Carla Harris: A note to our listeners - the following episode was produced earlier this year, prior to recent findings from the U.S. Soccer Federation’s investigation into the national women's soccer league, which exposed systemic abuse and misconduct. The gravity of these findings, which are not discussed in this episode, must be acknowledged. Our hope is that this conversation will advance the fight for equitable and just treatment for all female athletes.
This May, the US Soccer Federation agreed to a landmark deal awarding equal pay for the women and men of the U.S. National Soccer teams. The hard-won agreement is more than six years in the making, and emblematic of changes underway across women's sports leagues.
But the gender gap is in no way closed in professional sports -- and pay is just the beginning.
Nneka Ogwumike: I think a win in women's sports doesn't mean it's the end for progress. We have to continually dig deeper and reflect upon ourselves to figure out how things can be better.
Carla Harris: This is Nneka Ogwumike, star player for the Los Angeles Sparks and President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. Today, we'll hear how Nneka is using her power to galvanize the players of the WNBA to fight for an equitable league. And later, I'll sit down with Kara Nortman, a venture capitalist and the founder of a new National Women's Soccer League team who sees great potential for women's sports.
Kara Nortman: Four percent of media time goes to covering women's sports and it's heavily women's tennis. Right? If you could just believe that that four percent could go to 10% or 15%, you could probably sell tickets and get broadcast deals. We built the plan off of that.
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Nneka Ogwumike: Okay, I'm recording right now.
Carla Harris: Here's Nneka. We sat down with the WNBA All Star, MVP and Champion earlier this year, not to talk about her performance or her success, but to discuss something that's been brewing in just about every women's sports league. We came to talk about equity. It's a far cry from what Nneka thought she'd be doing when she first started playing basketball.
Nneka Ogwumike: You know, I just played because, one, I loved it. I had fun. It was competitive. I also loved the challenge of getting better. The game is just exciting and it's such a raw display of skill and teamwork and athleticism that just really aligns with who I am and who I discovered myself to be really.
Carla Harris: As she got older and her skills continued to progress, Nneka saw basketball not just as a game, but a gateway to new opportunities with financial rewards.
Nneka Ogwumike: You know, as the recruiting letters came in and I realized, oh, I can go to Stanford for free. And so, you know, for me to be able to have a dream of even going there. It was made real through basketball.
Carla Harris: Nneka helped lead Stanford to four Final Four playoffs and in 2012, upon graduation, she became the top draft pick for the WNBA. She thrived in the league, winning Rookie of the Year, and becoming a 6 time All-Star, as well as a 2016 MVP and Champion.
Sports Commentator #1: Fading away…no! Ogwumike denied another chance? And gone - Nneka Ogwumike puts it home!
Carla Harris: While Nneka earned awards and lucrative brand sponsorships as an individual, she has always been a team player. In 2016, she was elected the President of the WNBA Players Association.
Nneka Ogwumike: I wasn't always outspoken. I started finding my voice at Stanford and eventually, I really had to step into what my voice was when I was elected President. I try to lead by listening, you know because that's the only way that you can navigate any space where you want to forge any type of change. And so as a teammate, as a person, as the President, I do my best to ensure that I'm always approachable.
Carla Harris: As Nneka accumulated accolades, the differences between how the WNBA and NBA operated became glaring. The disparities range from not allowing teams to charter flights to systemic issues such as lower salaries. This season, WNBA players earned 44 times less than their male counterparts in the NBA, according to pay data reported by NPR.
Nneka Ogwumike: I think that obviously pay equity is probably the overarching umbrella that kind of trickles down to everything and so, you know, when you speak about pay equity, we're not asking to get paid the exact same as our brethren that are our counterparts. We just want it to be reflective, relatively. And that all influences player experience, health and safety and salary and compensation.
Carla Harris: Although the league has experienced increases across the board in draft prospects, viewership and sponsorship deals, the WNBA is regularly measured up against the success of the NBA -- despite being formed 50 years later.
Nneka Ogwumike: We're continually compared to our brethren and the NBA, but we are different. We really have to lean into what makes us, us. You know, we're a league of women. We're a league of mothers, We're a league of mostly Black women.
