her career without Serena and her sister Venus. But they’ve gone one step further down where this road leads, and have possibly succeeded in making the old lie of inspiration a little bit true. There are ways to make things better than you found them, and they start by taking seriously what you can do to make the present better. For now, they represent what the NWSL has the potential to become, and they’ll be taking any further questions from the owner’s box.