The Celebrities Fighting for Gender Equity in Sports

Photo: Angel City FC

Five years ago, the U.S. Women’s National Team turned a spotlight on the massive gender pay gap in sports, when 28 of its players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. Women in soccer earned 89 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar and almost half in World Cup bonuses, despite their track record: At the time, the women’s team had won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, while the men’s team boasted no such accomplishments. Indeed, the suit claimed, top-tier players on the women’s team might earn just 38 percent of what “similarly situated” male players might. Inequalities in funding subjected the women’s team to subpar playing conditions, they said, and less aggressive promotion of their games. As several team members complained, those discrepancies placed female athletes on less stable footing when their playing days ended.

The suit itself attracted substantial attention — including from actor and activist Natalie Portman. After hearing former USWNT legend Abby Wambach speak at an event about the pervasive inequity in sports, Portman co-founded Los Angeles’s Angel City FC — a women’s soccer team — in 2020, together with media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman. Initially, the owners signed up over 30 investors; today, per the team, Angel City FC has nearly 100, many of them household names. Actors Jessica Chastain, Uzo Aduba, Jennifer Garner, America Ferrera, ​and Gabrielle Union are all on the list. There are former professional athletes, too — gymnast Shawn Johnson East, tennis great Billie Jean King, basketball forward Candace Parker, plus 14 former USWNT players including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Wambach.

Angel City FC started in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in 2022 and finished fifth last season. The majority female-led, -owned, and -operated professional sports team is currently the highest valued women’s team in the world, according to The Gist; it’s also a NWSL league leader in attendance. Its goal, as Uhrman wrote in an email to the Cut, is to “drive toward equity using sports.”

For actor Eva Longoria, who wrote the first check as an investor and who also invested in the Mexican soccer team Club Necaxa, that commitment was critical. “Gender equity in any industry is important to me,” she says. “To invest in a team that could make real impact and real change and actually be the change we want to see in the industry, that was what was fascinating to me. Then to be able to do it with my friends, that was just like the cherry on top.”

Angel City FC investors. Photo: © Will Navarro / Angel City FC

Plenty of celebrities invest in sports teams: LeBron James is a part owner of the MLB’s Boston Red Socks, Usher is a minority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and in 2020, Ryan Reynolds bought a Welsh football club, Wrexham AFC, then made a documentary about it. But for Portman and the other female celebrities who’ve put their money behind Angel City FC, the problems plaguing women’s soccer would have been familiar: Female actors earned $1.1 million less than their male counterparts on average, according to one 2017 study. Pay inequity was one of the central issues taken up by Time’s Up, the now-defunct advocacy group that 300-plus Hollywood women launched in 2018. Unsurprisingly, many of the actors behind Time’s Up became investors in Angel City FC and Portman has called the team’s ethos “a continuation of the mission.”

From its inception, the team has strived to create a financially successful model that values the players. “We built an organization where we do not sacrifice impact for revenue,” Uhrman tells the Cut. One of the FC’s first-of-its-kind initiatives allocates 10 percent of sponsorship dollars ($55 million to date) to the Los Angeles community, allowing the team to deliver 1,212,406 meals, distribute over 237 tons of fresh produce, and train 164 female soccer coaches so far, according to numbers the team provided. One percent of net ticket sales (several thousand dollars per player last season, per a team rep) goes directly to players, and the team has developed a grant fund to help former female and nonbinary soccer players continue a livelihood in sports — two programs unique to Angel City FC, according to the team.

In large part because of the star power behind it, Angel City FC is “perceived as a model to emulate,” Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert in leadership development and women’s sports, explains over email. Teams seem to be an increasingly attractive investment option for famous women: Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka co-owns the North Carolina Courage, another NWSL team. Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager, and former USWNT goalkeeper Briana Scurry invested in the Washington Spirit, which ranked eighth in the 2023 NWSL season, in 2021. In the WNBA, former Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams became a minority owner of the Chicago Sky in 2006, which ranked eighth last year. Former WNBA two-time champion Renee Montgomery is now an owner of the Atlantic Dream (ranked fifth in last year’s season), becoming the first former WNBA star to hold an ownership stake and executive role in a team. Their popularity is a boon for their teams, because it draws attention to the game. “Seeing Lilly Singh and Jen Garner pitch-side drives interest and fans,” Uhrman notes. “We are the new Showtime era of the Lakers. You’re either coming to see our incredible team or who’s in the stands cheering them on. Either way, there is something for everyone.”

Heightened visibility helps the players forge stronger personal brands, and as Lough notes, social media affords more opportunities to leverage them. “Women athletes have lagged far behind male athletes in earnings, yet their celebrity is growing after their playing careers are over,” she says, “opening up doors to new business ventures.” Name recognition can translate into lasting sponsorships. Given that even professional athletes often require multiple jobs to make a living, those opportunities are crucial: A 2020 survey of 500 elite athletes worldwide found that more than half felt financially unstable. That instability can cut short careers, even at the highest level, and becomes a particularly difficult barrier for women, given the extent of the pay gap. In soccer, for example, the prize money for the 2023 Women’s World Cup totaled just 25 percent of what men made the year before. Meanwhile, the average WNBA salary increased from $102,751 in 2022 to $113,295 in 2023, whereas NBA players average over $10 million, according to Statista.

Photo: Angel City FC

For women’s teams, extra funding can make a world of difference. As USWNT legend Aly Wagner sees it, “Investment is a statement of value.” Along with fellow players Danielle Slaton, Leslie Osborne, and Brandi Chastain, Wagner now co-owns a new NWSL team, Bay FC, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She knows firsthand that more money means more access to performance-improving resources, and more opportunities to boost personal brands. But “as a former footballer,” she says, it sends a simple yet important message: “That women athletes are worth investing in … Making women’s sports culturally relevant is critical to growing the business from a fan, partnership, and media perspective.”

And for the people putting up their money, women’s teams are “one of the best ROIs in sport,” Lough says. Media coverage has nearly tripled in the past five years, according to a study carried out by the marketing and management company Wasserman. In 2024, women’s elite sports will generate revenue that will exceed $1 billion for the first time, according to Deloitte — 300 percent higher than what Deloitte projected in 2021. Some NWSL teams are selling for up to ten times what they were selling at in 2020.

“The positive effect of former athletes paying it forward is immense,” Lindsey Vonn, a three-time Olympic medalist and co-owner of Angel City FC, notes in an email to the Cut. “If I were still competing and the people I admire invested in my team, it would give me confidence,” Vonn explains. “Not only do the athletes become empowered, but the trickle effect of kids who witness that support and then want to become soccer players themselves is game-changing.”

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The Celebs Fighting for Gender Equity in Sports