In a conversation with NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman on August 28, 2022, Angel City owner Natalie Portman told her that the NWSL’s broadcasting was “not sustainable”. That behind-the-scenes exchange was made public through the new HBO Documentary “Angel City”. That fact alone shows that Portman and the other Angel City owners have already lived up to those higher standards. A three-part docuseries on a network known for its high standards in programming is a step to making the 4k NWSL viewing experience a reality. And like the club itself, high standards are the main theme of “Angel City”. Here are some takeaways from an “Angel City” review.
Write your own playbook.
— HBO (@HBO) May 3, 2023
What is Success for Angel City FC
Angel City Review: Episode One
The Story of Angel City as a club starts with the Times Up movement. Times Up was born out of the Me Too movement by celebrities speaking up against abuse. This almost directly coincided with the USWNT and their run to a 2019 World Cup title. Actress Natalie Portman saw similarities in the national team’s fight for equality on and off the field. Portman recruited a team of investors led by Julie Uhrman, Kara Nortman, and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. Ohanian, who attended the 2019 World Cup in person, became inspired to see his daughter grow up and be a professional soccer player one day. However, his wife tennis great Serena Williams, reminded him their daughter would not be compensated for her work if she chose that path.
The ownership soon grew to a group of powerful, mostly female, celebrity owners. Despite their great business acumen, the club’s owners’ inexperience in the sports world starts to show immediately. From viewing the club as a “start-up” to getting fined multiple times in preseason due to a lack of knowledge of league rules. To make up for this, they bring in Eniola Aluko as sporting director and manager Freya Coombe formerly of Gotham FC.
Angel City find immediate success in terms of revenue and marketing compared to other expansion teams of the past. They even employ a bold roster construction strategy that includes a no-trade policy unless the player demands it. This however puts their on-the-field production at a disadvantage limiting roster flexibility. By the end of the episode, Angel City has finished the pre-season Challenge Cup winless with a 0-1-3 record.
Angel City Review: Episode Two
A dream start for Angel City
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) April 30, 2022
Despite behind-the-scenes disagreements and poor pre-season performance, Angel City wins its home opener at a sold-out Bank of California Stadium. 22,000 fans showed up for the home opener. However, many who bought tickets for future games are no-shows and attendance is estimated closer to 8,000 mid-week. These figures are still successful compared to some clubs in the league “wish for” according to Aluko.
On the road, owners see many disparities among other clubs like the way the match is portrayed on television. Camera placement and quality show a nearly empty stadium while that is far from true to those in attendance. By episode end, Angel City is 4-1-3 but has lost their top goal scorer Christen Press to a season-ending injury.
Angel City Review: Episode Three
With Press done for the season, Angel City go out and sign Sydney Leroux. But, when Leroux finds herself injured after a few matches, ownership starts to wonder if they have made the right investments in the roster. With the no-trade rule, the club will have to rely on coaching to improve their squad which is flocculating around the last spot in the playoffs.
Their impact on the field still impresses around the league. Back home, however, the media starts to compare Angel City to their fellow expansion side San Diego Wave. The Wave is in first place and has gotten there by focusing on roster development. When San Diego hosted Angel City, it is in front of the largest crowd in NWSL history at 32,000. The Season comes down to one must-win match at home. Angel City ultimately losses and finishes one spot below the playoff line.
The final scene shows ownership traveling to Wembley Stadium to watch the USWNT take on England in a historic sold-out friendly match. “We can pack this,” Julie Uhrman remarks with optimism for the future. We then see the record attendance and revenue figures that have made huge impacts on the league as a whole. The final shot is of the club trading up to draft Alyssa Thompson number one overall in the 2023 NWSL Draft, signaling a bright future is awaiting the club.
“Angel City” is a well-produced project that shows behind-the-scenes details that will intrigue casual and hardcore NWSL fans alike. It is a typical underdog sports story with the twist being those underdogs include the executives. At times I wondered if the owners who had little to no experience in the sports world were in over their heads at times.
This gets to what is the key question asked in the series. How do you define success? On the field, where most clubs have traditionally been defined, Angel City failed by not making the playoffs. Meanwhile, the club built a culture and marketing strategy that not only saw themselves thrive in the business sense but also enact change that would spread leaguewide by year’s end. Things like collective bargaining and TV deals were spearheaded by innovative principles and ambitions made by Angel City. When they tell the story of NWSL’s success in the future, this inaugural season in Los Angeles could end up being one of the most prophetic. In the long run that will be the success and legacy of Angel City.
Photo Credit: EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports, of a Christen Press Headshot, on June 11, 2022.