Basketball was Julie Uhrman’s sport when she and her twin sister, Amy, were growing up in Los Angeles. She remembers that she brought home a flier for tryouts in a YMCA boys basketball league in fourth grade.
“It was 80 boys, my sister, and myself,” she says, matter-of-factly summing up her initiation into the sport. In subsequent years, she would watch Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, guide the USC women’s basketball team to back-to-back national championships and help the U.S. women win the gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Today, as co-founder and president of Angel City Football Club, one of the world’s only majority female-owned and operated sports franchises, Uhrman is leaning into her hometown advantage. Her co-founders are Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman, along with a lengthy and eclectic list of investors that includes Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, actors Jennifer Garner Eva Longoria, and athletes Mia Hamm and Serena Williams.
Uhrman’s determination to bring women’s professional soccer back to L.A. after a 12-year absence has reaped rapid results. Despite the Angel City Football Club narrowly missing the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) playoffs in its inaugural season in 2022, the sport made a triumphant return to the second-largest market in the U.S.
Coupled with the excitement from Argentina’s World Cup victory, which dominated the sports world last December, it’s a clear sign that soccer (or football, if you prefer) is gaining traction on American soil.
With professional women’s soccer returning to L.A. for the first time since the short-lived Sol franchise (2007-2010) folded, Angel City FC joins MLS squads L.A. Galaxy (founded in 1994) and Los Angeles FC (founded in 2014) on the home turf.
Uhrman boldly predicts that, within the next decade, the NWSL should overtake Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and even MLS in popularity. The sport, she points out, has countered the “nil-nil stalemate,” low-scoring perception with a fast-paced, action-packed contest that is not saddled with a succession of game stoppages for huddles, penalties, and incomplete passes, not to mention the comparatively narrow playing field with oversized boundaries.
CLEANING UP IN COLLEGE
So, how did a lifelong basketball and American football fan transition to a power player in the most popular sport in the world? It was a circuitous route, to be sure. The product of two generations of USC alumni, Uhrman grew up attending USC football games. Her contrarian grandparents were UCLA fans, so she also had the benefit of having both exemplary programs as part of her heritage.
After graduating from high school, Uhrman set her sights on Washington University in St. Louis. “I wanted a business undergraduate [degree] and I wanted to play basketball. That screamed Division III,” she says with a laugh. “So, I played basketball for a couple years. … It was a great school. It makes me seem smarter for picking it back then.” Twin sister Amy also attended and played basketball alongside her.
Inspired by their entrepreneur stepfather, the Uhrman sisters teamed up with a couple of friends and bought the on-campus laundry and dry-cleaning service during their freshman year. “We ran that for three years, did a storage company one year, entered a business-plan writing competition—the four of us—and won that,” Uhrman says. The experience was a series of early lessons on how to build and run a business.
Uhrman began thinking about a career in sports in the 1990s.
“At that time, the only sports job that occurred to me was being an agent…probably because of Jerry Maguire. The prospect of working at a sports franchise, never even crossed my mind.”
Nor did the idea of “falling in love with the beautiful game” of soccer, but the path was being forged.
While working in business development and distribution with IGN Entertainment in 2011, Uhrman noticed that the landscape for mobile apps was exploding. “All these independent game developers were becoming millionaires because they were able to bring their games directly to consumers, because Google had democratized game development, [and] anybody could upload a game,” she says.
LET THE GAMES(MANSHIP) BEGIN
Looking deeper into gaming trends, Uhrman found that “the best experiences [were] with a game controller and not the touch of a phone,” she says. “We were in this moment in time where we were in between cycles of living room game consoles. Android tablets were starting to launch and I was looking at them…they had WiFi, Bluetooth, and they had an HDMI cable. Couldn’t I connect my tablet to my TV and pair my game controller?”
Following this strategy, Uhrman set out to democratize gaming and, in 2012, founded Ouya. “I wanted to bring the open platform of Android into the living room,” she says. “So we built an affordable $99 game console.”
