Angel City (2023)

The business side of womens football – ‘Angel City’ (2023)

Truth be told, I watched the 3-part Angel City docuseries a couple of weeks ago, but I just couldn’t get myself to write this review. The series shows a lot about Angel City FC that I hadn’t known, and I was glad to learn it. But the coverage of the startup and inaugural year of a womens soccer team is laid out more like a business and marketing case study than a soccer story.

And maybe that’s the way it had to be. In its most favorable telling, the story of Angel City FC is about a fight to mainstream womens sports. It’s not really about the sport itself, it’s about the team of business women who founded the club. They are trying to prove that female team sports can make money, and that a female soccer club can achieve a high valuation like an MLS club.

What we learn about ACFC

In Episode 1, the executives forge a female path through the maleness of the sports industry, and they put a female spin on their own organization. They implement policies of transparency and equality across the club. A no-trade policy is instituted because players are to be treated like human beings instead of 2-legged assets. The execs focus on creating a club with celebrity ownership, top-notch marketing and merchandising, giving back 10% to the community, and a game day experience that is fun and exciting. It is imperative that they build a solid fan base and fill a stadium in a city that is one of the most crowded sports and entertainment markets in the country.

Once the series establishes its themes, we then watch as the inaugural club suffers challenge after challenge. Forty-two minutes into episode 1, the story breaks about the coaching abuse scandal in the NWSL. At the time, many wondered if the league would survive. USSoccer’s subsequent investigation into the abuse stories revealed how players suffered in silence primarily because of the fear of hurting the fragile NWSL and ending womens professional soccer for everyone.

In episode 2, they cover the issue of player Katie Cousins, who says wearing a pride jersey would not reflect her beliefs. That’s kind of unbelievable in the NWSL working environment. Despite fan outrage, the club sticks with Katie (although she is not on the 2023 roster). Star striker Christen Press tears her ACL. It costs a lot of money for ACFC to bring in Sydney Leroux, who suffers a stress fracture after her second game and then is out for the season.

While the club has the luxury of playing in LAFC’s top-notch stadium, ACFC suffers from a lack of a practice facility. Sharing other teams’ fields means they can’t control their practice schedule.

The team is not doing well on the field, and it isn’t helped by Eniola Aluko, the sporting director whose role is to build the roster. There is one scene where she is particularly grating, which gives some insight as to her past troubles with her England WNT teammates. By episode 3 Eni is finally pushed sideways in the organization. She parted ways with ACFC in Jan-2023.

By the end of final episode 3, ACFC places 8th of 12 teams and fails to make the playoffs. Making the playoffs is the traditional low threshold goal of a team in American sports; it’s like advancing to the knockout rounds. It is rare for an expansion team to make the playoffs in its first year, but fellow inaugural club San Diego Wave FC not only places 3rd in the league but also advances to the playoff semi-finals. Somewhere in the docuseries is a snide remark that San Diego, under team president Jill Ellis, focused on the soccer.

My expectations were too high

The biggest weakness of the series is that there is no major person likable enough to carry the show and engage the viewer.  It’s the anti-Wrexham. The Wrexham series succeeds because Ryan Reynolds is wonderfully likable and you watch him begrudgingly fall in love with the team he has bought.

Most of the focus and interviews of Angel City are with the executives, particularly Julie Uhrman, and the celebrity owners, largely represented by Natalie Portman. But Portman knows nothing about sports, and Julie Uhrman is hard to watch. Uhrman has a driven persona with eyes that make her whole package more distracting, not inspiring. On top of that, the effect is doubled because her identical twin joins the staff.

I thought it strange the filmmakers included a rather negative comment by Christen Press, that the players are there to make money and not just to be a role model for young girls. The way she says it makes it hard to care about her any further. There are interviews with many of the ACFC players, as a way to introduce them. But none of their stories are developed much, so  it is difficult to remember who is who or to care much about any. A greater focus on Simone Charley and Paige Nielsen would have helped.

The most watchable female is Abby Wambach. She ties the old with the new and conveys why Angel City’s success is so important. She shares her story about her ah-hah moment when she was awarded an ESPY next to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant. And she realized that those 2 guys were walking off into the sunset toward a life of comfort, while she was scrambling to figure out how she would get health care.

For me, the highest point of the series is early on, in one of the few scenes with Alexis Ohanian, the lead investor in ACFC, founder of Reddit and husband of Serena Williams. He saves tweets mocking him for backing ACFC, such as “Lmao give me the money you will lose it anyway.” His retort is priceless:

Yes I screenshot a lot of these tweets. Yes I do save them. I do that because I’m petty. And also because… there is so much of this great energy in women’s sports right now and I love fueling  that rocket ship.

-Alexis Ohanian, lead ACFC investor

The team loses quite a bit, and there are no really great goals or plays in the show. There are several scenes to demonstrate that the fans are devoted enough that 400 travel to San Diego for a game.

With so few engaging moments in the series, maybe my disappointment comes from overly high expectations. It was produced by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely and Jimmy Chin, creators of The Rescue and Free Solo. They know how to tell a story and to find the emotion in it. But this docuseries, directed by Arlene Nelson, feels like an extremely honest but quite average production. You get all the facts, all the hopes, and all the warts. But in many small ways the series is unflattering to the club and uninspiring. I wished Little Monster Films could have done better.

In Conclusion

As a case study, the series well explains the business goals and issues of Angel City FC. It is very honest about the challenges the club faces. But as far as entertainment, it doesn’t present a story with one or a few characters that you care about. What Angel City FC is trying to accomplish is extremely difficult, but the club has focused on the gift wrap and maybe not the grit that needs to be inside a successful footballer package. And without the grit to put a winning performance on the field, ACFC won’t be filling their stadium in year 3.

In the SF Bay area, Brandi Chastain and a core of women have just launched their Bay FC club. So far, they appear to be following ACFC’s playbook. I hope they do things a little differently with any docuseries they produce. It does feel like NWSL is on the precipice of change in womens sports, and we have to thank ACFC for being bold.

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7