Julie Uhrman’s path to becoming president of the newest addition to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team didn’t start on a grassy pitch. Instead, it started on a basketball court.
While playing hoops during the summer of 2019, Uhrman’s friend Kara Nortman, a venture capitalist, proposed the new job. The USA women’s soccer team had recently won the World Cup and equal pay in sports had become a focus of public conversation. Nortman and actress Natalie Portman hoped to create a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion team in Los Angeles, and thought that Uhrman — a YPO member, lifelong sports fan and seasoned executive — would be the perfect fit to lead it.
“The idea that I could marry my entrepreneurialism with sports is one of those dreams come true,” says Uhrman. “It was very romantic.”
Turning to her network
Uhrman, whose energy and bullishness are palpable, is new to the industry side of sports. Yet, when it came to kicking things off for the new team, currently named Angel City FC, she brought the confidence earned from having built businesses across entertainment, media and tech at companies including IGN and Vivendi, as well as launching her own venture, gaming console company OUYA, in 2012.
After selling OUYA, in 2015, she joined Lionsgate as Executive Vice President and General Manager of over-the-top (OTT) ventures, where she created multiple new streaming products. So when it was time to launch her latest venture, Uhrman had a wealth of business bona fides, but also some research to do before diving into a new arena. She started with fact finding, calling on seasoned sports executives to learn everything from ticketing to marketing and governance to finance.
“Early on, it was very much just trying to understand the business of sports,” says Uhrman. “What are the inputs and the outputs? What are all the revenue-driving aspects? What are the major cost-driving elements? How do you think about being in a market where there’s a number of other clubs?”
One resource Uhrman leaned on was YPO’s M2Mx, which stands for member-to-member exchange. Members who participate in the program specify their areas of expertise and offer to help fellow YPO members when needed. Seeking to expand her research beyond her local network, she was able to connect with people like a minor league baseball team owner, an Oakland club owner and, through another YPO sub-network, the president of the 76ers basketball team.
Through her research, Uhrman is working to incorporate the best of existing approaches to the business and the best of her experience in raising venture capital to create a way forward that’s tailor-made for the club and its goals.
“You do the work to put yourself out there, and people are very responsive and want to help,” she says. “It’s just super cool.”
Tripping to the pitch
Still, open arms and exuberance to spare doesn’t mean that building a team from scratch has been all game-winning field goals. In building Angel City, Uhrman discovered that getting potential investors to believe in the team and its mission was easy. Getting them to write game-changing checks was another matter.
Part of the reason is because of Angel City’s unique path to becoming a club in the first place.
“Most of the time, when someone wants to start a sports team, it’s a vanity play,” says Uhrman. “Typically, when you want to launch a new franchise, you go to the league and say, ‘our net worth is a billion dollars, and we’re good to go.’ That’s why, historically, it’s been a bunch of families that have owned sports teams for generations.”
But in seeking out nontraditional sports investors, like people in tech and entertainment, questions around ROI horizons, valuation and exit timelines presented initial stumbling blocks. “Sports is a long-term investment horizon without industry-known valuations and metrics,” she says. “Your typical early investors just assume they’re never going to see their money again.” Because of that, it was sometimes challenging to get potential investors to take the leap.
But Angel City, like its nontraditional investors (which eventually came to include luminaries like tennis player Serena Williams and actress/activist Eva Longoria) and its historic, majority-female group of founders, is forging its own path. Its mission — equality, impact, entertainment and community — is woven into its value proposition.
Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Don’t let the old rules prevent you from following your dreams. ”
— Julie Uhrman, Founder & President of WFC (Angel City) share
The team’s mission has three pillars. “One is equality and equity,” says Uhrman. “We think about that not just for the players and the league but in how we can make an impact in our community. The second is the essentials: For example, it’s great if there are after-school soccer programs, but what if you don’t have a sports bra, or a football, or transportation to get to those programs? You’re going to fail. We want to address those problems. The third is about education: how can we keep kids engaged in sports longer, teaching them valuable life lessons and helping with their mental and emotional well-being?”
One major step the club has taken already is a partnership with the LA84 Foundation’s Play Equity Fund, which strives to create more opportunities for young people in sports, particularly in Black and Brown communities. Another distinct step is the club’s plan to have regular office hours to make everyone involved, from Uhrman to the coach to the players, available to the community. And in October, as Angel City continues to plan, the team’s leadership will be doing a community listening tour to learn how they can be the most impactful.
Doing it differently
As Uhrman and her colleagues plow their way forward into untilled terrain, her willingness to build something new is a cornerstone of the project. The sports business may be brand-new to her, but a kind of alchemy of optimism, effort and faith is, perhaps, her secret. For would-be entrepreneurs looking to pivot, Uhrman prescribes a similar dose of confidence: “Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” she says. “Don’t let the old rules prevent you from following your dreams.”
In the meantime, Angel City is leading by example. “There was no playbook for us to follow. Our hope is, by doing it differently, with a set of women founders and a majority women-led team, we start a fire here that will catch other places.
“And the good news is, it’s starting to work.”