After encountering funding difficulties as an unproven female entrepreneur with a product that didn’t easily fit in an existing box on the product landscape, Uhrman turned to Kickstarter. In the space of 72 hours, her fortunes would change drastically. “We [raised] $1 million in the first eight hours, $2 million in the first day, and ended with $8.6 million over three days with over 16,000 backers,” she recalls. From there, tech VC Kleiner Perkins came onboard to help raise $15 million in Series A funding and Alibaba helped with Series B.
Eventually separating the platform from the hardware, Uhrman sold the company to Razer Inc. in 2015. In hindsight, the only thing she would have done differently is introduce a subscription service through the Ouya platform, thus generating a continual revenue stream of subscribers, rather than one-time device purchasers.
After her exit, she took a position at Lionsgate Entertainment, overseeing the company’s OTT Ventures, and became an advisor for various startups, including Android-based platform Wonder, which was acquired by Atari in 2020.
FROM VIRTUAL TO REALITY
By that time, however, she had already transitioned from gaming to live sports, founding Angel City FC in 2019. “When Natalie Portman, Kara Nortman, I started Angel City, we said this a lot—: There was no playbook. There was no other team to look at that had three female founders, a majority female ownership group that funded their team as if it was a startup. Alexis Ohanian came in as our controlling owner, but we needed to raise the rest of the money.”
The list of investors currently stands at 100, and Uhrman points out that everyone is r dedicated to making an impact. “They each invested what they were comfortable with, but as it relates to how they engage with and promote the brand, it is uniquely their own,” she says. “We’re going to be unapologetic about asking for the value that these incredible athletes deserve, both [in] ticket prices and sponsorship dollars.”
Uhrman and her team have built a playbook for franchise success that brings mission and capital together, while elevating women’s sports to proper recognition for its star players and quality of play. “We’re going to do good and be profitable; those are our goals and we don’t apologize,” she says.
Equity for women’s sports—in viewership, sponsorship, media coverage, and more—is Uhrman’s focus.
“We want women to be paid their value. I want to achieve our goal of being a global brand, where you may have never seen an Angel City match, you may not know a single player on our team, but you know who Angel City is by our actions and by our brand in the same way you know who the Yankees are.”
Uhrman’s goals don’t stop there. “We want to be the most valuable women’s club in the world,” she says, before correcting herself. “Actually, we want to be one of the most valuable sports properties in the world.”
BUILDING AN ANGEL CITY LEGACY
Looking back on the success of 2022, Uhrman has many highlights including bringing in her sister Amy to help support the team’s marketing efforts. Amy joined Angel City with 16 years of marketing experience at Activision and Sony ”…so understands what it’s like to work in fast-paced environments. We had a blast working together,” said Uhrman.
In other staffing decisions, Uhrman felt that having a seasoned sports executive was key for certain roles. For instance, Angel City’s head of Communications and PR, Stephanie Rudnick, spent years at prominent sports agency Wassserman. “She could open doors, she could tell the story,” says Uhrman of Rudnick.
Getting support from the community, says Uhrman, is a two-way proposition. “We launched an Angel City sponsorship model where 10% of our sponsorship revenue goes back into the community,” she says.
Uhrman wants to continue raising the bar of fan engagement when the 2023 season begins in March, building on the success of 2022. “We’ve seen fans tweet at us saying, ‘Hey, I don’t [shop at] Sprouts Farmers Market and decided to go in because they sponsor Angel City. Their store is incredible. I’m going to be a new customer.’ I think we’re at a time right now where values are really important—living your values and being authentic about them. And the partners that we bring onboard also have strong values that are aligned. And when we do things together, we believe it grows our value.”
And what value does she envision for Angel City?
“We want to be valued at $1 billion, and we’re well on our way!”
With the clout and credentials already assembled within the franchise’s well-connected power-broker owners and investors, that goal seems well within reach.