Angel City's debut season: How stars like Natalie Portman are building soccer's next big thing

What now for women's football after Euro 2022 success? (1:14)

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the growth of women's football after a hugely successful Euro 2022 tournament. (1:14)

If Tyler Lussi could send a message to her childhood self with an update from the future, the world she would describe might come across as fantasy. Maybe not for the kid who once dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween, but for others it would have taken some convincing to believe that in 20 years it would be possible for Lussi to be playing professional soccer in Los Angeles before electric crowds of more than 20,000 people.

The young Lussi back then would have been starstruck by the actress who played Padme Amidala in the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy. Now, she has Natalie Portman partially to thank for turning Angel City FC into a reality.

"I get to have conversations with her," Lussi told ESPN, still maybe a little starstruck. "How cool is that?"

It's all still a bit surreal. And so is what Angel City is building.

Born with the collective support of a mostly-female ownership group that includes some of Hollywood's biggest stars, legendary U.S. women's national team players and heavy-hitters from private equity, Angel City has a chance to become the country's standard bearer for women's professional sports. Its combination of ambition, investment and timing has already created a sense of relevancy -- game-day in Los Angeles comes to life as it were scripted in the National Women's Soccer League offices.

The formula -- round up stars like Jennifer Garner, Christina Aguilera and Sophia Bush to join forces with soccer royalty like Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm -- might not be replicable in other markets, which only makes Angel City more crucial to the NWSL. If the league is to succeed long-term, it needs Angel City to lead the way.

Despite a lack of on-field success that currently has the team on the playoff bubble, the club has quickly come to represent something important for the future of women's professional sports in the United States: proof that if run the right way, there is a viable path to mainstream popularity and profitability.

In the two decades since the United States won the 1999 Women's World Cup -- punctuated by Brandi Chastain's iconic penalty kick at the Rose Bowl in front of more than 90,000 people -- there has been more than enough evidence to show people will watch or attend women's soccer en masse. It just takes the right circumstances.

Conjuring those conditions from nothing is the hard part. If women's professional soccer ever figured to be a slam dunk in Los Angeles, it wouldn't have taken more than 10 years from when the Los Angeles Sol (of the defunct Women's Professional Soccer) folded and Angel City was introduced in 2020.

The obvious benefits of being in a world-renowned region with a diverse, soccer-educated population come with the pitfalls of... being in a world-renowned region. The competition for how to spend one's free time is formidable. That is why anything the Angel City accomplishes on the field in its infancy will seem less impressive than the groundswell of support the club has generated since July 2020.

According to multiple industry sources, ACFC has more season ticket-holders than the five-time MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy. In a league where only one of the other 11 teams averages more than 7,000 fans (the Portland Thorns hover around 14,000), Angel City's average of more than 19,000 through eight home games is a wildly impressive outlier.

It's a small sample size and factors like ticket prices and the amount of home games are necessary context to properly gauge demand, but Angel City's average attendance doesn't just stack up well in the NWSL. Using 2021/2022 attendance figures from men's leagues around the world, ACFC is on pace to outdraw 46 of the 98 teams in Europe's top-five leagues on a per-game basis and would rank in the top half in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

At the home opener on April 29, a sold-out crowd of roughly 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium -- a venue that ACFC rents from MLS's LAFC -- delivered, on national television, one of the most notable nights in league history. Portman, a Hollywood actress with no background in sports, tells ESPN she was blown away by it.

"The crowd and atmosphere at the first game exceeded our wildest expectations," Portman said. "We knew we had built a dedicated and loyal fanbase between our supporter groups and season ticket-holders but achieving our goal of selling out our first game and then subsequently winning that game, showed that if you invest in women and you do it with purpose and impact, great things will happen."

Angel City president and co-founder Julie Uhrman remembers vividly the first time she became aware of NWSL's existence. It came up in a discussion with Kara Nortman, a successful venture capitalist she knew in the Los Angeles area, during which Nortman told Uhrman that she and Portman were serious about the idea of bringing a club to L.A.

What they had in ambition, though, they lacked in free time and relevant experience. Would Uhrman, an entrepreneur experienced in gaming and entertainment, be interested in putting together a plan launch on their vision?

"I said, 'Absolutely,'" Uhrman said. "Without thinking twice. I'm born and raised here in L.A, I'm a huge sports fan and the idea of not just being part of a sports organization, let alone building one [in the country] with truly the best players in the world in that sport, was incredibly compelling."

Within days, she got to work and was soon invited to attend the first soccer match of her life -- professional or otherwise -- as LAFC hosted the Galaxy in what's become one of MLS's most compelling rivalry games.

"I was blown away by the experience, the fans, the 3252 [LAFC's supporters' group]," Uhrman said. "And the idea of how Los Angeles can show up for soccer."