And I think that for the longest there's been trepidation in leaning into that because the blueprint was white males and I'm seeing increasingly, more people are just leaning into that authenticity and understanding that what aligns with you is, is really what's meant for you and our league is learning about how to do that both individually, but most importantly, collectively.
Carla Harris: One of Nneka's major achievements as President was leading the charge to get a landmark Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, passed in 2020.
Nneka Ogwumike: The CBA was monumental because we had implemented the most changes that we had seen since the existence of our league and most specifically salary and compensation,
We're very proud to be a part of that because not only did it offer more players a chance to make more money, our CBA was thankfully able to forge ahead with planning mothers and motherhood benefits for working moms. It's certainly a starting point for where we want our league to go. I'm very excited about what this current collective bargaining agreement will catalyze for the future ones.
Carla Harris: Through higher base pay, shared marketing deals, and other bonuses, the groundbreaking CBA meant a 53% increase in total cash compensation for WNBA athletes.
And while more pay is key, Nneka also stresses that standardizing resources is a major factor in improving the league going forward.
Nneka Ogwumike: If we want to really create change across the board, there needs to be a foundational standard from which each team in each market operates from. You know, you can go to different markets and you would be surprised to see the difference of the range in quality of practice facilities. So creating that foundational standard by which as a rule, every team and market has to operate from.
It holds investment accountable, it holds cap accountable, it holds player experience accountable, holds resources accountable that can ameliorate all of the things that players are currently experiencing and hopefully develop more robust markets and a more robust league, so that there's a standard by which new investors understand exactly what owning a team, what having a team, what investing in a team needs to look like instead of everyone just kind of doing it based on how they feel or how much they want to pay.
Carla Harris: The time is now to realize the potential of women's professional sports.
Carla Harris: In 2021, WNBA viewership increased 49% year over year. The National Women's Soccer League championship match drew 216% more audience than 2019.
Leagues like the NWSL and the Premier Hockey Federation, formerly known as the NWHL, are parlaying their success into better pay. Nneka says it's important for the different women's leagues to learn from and support each other.
Nneka Ogwumike: I see the progress of women's sports anywhere as something that I could never be against, you know, anywhere I see it, I want it. Now as women do advocate for themselves, I think it's also on us to continue to support each other, between leagues. And so when you see the NWSL. I mean the investment from so many prominent celebrities is just amazing.
Players from the NWSL and the NWHL have approached our executive committee and our players association. We've had meetings that have integrated the leaders of those leagues into how they can do things better and how they can make things work because they've seen us do it so successfully.
We ensure that we can provide support and advisement that can help them and vice versa.
Nneka Ogwumike: I think a win in women's sports doesn't mean it's the end for progress. We have to continually dig deeper and reflect upon ourselves to figure out how things can be better. But we can't drag each other down along the way. So we have to continue to celebrate the NWHL. We have to continue to celebrate the NWSL.
We do things well, they do things well, we're all women let's make it happen.
Carla Harris: The WNBA has made a lot of progress over the years but there is still more to be done to become a profitable venture that provides for its athletes. And while changemakers like Nneka are up to the task, advocacy is just one piece of the puzzle. This year, for the first time ever, the WNBA raised $75 million from investors in order to grow its business.
Our following guest is also working to change the women's sports industry, but from a different perspective: as a team owner.
Kara Nortman is a founder for the new Los Angeles-based National Women's Soccer League team Angel City FC and a partner at Upfront Ventures. She and her team of women investors see a bright future: they know that there is money to be made in women's sports.
As an additional note for this episode, Kara and Angel City FC are not connected to the recent findings from the U.S. Soccer Federation investigation into the league. On the contrary, the team is dedicated to making women’s soccer a more safe and equitable space.
Carla Harris: Kara, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. And you ready to jump in?
Kara Nortman: Carla, thank you for having me. It is a pleasure to be here. I am so ready. Let's do it.
Carla Harris: Alrighty. So I want to ask you, did you start out playing sports? When you were growing up?
Kara Nortman: I did. You know, sports were a huge part of my identity.
I'd say I primarily played basketball and softball through high school. I was captain of my high school basketball team. And then in college I signed up for all these crazy sports, rowing, rugby, ski team. I just signed up for every sport that I could possibly make and ended up rowing for four years in my undergrad.
