Women Take Control

Why ownership ranks in sports are becoming more diverse, and the hurdles that remain to be cleared.

By Chris Smith
Kara Nortman (left) and Julie Uhrman are two of the lead owners for Angel City FC, which will start play in NWSL next season.Courtesy of Angel City FC

On another gorgeous Los Angeles summer day in August 2019, tech entrepreneur Julie Uhrman was playing in the “Wild Feminist Women Who Tech” pickup-basketball league with fellow technology executives and venture capital investors when a longtime friend approached her with an idea. Kara Nortman, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, asked Uhrman if she would be interested in launching an NWSL team in the city along with her and actress Natalie Portman.

 

“I said yes without thinking or even knowing that the National Women’s Soccer League existed,” said Uhrman.

That decision would make history. When Angel City FC was officially awarded an expansion franchise for an undisclosed fee in July 2020, it became the NWSL’s first majority female-owned team in the league, with Nortman and Portman joining team president Uhrman in the effort. More than 30 of Angel City’s 40 founding investors are women, including star athletes Mia Hamm, Candace Parker, Lindsey Vonn and Abby Wambach.

Though women have held a place in the ownership ranks of American pro teams for years, female-led control bids have been exceedingly rare, if not altogether nonexistent, throughout the country’s top leagues. Yet there are now clear signs of change and two key factors — namely, loosening ownership restrictions and increasing diversity among the mega-wealthy — may accelerate what already appears to be a budding trend.

One day after Uhrman agreed to help spearhead the launch of Angel City FC, Major League Soccer officially awarded an expansion franchise to St. Louis and its first majority female ownership group. St. Louis City SC lead owner Carolyn Kindle Betz, an heir to the fortune of Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack Taylor, said her ownership group’s effort was about more than just the game.

“Having a majority female-owned team wasn’t necessarily a priority when we first decided to pursue an MLS team, we just happen to be a family with many strong women,” said Betz in an email. “However, it quickly became something very meaningful to us. In addition to my family members, I’ve had so many women help guide me throughout my career. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to return the favor by hopefully encouraging more women to take on leadership roles in sports.”

Recent years have seen other women stake significant claims in ownership ranks typically dominated by men. In 2017, Laurene Powell Jobs reportedly acquired around one-fifth of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, making her the second-largest shareholder after Ted Leonsis. Two years later, billionaire Meg Whitman and her husband, Dr. Griff Harsh, acquired a 20% stake in FC Cincinnati for $100 million.

Carolyn Kindle Betz of 2022 MLS expansion team St. Louis City SC leads that league’s first majority female ownership group.Dilip Vishwanat/St. Louis Business Journal

The biggest barrier in the way of women vying for a place among the ownership ranks is the same one that has impeded most aspiring team owners: wealth. Put simply, it takes an extraordinary amount of money to acquire a pro sports team.

The NFL, for instance, requires incoming lead investors to personally own at least 30% of their team. Should the Denver Broncos hit the block as some industry sources expect, the team will likely sell for a record price of at least $4 billion. Even if the eventual buyer takes on the NFL’s maximum allowable $1 billion in debt, he or she would still need to come up with at least $900 million in cash to meet league ownership bylaws.

Few people have access to that sort of capital, and the vast majority of them are men. Earlier this month, Forbes released its estimations of the 400 richest Americans, and just 56 women made the list. The $900 million minimum investment for the Broncos would be more than 10% of the net worth of all but 88 Americans, and just 11 women.

Skyrocketing team values explain why pro leagues have been loosening ownership rules by raising debt limits and allowing institutional investment, thus widening the pool of potential buyers. Those efforts may benefit wealthy women who have thus far been stymied. In fact, Uhrman said that Angel City’s female-led ownership was largely made possible by rethinking the traditional ownership structure.

“Average people don’t start soccer clubs. They don’t start any clubs,” said Uhrman on a panel at last week’s espnW Women + Sports Summit in La Jolla, Calif. “Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2 billion, and that was the number in my head. The idea of building it completely differently was because we had to. … We’re three women who don’t have a background in sports and don’t have the net worth required to do this.”

