Alexis Ohanian on Investing in Women’s Sports

Alexis Ohanian will be the first to admit he isn’t a diehard soccer fan by any definition of the word. The Reddit co-founder played soccer for nine years growing up “because my parents wouldn’t let me play football until I was in high school.” 

While wrapped up in the excitement of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Ohanian remarked to wife Serena Williams how amazing it would be if one day their daughter Olympia could play on soccer’s grandest stage.

“Serena said without missing a beat, ‘Not until they pay her what she’s worth,’” Ohanian recalls.

As much of a realization as a challenge, Ohanian sought to change the narrative, not only for Olympia’s generation and beyond, but for the millions of girls and women past and present who dedicated their lives to the game they love.

But at the same time, the Seven Seven Six founder, entrepreneur and venture capitalist also saw an opportunity, a flame in need of a spark.

Soccer, in particular women’s soccer, was already embedded in the American sports psyche thanks to the continued success of the U.S. Women’s National Team from Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration after scoring in the 1999 World Cup Final to Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan guiding the USWNT to a record fourth World Cup title in 2019 despite the ongoing equal pay lawsuit against U.S. Soccer.

Ohanian took to Twitter to share his support of the USWNT and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the domestic soccer league many of the players starred in. Then came the comments.

Though not a “literal f*cking billionaire,” Ohanian, whose net worth was estimated at $70 million by Forbes in 2019, put his money where his mouth was in July 2020 by joining the majority female-led ownership group of Angel City FC, a new NWSL expansion side to begin play in 2022, alongside Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman and Kara Nortman. Other early investors include: Julie Foudy, Uzo Aduba, Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain, Mia Hamm, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria. 

“Women’s soccer, in particular, I believed was tremendously under-resourced, under-marketed, undervalued, underappreciated, under-supported, the list goes on,” says Ohanian, the Women’s Sports Foundation 2022 Champion For Equality Award recipient. “I saw it first and foremost as a tremendous business opportunity. My north star here is quite simply that this is something that was so obviously good of an investment and I feel great all this other stuff has come from it.”

Angel City FC exceeded expectations during its inaugural campaign whether it was season tickets, average attendance or corporate sponsorships.

According to the Wall Street Journal, when the club began planning in 2020, it aimed for 5,000 season tickets in its first season, but sold nearly 16,000 and has a 90% renewal rate for 2023. Angel City also planned for an average attendance between 8,000 and 10,000 at Banc of California Stadium but welcomed nearly 19,000 with four sellouts. Corporate partnerships of $11 million dwarfed the $3.25 million expectation.

Not one to downplay the importance Major League Soccer (MLS), which was born out of the U.S. hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup, has played in helping grow the sport and NWSL, Ohanian was quick to point out that Angel City’s success in its inaugural campaign goes beyond its who’s who ownership group which also includes Billie Jean King, Candace Parker, P.K. Subban, Becky G, Sophia Bush and James Corden, as well as Christina Aguilera, Gabrielle Union, Rachel Zoe and Shawn Johnson East following a Series A raise in February 2022.

“It’s facts over feelings,” Ohanian says. “I’m not here to say, ‘Oh, it would be really great if people came out to support the women because it’s important for inspiring young girls.’ Yes, but you don’t have more season ticket holders than a 26-year-old franchise that once had David Beckham in Los Angeles without making a product that people just fucking love and are excited by.

“Every single time someone buys the jersey, shows up or tweets about the match, they know they’re pushing something much, much bigger. I’ve learned a lot about online communities over the years—it’s the power of this, all the energy that’s sort of been bottled up for so long. I just love seeing it going in such a positive place. The women deserve this.”

Angel City FC isn’t the only NWSL franchise benefiting from increased investment, especially from big-name backers. Gotham FC welcomed Carli Lloyd, Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman, Sue Bird and Eli Manning to the club’s ownership group in 2022. Oscar De La Hoya and James Harden are investors in the Houston Dash, while Jenna Bush Hager, Chelsea Clinton, Dominique Dawes and Alexander Ovechkin are minority investors in the Washington Spirit.

Famous owners/investors or not, the NWSL continues to grow and expand as it concludes its 10th campaign. The league welcomed more than 1 million fans to matches this season for the first time, almost doubling total figures from the 2021 season, while setting a playoff attendance record twice on October 16—the Dash welcomed 21,284, followed by expansion side San Diego Wave FC hosting 26,215 later that day.

Viewership for last year’s championship match was up 216% compared to the 2019 final. The league will have its 2022 championship on primetime beginning at 8 p.m. ET on October 29 on CBS thanks to a “recent collaborative effort” between the broadcaster and Ally, the match’s title sponsor. The NWSL also boasts 14 corporate partners including Nike, Budweiser, Verizon, CarMax and Mastercard.

Despite the fallout from the Yates Report concerning allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct throughout the league which resulted in owners, coaches and staffers stepping down, the future couldn’t look brighter for the NWSL and women’s soccer in the United States.

“(The players) grinded with the expectation for their entire life from grade school to college and now in the league knowing this was something where the pros continued to be underfunded and  under-supported, but they still wanted to do it even if they had to work the side jobs,” Ohanian says. “There’s still so much more to do, so this is not a victory lap, but I’m so happy to see the mindset shifting.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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