Carla Harris: Wow! So coming out of college and starting your career, you had a decision point, from what I know about you, between working in a nonprofit and working in finance. So to go from sports being in your DNA, to finance entering your world, what helped you make the decision to go into finance?
Kara Nortman: I didn't grow up knowing anything about finance. You know, I came from like teachers and doctors and policymakers. So I interviewed to go work in a consumer protection nonprofit. There was a pivotal lunch I had with a couple of people, including a woman who said, “Kara, come here, you'll learn finance. You'll get your butt kicked. And then you can go do the nonprofit stuff and you can do it with a skillset, but come build a skill set. I promise you're not going to regret it.”
Carla Harris: She didn't lead you wrong, you walked out of here with an amazing tool set is my guess. What was it about early stage companies that you think made your heart sing a little bit differently than some of the other things you had worked on?
Kara Nortman: I mean, a lot of experimentation, I guess, you know, it's sort of hard to know, as you know, when you're young and in any of these jobs because I do think it's important to build a fundamental skill set that you can fall back on. I think you use it your whole career. I even interview for it now. I’ll say, “What do you think in?”. “What do you dream in?”. “What do you wake up and create in the most naturally and organically?” What I realized was my joy was not tearing it down and financially engineering the deal that was sort of a necessary evil. And I was pretty good at it.
But I loved the dreaming part and the sitting and working with somebody. Where everything was potential and where you knew there were going to be a ton of mistakes. And you were ready for the messiness of figuring that out with them much more than, “Hey, how do we optimize for getting your cost to acquire that user from $45 to $42 or your margin from, you know, 72% to 75%?”.
Carla Harris: So what I hear you saying is, the possibility of what could be is the thing that drives you the most, the vision of saying where this could go all be it all the mistakes, but the vision is bigger than what we see in front of us. Now let's dream together and see how we go get that.
Kara Nortman: Yeah, let's dream together. And then having skillsets where I can add value over time and issue spotting around numbers or or strategically litigating with numbers. So really it was important to have that foundation, but the dreaming lights me up.
Carla Harris: Yeah, well, that seems like it fits nicely into women's sports. So let's talk about how you got there, and how you see that evolution.
Kara Nortman: If you had told me five years ago that I would be an owner of a professional sports team, I would've told you, you are crazy. So, I mean, one thing I really believe in is that if you follow your interests and your hobbies and you just see where they may go, they may just be joyful hobbies, but sometimes they turn into these life-changing opportunities that actually become business. And so I went, in 2015, with my parents, my husband, and our three daughters to the World Cup finals in Vancouver. And it just lit me up. The crowd, the experience, the game, the players. I got into their stories and I came back and I couldn't find content anywhere. I couldn't watch their games. And so I came back and I just started talking to people like, “Why is this possible?” I couldn't be the only one. And so that was the start of it. I just thought about it, talked about it for a few years, until I met a woman named Becca Roux who runs the US Women's National Team Players Association, and we became friends and she asked me to advise the union. There was this virtuous cycle needed, where you need the players to be paid more money to put more money into the union, to have the resources to go get the licensing deals done so people could go buy jerseys with names on the back. And so through that friendship, I just learned the sport. She would say I was helpful to her. She changed my life by teaching me the sport and opening up my eyes and through a series of things that happened afterwards, including talking Natalie Portman's ear off at a lunch about women's soccer and then playing basketball with Julie Uhrman, my two co-founders. This all came together over the course of six months.
Carla Harris: Wow, so now what made you say, “Yeah I think I can own a team,” – and I really want you to break this down, Kara, because there are some other team owners that's in our audience right now who have no idea how to think about it, why they should do it. So walk us through a little of your thought process of owning a team.
Kara Nortman: I should have thought about it naturally. I'm an optimist, I'm a growth mindset person. And even for me, who can sit here with a person who's starting a business, building data security for the cloud, I can dream with them. Why wasn't I dreaming for myself? And so it took somebody like Natalie to open my eyes and believe in myself. I mean, she suggested, why don't I bring actresses to a US National Team friendly lead up game to the 2019 World Cup to bring awareness to their pay equity issue?
