Angel City using the Women’s World Cup as a force for change

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LOS ANGELES — What becomes rapidly apparent in conversation with Angel City FC president Julie Uhrman, especially with her presence magnified by the club’s otherwise empty Santa Monica offices early on a Monday morning, is that she doesn’t do many things by half measures. It’s especially clear when it comes to the goals of the NWSL side that she helped co-found. Thus, the club’s planned “Equity House” event in Sydney this month, coinciding with the staging of the 2023 Women’s World Cup across Australia and New Zealand, has lofty goals.

That shouldn’t be surprising even without that insight into the executive, given the ambitious nature of the club’s genesis as a majority female-owned startup that, per Hollywood star and co-founder Natalie Portman, had “equity and impact at the forefront of everything we did.” Uhrman, for her part, has spoken of the NWSL becoming the third-most popular sporting league in the U.S., alongside a goal of the Angel City brand becoming the women’s sports equivalent of the New York Yankees when it comes to cultural cache and recognition around the globe.

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Playing at BMO Stadium near downtown Los Angeles, the club boasts more than 16,000 season ticket holders and sold the 22,000-seat venue out for the seventh time in its history the day before she spoke to ESPN, as it celebrated its annual Pride Game against Houston Dash. Uhrman has spoken previously of the club securing approximately $50 million in committed sponsorship revenue, 10% of which is redirected into local community organisations as part of the club’s “unique impact model.” Last year, Sportico reported that Angel City had been valued at more than $100m.

Now, the one-time Hollywood executive has her and Angel City’s sights set on Australia; well, the bits of the organisation not run by general manager Angela Hucles are pointed Down Under. The football department, under Hucles, is trying to steer the club to its first playoff appearance, and recently moved to part ways with coach Freya Coombe with the club in 11th place in the standings; the on-field realities that exist alongside this enterprising off-field dynamic are, in their own way, just as complicated.

During the Women’s World Cup, however, Uhrman and her team will stage a series of events surrounding the Equity House concept, highlighted by an “Angel City Equity Summit” at the Sydney Opera House on Aug. 4, when they will host 100 leaders from sport, business, government and not-for-profit sectors. In addition, the team will sponsor Festival 23 in Sydney. which will stage workshops focusing on gender equality, climate change, social cohesion and youth employability for teenagers and young adults.

“Equity House is an opportunity to bring thought leaders from around the world together to talk about gender equity,” Uhrman told ESPN. “It’s important to keep talking about the subject so we can eventually get there. In sports, we think about it a lot from a pay-equity standpoint. And that is critical. But it’s also about demanding more for these incredible female athletes: Paying what they deserve, and creating the business structure around it so that the revenue is there to support the business.

“The idea is to have a conversation with those that have a large profile that are leading the conversation in the space, that are seen as experts as it relates to making a difference. And that could be making a difference in the search for gender equity or pay equity, it could be making a difference to provide access and opportunity to youth in sports, or something totally outside of sports, but how can we learn from each other? And how can we continue to tell the story so that we can effect change?

“The World Cup is the largest moment in the sport where everybody is going to be paying attention, we want to be there telling the story about equity, so we can continue to affect change. So for us, it was natural to be there.”

The concept of using sport as a vehicle to tell a story of equity and influence change on a broader societal level is likely familiar to Australian football fans: The Matildas‘ rise to prominence on the footballing stage has long accompanied been by the team serving as ambassadors for causes such as gender equity, Indigenous recognition and rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and more. Like the USWNT, they and Professional Footballers Australia have secured an equitable collective bargaining agreement with their federation, though they didn’t have to sue Football Australia to get it.

In keeping with her ambitious, worldwide view of the place and role Angel City can play in the rapidly shifting landscape of women’s sports, Uhrman sees the Equity House concept (once proved in Sydney) as one that be brought to forums outside the sporting scope; she referenced Davos, the site of the annual World Economic Forum, as another potential future landing spot.

“We hope it will be a raving success and we can continue to do it at important events where people or thought leaders gather,” she said. “That’s the idea. So it’s conceivable that the next Equity House could happen at a non-sporting event, such as Davos or something else, where we have the opportunity to use sports to tell the story of equity.

“Sports is a great way to bring people together, but we think we can use it to bend the curve towards equity because we believe this truly is a moment in time where we have all of the touch points to prove that we will listen to, to show that there really should be no difference.”

These touchpoints, Uhrman believes, stretch far beyond the off-field success that Angel City has experienced in its short existence.

“If you look at the [record-breaking] viewership of the Euros,” she said. “If you look at the [record-breaking] viewership of the NWSL championship game, or even the game [between] San Diego Wave FC and Angel City FC, which was a couple of weeks ago, our ratings are higher than a lot of the professional male sports, even when we’re not given a comparable time slot or window.

“So just imagine, if you gave us equal access, equal visibility, the viewership would be there. And so this narrative that people don’t watch women’s sports or don’t care about women’s sports is truly false. It’s like you’re not giving it the opportunity to show that the audience exists. We’re starting to see some of those touchpoints.

“It continues to surprise people and the reality is it should stop surprising people when they sell out Camp Nou or when they move the home opener of the World Cup to a stadium that’s twice as big because the demand is so high.

“The data points are there and … it’s not a one-off anymore. It’s not one and done. You’re seeing it repeatedly now.”

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And while FIFA has come under scrutiny for its role in playing down the value of the Women’s World Cup rights in previous years, packaging them with men’s World Cup rights and doing little to develop it as a standalone commercial entity before the current cycle, Uhrman was supportive of the global federation’s recent stand-off with European broadcasters over its insistence on higher rights fees for the tournament; the dispute was settled last month to end the threat of a blackout across Britain, Spain, France, Germany and Italy.

“I think it was incredible that FIFA held their ground to demand the value that these women athletes deserve,” she said. “That’s the only way you’re gonna change the game. And what you saw is these media outlets come back to the table because they also know what the consumers want, and they want to watch women’s football.

“I think that’s what’s led to a lot of Angel City’s success today: It’s us demanding our value and not accepting less. And when you make the business case for why these women are so exceptional, why the fan base is so large, the impact that the team and the players can have on their community and you as a brand can be a part of it.

“The value is justified and you have to just be you have to have such conviction and confidence and courage to demand that and be willing to walk away from the table if you don’t get it. Angel City’s been successful in doing that. And I was thrilled to see people hold the line.”

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