Then she saw the sign in the stands: Bring NWSL to LA. "That was one of those moments for me which was, 'If I built it, they will come,'" Uhrman said. "From there, it just propelled me to start building the plan and figuring out how to do it."

A couple months earlier, tech entrepreneur and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian was in London when a friend in the business community told him he needed to pop down to Paris for the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup. The U.S. women's national team was going to play France. It would be a good time.

At first, Ohanian resisted. His only experience with soccer came as a kid in the suburbs and he was decidedly not a fan. Still, he was very aware of the popularity of the USWNT -- mostly through social media -- and after some convincing, he accepted the invitation.

"It was phenomenal. Packed crowd, loud energetic. So much excitement, energy, good vibes and we won," Ohanian said. "I remember turning to [my friend] and being like, 'Dude, why don't these women play in America? They're amazing.' And he said, 'They do. It's called the NWSL.' "I had no idea."

Four days after the game, Ohanian, who is married to tennis star Serena Williams, couldn't get his experience in France out of his head.

His calculation that women's soccer had a prosperous future ahead of it was met with two kinds of responses. There was the crowd that urged him to buy an NWSL team and the other who thought he was an idiot for thinking people could care about women's sports.

"It was a combination of those two things that I took that as even more evidence that there was a there, there, because you had both really die-hard fans and then also, let's say passionate haters," said Ohanian, an early-stage investor. "And anytime you have something that's able to generate that much love and that much irrational hate, you're probably onto something really special."

Word got around that Ohanian was interested in potentially starting an NWSL team. Larry Berg, the president of LAFC, got in touch with a suggestion: "You've got to meet this team. Julie, Kara and Natalie."

So he did, and their visions meshed. Ohanian joined the group as the leading investor. The pitch to get others involved varied, but they sold the opportunity to help build a team carried off-field ambition along with the obvious objectives that come with professional sports: to win and make money.

"Kara Nortman and I figured that if we could bring a team to LA and build it differently, with equity and impact at the forefront of everything we did, we could be the catalysts of a cultural shift," Portman said. "Together we took on this challenge with Julie Uhrman and Alexis Ohanian and built an incredible team from the very beginning, all aligned around our mission to make an impact on and off the field. To build a new model that centered equity and to figure out ways to provide the very best experience, both personally and professionally for female soccer players."

The group includes some of the most recognizable names of any sports ownership team in the world. Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Eva Longoria and Gabriel Union are just few more of the names who have a stake in the team. That doesn't include the 13 former USWNT stars who add an important layer of experience and credibility to the sporting side of the operation.

Staying relevant is a completely different task, however, as Los Angeles' sporting public is notoriously fickle. It's one thing to generate immediate interest; quite another to keep momentum after the new-thing shine wears off. At a certain point, the club's pillars related to community and service will only mean so much. Eventually, winning must come, too.

That mission took a hit early last month when star Christen Press tore her ACL in a 3-2 win against Racing Louisville. The U.S. international was the face of the sporting side and even though Angel City added Sydney Leroux after Press went down, few players in the world can adequately replace what Press provided in the attack.

Last weekend, after a three-week break during which the U.S. women's national team won the CONCACAF W Championship to qualify for the World Cup and Olympics, Angel City began the second half of the season in disappointing fashion in front of a sold-out crowd. After taking an early 2-0 lead against OL Reign with goals from Cari Roccaro and Savannah McCaskill, Angel City allowed three second half goals to lose, 3-2.

Through 12 league games, McCaskill (4) and Press (2) are the only Angel City players with multiple goals.

The Sol's only season in 2009 lacked major community buy-in from the beginning. That's part of what made Angel City's home-opener such a historic night. It immediately felt like something that could last. And players in the league and potential fans in the city took notice.

For defender Ali Riley, a Los Angeles native, the possibility of a club like Angel City coming along has always existed in the back of her head. She's played all over the world for clubs in Sweden, England, and Germany, and she played in WPS when the Sol folded, too -- and there had never been much reason to believe an opportunity would come in her hometown.

That's why Riley will forever remember the Angel City home opener as one of the best moments of her career. She captained the team in what would finish as a 2-1 win against the North Carolina Courage, with goals from Vanessa Gilles and Jun Endo.

"Having been waiting for a team to come back, not necessarily just for me to play here, but to know that little girls growing up in the city that I grew up in would have that visibility and representation," Riley said. "It was just a celebration."

"I think [ACFC] is making a statement about what is possible in women's sports, not just in LA, not just in the United States, but globally. And I really do have so much optimism that there will be a domino effect for years to come. Whether it's new investors coming into NWSL -- and you're already hearing a lot of excitement about that -- or other big clubs shifting their marketing and strategy to show there is space for women in this sport."