And so for both of us, it started with our interest in gender equity and activism. And then we just kept throwing events. I remember we did one event with the National Team players and we brought a bunch of them together with a bunch of the women in entertainment. And we're like, how can our communities elevate each other? And then Natalie texted me and she said, “You know what? We should buy a team. We should start a team. I hear it's possible.” And I literally thought she was messing with me. And so eventually I really was like, okay, well this is…I guess what I do.
So why don’t I go figure it out? I started talking to people. And I talked to probably a hundred people, to figure out, could we start a team? How much would it cost? What is the assumption you have to believe to think this is possible? And this is where my skill set came in. And there's, like, one stat that stood out in my mind that made me believe this was possible. Even though of those hundred people, 90 of them, they were nice, but no one was offering me the money back then. Now, lots of people offer us the money. But back then it was like, either, “You're crazy, it's never going to work.” Or, “Here are all the challenges, bless your heart, you know, as you move forward.”
And the one stat was four percent of media time goes to covering women's sports and it's heavily women's tennis, right? The only place I could follow players was on their Instagram account.
Carla Harris: That’s right.
Kara Nortman: And so I said to myself, there's got to be more people like me. And if you could just believe that that four percent could go to 10% or 15%, you could probably sell tickets and get sponsors and get broadcast deals. We built the plan off of that, and we went and collected a ton of data points to show what would break even look like.
And then we pointed to, hey, but we think this thing could be worth as much as Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys. Here's what it's going to take. And fortunately, Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams and 14 former US Women's National team players, and Billie Jean King and the list goes on – believed in it and gave us our first capital.
Carla Harris: Wow. That is amazing. You mentioned that there were a few people that said, “It's never going to work. Bless your heart.” Please tell me, what was the data of the rationale? Or was it feeling, and not fact, that they were articulating to you?
Kara Nortman: Yeah I mean, there are three core revenue streams for all sports teams. Broadcast, ticketing and sponsorships. And so they would just look at each one of them and say, I don't think people want to watch women play. They want to watch the World Cup, but I don't know that they want to watch them outside of the World Cup, too – you're never going to get a broadcast deal because they couldn't see it in the world today, they couldn't imagine that there were shifting patterns or demographics. Or just those of us who have been involved in early stage businesses in particular consumer businesses and brands know that if you take a big activation event, like the World Cup or the Olympics, and then you have an opportunity for people to come into viewership and follow after that, you will shift people over.
Carla Harris: Yeah, and it feels a little bit like a social media where you have to feed the beast, right? And if you are active and you are giving them the product every day, then they want more and more of it. And we all know that women are some of the biggest consumers in the world and own and control a bigger percentage of the purse string.
So it was interesting to me that people would say, or would even question: if you build it, will they come? – when there’s clearly so much demand. You hadn't given the beast anything to eat, if you will. And now you can see how big the appetite is.
Carla Harris: What makes Angel City FC stand apart from other teams?
Kara Nortman: Well, I have to give a shout out to our third co-founder and the woman who runs the team every day, Julie Uhrman. Angel City is very similar to a lot of the companies that we've backed at Up Front in that it's driven by a visionary leader who can execute and isn't afraid to take risks and do things. She came in and when we were running the diligence altogether, trying to figure out, “Hey, how much capital do we need?”. “What could we start with?”. “Could we fundraise in a different way?”. “Could we bring women into the cap table in a different way?”. And like, how do we make sure that we have enough?
Carla Harris: Yes. That’s right.
Kara Nortman: We can do all the things. We asked every stupid question where a number of them were like, “No, no, no, that's not how it's done in sports.” And we're like, “Okay, but why? – you know – why is it not done that way in sports?” And we would get, for some things, it was like, “Oh, okay that makes sense.” And so if you asked three times, you can really figure out what do you need to know and pay homage to? But if you interrogate all these assumptions that are done very similarly, it gives you the chance to do them differently. And so two things I'd point out that we've done the most differently, one is values alignment from the investor base and cap table all the way through the team and hopefully our community. And so we are the first majority female-owned, female-led professional sports team in the country.
