For women sports owners, what does it look like for a team’s brand to be savvy and have integrity?

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion sectionplease see the FAQ.

Lionel Messi, LeBron James and Serena Williams are three of the most recognizable faces in the world. Their images and likenesses are used by major brands worldwide, they are investors in media and entertainmentand they have things like sports shoes named after them that have made them household names.

And in addition to being sports stars, they are also co-owners of sports teams.

James is part owner of The Fenway Sports group, which means he is also part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC, the US Sports network NESN and NASCAR’s Rous Fenway Racing Team. James also helped Renee Montgomery become the first WNBA player to own a team when she bought the Atlanta Dream a year ago.

Serena Williams, her husband Alexis Ohanian, and their daughter Olympia are co-owners of Angel City Football Club (AGFC), a new soccer team based in Los Angeles which began play this month in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Angel City FC played its inaugural game this past weekend against the San Diego Wave, another expansion team. But the striking difference between the two teams is the level of fame of their respective owners.

In addition to Williams and her family, Angel City FC is co-owned by a handful of former professional women soccer players including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Shannon McMillan, as well as women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King.

And it being LA, also in the ownership group are entertainment greats Natalie Portman (who, according to The Guardianspearheaded the creation of the team), Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, James Cordon and Christina Aguilera.

That’s not the only NWSL team owned by women sports stars. Naomi Osaka is a co-owner of the North Carolina Couragewhile the Chicago Red Stars also boast notable owners including USA hockey team captain Kendall Coyne-Schofield and ESPN personality Sarah Spain.

The fact that powerful women are investing in women’s sports is a great thing, and it is time. Having women in leadership and decision-making roles is imperative. But the origin story of most leagues and teams is still rooted in money-making and capitalist ideology, and it is important to look at how women are investing and accruing financial power in sports.

The ways in which we want to make women’s sports sustainable are important. I am very public about my support of women’s sports and leagues in a manner that not only withstands the salaries of the players and staff, but the costs of the infrastructure of women’s sports that benefit and provide an environment that is safe and healthy. But that takes money. Lots of money.

Angel City players celebrate a goal in their inaugural game last weekend. (Getty Images)

Brand savvy vs. brand integrity

Women can be critiqued for their investments because they might not represent a feminism that everyone is on board with. It follows the same path that men’s sports have followed, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Portman told The Guardian, “Our dream is to make women’s soccer as valued as male soccer is throughout the world.”

But is the solution to bastardize women’s sports in the same way, where it is about the billions of dollars and power becomes the point of purpose, not sport? Isn’t that way a manner in which toxicity and control takes hold and makes way for abuse and power struggles? Is branding women’s sports this way beneficial or problematic?

I asked a few of my friends – Meg Linehan, Stephanie Yang and Sandra Herrera – who are three of the top women’s soccer writers in the world. All US-based, I asked them what they thought about the ownership and branding of Angel City FC and whether that might conflict with the purity of women’s sport. Yang wondered whether Angel City FC should have to be a perfect role model of “serious academic feminist principles.”

It is a question worth pondering. In the current system, what does it look like for a brand to be savvy and have integrity?

“Just by the nature of the ownership is and where they are playing, Angel City is cool,” Linehan said. “And sure, like any club, they might force it at times, but we need more of this in women’s soccer. They have to back up the swagger with a product on the field, but every club wants to have a strong brand.”

Herrera agrees: “Women’s pro sports teams thriving in markets where there are millions of people living in its landscape is something women’s soccer has yet to succeed in. Angel City might be the first to change that in a league that has teams in markets like Houston , Chicago and [Washington] DC among others. “

Fans line the stands for the game between the Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave in Fullerton, Calif. (Getty Images)

Montgomery’s ownership creates precedent

Renee Montgomery became the first WNBA player to be an owner and an executive when she bought the Atlanta Dream in February of 2021 with the help of James and other investors. But this wasn’t just a power move.

Montgomery was incited to buy the team after the previous owner, former Senator Kelly Loeffler, opposed any protest regarding racial justice and police brutality in the US Her beliefs were at odds with the players and the staff and she was pressured to sell the team.

It is easy to make the case that Montgomery’s expertise is as an activist – she left the league in order to pursue other initiatives and be a full-time advocate. Not only did ownership change hands and a former Black player secure hold of the reigns, but she also increased awareness and created a precedent for socially and politically motivated owners.

Basketball is used to people like disgraced former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling but has little exposure to women owning sports teams and being candid about their thoughts on social justice like Montgomery.

Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds is an example of celebrity ownership having a real impact on a small club’s fortunes. Last year, Reynolds, along with his business partner, producer Rob McElhenney, purchased the down-trodden Wrexham Association Football Club in North Wales.

Since then, Wrexham AFC has risen in the standings and received more sponsors. For a team in the fifth division in the UK, they have benefitted from the international attention and are capitalizing on all the interest. Not only has the club made a deal with TikTok, but it will also be featured in the FIFA 2022 video game. And since their chairmen are two powerful Hollywood players, there will be a docu-series featuring this feel-good story.

This is the type of buzz that Angel City FC wants to create. And they should. Women’s sports need to be recognized for the possibilities and for the incredible product.

Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds is a co-owner of Wrexham Football Club in North Wales, UK (Charles Sykes / Invision / AP)

Yes, there is a way to balance the power structures, particularly in a league like the NWSL where the reports of abuse by coaches and negligence from owners rocked the soccer world last fall. TO recent study found that two-thirds of soccer league clubs in the UK had all men on their boards. How can we expect there to be a shift in culture if there is no shift at the top in ownership or executive roles?

I am an invested owner in a football club in the UK called Lewes FC. That means I have one vote / one share of the club – and a very cute green toque and a pin. Lewes FC is also one of the few clubs that pays its men’s and women’s teams equally. That is something to celebrate and support.

The reality is that women’s soccer is growing. As it grows it will seek new investors because, in order to make money, money must be invested. Money coming from affluent Hollywood personalities should not be a deterrent for the growth of women’s sports.

I will support where I can, and question where I should. And if I see a famous actor in the stands of a match, I might wave even if they are supporting the opponents. Because the reality is we are on the same team – the team supporting women’s sports.

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