Angel City isn't alone in its ambition within the league. The Kansas City Current, for example, are on track to open their own stadium in 2024 with a price tag estimated at over $120 million. Investing that much money into a building -- with several million more into a training facility -- is the strongest signal of long-term intent the NWSL has ever seen. It's one thing to fold a team that rents its stadium, it's something completely different when that kind of asset factors into decision making.

Jess Smith is Angel City's head of revenue, and before Uhrman recruited her to the club, she worked as the vice president of sponsorship for the San Jose Earthquakes, and previously in professional baseball, including nearly seven years with the Oakland Athletics.

In 2021, the NWSL averaged a little more than 8,000 fans a game, buoyed by Portland as the outlier. Still, the low attendance numbers around the league didn't dissuade Smith. From the beginning, she saw no reason why the club shouldn't aim to sell out Banc of California Stadium.

"We wanted to have 15,000 season ticket holders," Smith said. "That was the number we had in our head. We felt like then you would have 7,000 tickets to work with through individual buys, community and group buys to build an ecosystem to give others the opportunity to come more casually."

When Smith would share the club's attendance goals around the industry, there were skeptics. That part was unavoidable. She remained convinced their objectives were realistic: in this market, with the star power attached to the club, Angel City had a chance to come to market with buzz in a way that others haven't in the past.

That star-power and market dynamic played just a large role on the sponsorship side of the business. Smith can sit with an executive from a potential brand partner and tell stories of what it's like working in the same orbit as any number of high-profile owners.

"I can say, 'Yeah, I was just on a Zoom call with Lilly Singh and she has 12 million Instagram followers, she comes to all of our games and sits on the field," Smith said. "Being able to say that genuinely and point to it -- it's not a selling point, it's who were are. It allows us to have a different value when we're sitting at the table."

To be clear, this is not a vanity project for any of the club's leaders. There is an emotional appeal to being involved -- which is the case in professional sports across the world -- but there is an expectation to be profitable within five years.

The potential marketability of the players -- also thanks largely to social media -- is expected to play an outsized role in that and is something Ohanian recognized early on. Before he helped launch Angel City, he invested in an eSports team called Cloud9. It was an informative experience because while he said eSports teams are highly sought after by top-tier venture capital firms, there are difficult barriers for entry for news fans and the nature of video games make the stars less recognizable.

"Contrast that with football, which is universal. It's the most popular in the world. The women of the United States of America are the best in the world consistently for decades now and a number of them -- Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe -- they've transcended the sport," Ohanian said. "Their names, their personalities, their following, their communities are bigger than the NWSL in a lot of ways.

"The women who play the sport are much more marketable [than in eSports]. They're a marketer's dream."

Tapping into that dream is part of the club's financial model. Last fall, the club announced 1% of revenue generated by ticket sales would be divided among players who opt into a program in which they support marketing initiatives on their social media channels. It's hard quantify what kind of an impact those effort make on ticket sales -- the club had already sold over 11,000 season tickets when the program was announced last October -- but the initiate sends a message that ACFC want to try things differently.

There are other norms in NWSL and in American professional sports more broadly, Angel City also wants to get away from. One that might seem odd in the United States -- but not in global soccer -- is that the club announced it will not waive players during the season. For players who mostly scrape by on modest salaries in a career that lacks stability, it's a policy that resonates strongly with players.

When Riley tried to explain how trades work to her former teammates in Sweden, she was met with confusion. "They would be like, 'What is this system? It doesn't make sense." It's part of what kept her in Europe for eight seasons before returning to play for Orlando prior to the start of the 2020 season. Having some semblance of stability, Riley said, shows Angel City is doing its part to support its players. That support extends to the community. In any commercial partnership the club enters, it allocates 10% of the revenue to a philanthropic cause.

"I'm also so proud that this team has already reallocated nearly $1 million into the community in so many ways and continues to do so nearly every single day," Portman said. "In fact, based on the sponsors that have joined ACFC, we will be reallocating over $4 million into the local economy in the next few years. The impact we are committed to within our own community is at the core of what we do."

Attending an Angel City home game feels like an event. Just as it does for LAFC in the same building. That atmosphere creates pressure for players that can't be replicated in empty stadiums.

"Obviously, we have a lot of high-profile celebrities and everything, but we can't let that take away from what we're building as a team," Lussi said. "Every single game we've been proving so much. We can't let that pressure get to us."

It's good pressure. It means the games matter, that they are relevant. And for every attempt at gaining traction for women's professional sports in the United States, that has often been the biggest challenge.

This is the type of progress that, if things continue to go well, can lead to more opportunities for growth around the country. It has all the signs of a major inflection point. But there's also the pessimistic the flip side. What happens if Angel City can't build on this momentum? If this team, with this ownership group and fades as others before it, would that scare off others with the means to try something similar?

For now, though, Los Angeles has spoken: Angel City, you have our attention.