And I should also say we're 30% to 40% women of color. And that is also reflected in our team, our actual operating team. And then we spend a lot of time with our communities and sometimes they're not happy with us and we learn from them and, you know, we have to all be messy together. But if you show up on our investor, quarterly Zooms, people are proud and they want to show up, and even for very small investments. But the second piece of it I'd say is our sponsorship model where we donate 10% of every sponsor dollar to a community cause. So we have $35 million in sponsorship commitments. DoorDash is our jersey sponsor. We also, you know, everyone from Sprouts to Birdies, to Jane Walker, to more traditional sponsors like Gatorade. But with each dollar we donate 10% to a community cause so that's never been done before. It was something we felt strongly about from the beginning and now other teams are doing it, too.
Carla Harris: Why was that important to do as a part of your sponsorship model?
Kara Nortman: It aligns with our values around equity and empowerment. We wanted to show the world that there were sponsors for women's sports and there was a way to also kind of really invest in the community from the beginning.
Carla Harris: Well, I want to underscore a couple of points the first is making sure that you ask the question three times when you're coming in and you sort of breaking barriers, you're being a disruptor nobody's ever seen anybody like you doing what it is you're doing in a space that has already existed.
And by the third time, you're going to know whether or not you have to pay homage to that, which has been i.e. you need to play ball the way the ball game is played, or if you can dare to do it differently. And guess what, you probably can. That's point number one. Point number two is your intentionality around having a diverse team in your leadership and in your cap table. Now, let's talk a little bit about your power also as an investor and how your power and voice as an investor influenced this whole pay equity piece. Every one of us, as a potential investor, no matter how small, has a voice and an opportunity to create change. So I really kind of want to get at how you guys thought about that and did what you could do there as a model, as a playbook point for others.
Kara Nortman: Yeah, well, listen, I think this is one of the drums I will beat for, hopefully, the rest of my life, which is: there's power in equity, there's power in having skin in the game. And honestly it could be $5. We went with this idea and it really like one of the most significant days for us and for me was when I saw Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm's email to the – I mean, I'm going to cry talking about it because it was so emotional, honestly – when I saw their email to the 14 former U.S. National Team players and they could all come in and you know, some of them have done very well financially. Other, you know, when soccer players who've never been paid well where it's like, it doesn't matter what level, we just want you in and we're going to make it work in a way that's different. And so I do that across the board now. I've done that in tech, where I've created vehicles where we go to all the fancy people who always get asked to invest when I'm like, you know, go out to a woman who doesn't get asked, who has capital, who is talented.
What I tell people is, “Figure out how much money you can lose,” you know – and maybe not everyone can lose money, but even if it's a hundred bucks, figure out what you can lose. And write checks into something you care about, knowing you might lose it, and make a new friend through it. Learn something new. Make sure you're getting some education or relationship out of it, or try.
Carla Harris: Absolutely. And you bring another good playbook point that we can learn. You know, if you make a $1000 investment in something and it doesn't work, it was an investment in your education because if it doesn't work, you absolutely learned something from that. You may not have learned something from the one that made you a lot of money, but you learned something from the one where you lost some money, and that's going to be very instructional as you go off to make your next investment.
So let me ask you, what do you hope Angel City FC’s impact will be on the greater women's sports industry?
Kara Nortman: Oh, I mean, I hope and believe that we will see mission aligned capital that's looking to flow into women's sports across the board. Women's basketball, women's hockey, women's lacrosse, you name it. Across the board and across the world.
And I think, you know, we're at 12 teams in the NWSL right now. That should be double or triple over the next decade or two. There's a tremendous amount of interest, in soccer, in particular.
But you know, we learn a lot from the WNBA and basketball and there's professional leagues across the board. There is joy and fun in our sports in a way that we all appreciate coming out of COVID. So the future is bright for women's sports.
Carla Harris: All right, Kara, you have been amazing. You have been a strident advocate around the power of one is certainly the power of a woman as an investor in exercising your voice and just taking that first step that leads to the second step and paying attention to the messages that are around you. I say, thank you, thank you, thank you for being a guest on Access and Opportunity and taking the time to speak with us.
Kara Nortman: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to be here.
Carla Harris: I want to thank both Kara Nortman and Nneka Ogumwike for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.