Female Owners in the NFL

None of the biggest North American men’s leagues has more women among its lead team investors than the NFL. In fact, the league counts 40% of its teams as having women who own or share primary control, and many have roles on top committees. — Chris Smith
Buffalo Bills: Kim Pegula(Business Ventures, Fan Engagement & Major Events, NFL Foundation, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion)
Chicago Bears: Virginia McCaskey
Cincinnati Bengals: Katie Blackburn (Competition, Future of Football, Fan Engagement & Major Events, CBA Player Benefit Plans)
Cleveland Browns: Dee Haslam (Legislative, Conduct, Social Justice Working Group)
Dallas Cowboys: Charlotte Jones (Legalized Sports Betting, Health & Safety Advisory, Conduct, NFL Foundation)
Detroit Lions: Sheila Ford Hamp (Fan Engagement & Major Events)
Houston Texans: Janice McNair
Indianapolis Colts: Carlie Irsay-Gordon (Media O&O); Casey Foyt; Kalen Jackson (Employee Benefits)
New Orleans Saints: Gayle Benson (Audit, Business Ventures, Hall of Fame, Social Justice Working Group)
San francisco 49ers: Denise DeBartolo York (Hall of Fame)
Seattle Seahawks: Jody Allen
Tennessee Titans: Amy Adams Strunk (Hall of Fame, Legislative)
Washington Football Team: Tanya Snyder

She expanded on the subject in an interview with Sports Business Journal. “What made Angel City unique, and potentially a model for other female ownership groups, is that we didn’t know it could be done that way,” said Uhrman. “We are building Angel City as a startup and we’re raising money as we go, versus the traditional capital calls. It allows you to put together a very different ownership group and bring different skills and expertise to the table that sometimes have nothing to do with sports.” Uhrman noted that it was important for team leadership to ensure male representation on the team’s cap table, which includes lead investor Alexis Ohanian.

That sort of required creativity may partly explain why there aren’t already more women actively pursuing control bids. “We have at least a little bit of an inside view in terms of the pipeline and those individuals who are building that kind of credit capacity or liquidity,” said one sports banker. “And nobody I’ve talked to has been female on that front.”

He added, however, that leagues and their existing owners are eager to add diversity to the ownership ranks. “Everybody gets it. Nobody wants to be the old boys club anymore,” said the banker. “I’m sure the leagues are very much focused on diversity and inclusion, so while I think they wouldn’t necessarily be willing to relax [the rules], they would help you get creative to get either women or other folks with more of a diverse background in that control owner position.”

Sources said they expect more women will move into the space in the near future, especially as they increasingly amass fortunes of their own. In fact, the 56 women on the Forbes 400 are up by one-third from a decade ago, and the publication lists Jobs as the 33rd-richest American with a net worth of $22 billion, nearly 40% more than the net worths of recent team buyers including the New York Mets’ Steve Cohen and David Tepper of the Carolina Panthers.

Kim Pegulagetty images

“If you look at the businesses that produce significant wealth — tech, finance, hedge funds, private equity, VC — while it’s been a long time coming, they’re starting to have more diversity in their ranks,” said Tipping Point Sports CEO Mitchell Ziets. “These are the types of folks that would have the wealth to lead a group in the more highly valued sports. I think you’ll see more diversity going forward in the ownership ranks for that reason, because now you’re seeing more women leading these businesses that generate substantial wealth.”

And there are more riches to be won by female owners able to tap into the benefits of a well-rounded ownership group. In fact, Angel City has already landed major sponsors, including DoorDash, Gatorade and Heineken, and sold 11,000 season tickets heading into its 2022 debut. “It should be well known, but it’s true that having a diverse, inclusive ownership group and operating group helps you create a better product,” said Uhrman. “It’s one your fans can engage with, because you’re building an organization or business that’s representative of your community. And 50% of our community is female, so they should be represented. And we’re really good at what we do.”

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