By Kara Nortman, special to Yahoo Sports
It’s been eight years since the Vancouver Women’s World Cup changed everything for me. Back then, I attended the tournament as a fan. As I walked out of that stadium in 2015, a spark ignited in me that steadily and then fiercely grew into the creation of Angel City Football Club.
At this year’s World Cup, I watched the matches as the founder of a professional women’s soccer club and the managing partner of the first investment fund dedicated exclusively to financing women’s sports (more about Monarch Collective here).
As I write this, the 2023 World Cup has come to a close in Sydney and I am marveling at how much the tide has shifted.
I realize that as I met with global soccer stakeholders over these last few weeks, I no longer needed to do the impressive-stats tap dance to convince them they should invest in women’s sports. Instead, our conversations were focused much more on where they should invest based on their particular goals.
I’ve gone from fielding “why?” questions to “where?” questions in a short number of years, and I choose to see this simple shift as the beautiful bellwether I’ve been looking for.
As the tournament came down to its last few matches, fans started to root for new teams and new players alike. In a world that’s become more isolationist with xenophobic politics, sports has the incredible capacity to unite disparate cultures.
Women’s soccer thrives on globalization. When you find a joyful cultural movement, sovereign lines feel a little less sovereign.
With that, I share my top five predictions for the rapidly approaching future of women’s soccer:
The next World Cup winner may not even be on our radar
The importance of strong club soccer programs is evident in Spain’s incredible World Cup victory.
Spain did not play in a Women’s World Cup tournament until 2015. Compare that to all previous World Cup winners — U.S, Germany, Japan and Norway — who have each competed in the tournament since its inception in 1991. The fact that Spain dominated a short eight years later is mindblowing. To me, it means anything is possible and the market is just developing.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup drove unprecedented engagement globally. Colombia, Morocco, Nigeria and Jamaica have proven that many styles of play are emerging and can compete in some cases without federation support.
While France, which struggled against Jamaica, spent $290 million on its women’s national teams, Jamaica had to stage a $100,000 crowd-funding campaign just to get to the tournament to help pay for food, jerseys and equipment. It made it to the knockout stages, beating out half of the tournament’s 32 teams.
Where there is a soccer ball and a will, there is a way. Jamaica and Spain proved that.
Top international players will have more incentive to play at home
The Spanish national team that just won the World Cup is composed almost entirely of athletes who play for domestic clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. Spain is succeeding in keeping its talent in the country by building strong academies, paying players healthy salaries and enabling them to play in front of their friends and family. Alexia Putellas had already become Spain’s Mia Hamm-like hero over the last few years, long before she set foot on the World Cup pitch. This is happening in Spain nearly 25 years after the cultural icon showed up in the U.S. to inspire a generation of domestic players.
Spanish youngsters have a hero, and the national team has a collaborator who holds the bar high and creates space for all of them to share the light, much the way Hamm did 24 years ago with her ’99er teammates. When I heard “Alexia” chanted in front of 90,000-plus fans at Camp Nou in a Champions League game April 2022, it was clear to me the club game had more than arrived in Spain. Alexia, or “La Reina” (she is referred to as “The Queen”), evoked the same stadium chanting previously reserved by Barca fans for Lionel Messi.
Spanish clubs have supported player development with extraordinary academies and there is an opportunity for the entire ecosystem to show up, come together and figure out how to capitalize on a huge cultural moment for Spanish women’s soccer.
Beyond Spain, as more teams compete to win World Cups, it will be meaningful for the next Linda Caicedo (Colombia), Zecira Musovic (Sweden), Ary Borges (Brazil) and Mary Fowler (Australia) to play in their home leagues early in their careers, as they compete for a spot on their national team’s roster and have pride in playing in their country’s club system with their national teammates.
We have started seeing this trend in small numbers in the last year with England: After England’s Lionesses won the Euros last summer, Rachel Daly left Houston and went home to England.
Expect this trend to continue and to include new leagues that become known for their domestic academies and commercial potential.
More U.S. players will want to play outside of the U.S.
Until recently, U.S. players’ No. 1 choice was the NWSL. Top teams in Europe are increasingly becoming an option in a U.S. player’s career because they pay much more and develop different styles of play to build player versatility.
The U.S. is the prized commercial market with 5-10 times the population and sponsorship size of most European countries, but savvy athletes and clubs will start to think about which leagues develop them the most at that stage in their careers, while also tapping into the U.S. sponsorship market over the long run. Given salaries have improved, U.S. athletes no longer have to be a national team star in order to bring in sponsorship money.
Previously, American players needed to play in the U.S. to be “seen” if they wanted to make the national team. U.S. national team coaches may now find value in top players training abroad to develop against different styles of play they will face in future World Cups and Olympics.
As an example, U.S. rising star Mia Fishel was selected last year in the National Women’s Soccer League Draft but decided to play for Mexico’s Tigres. She went on to score 33 goals for Tigres but now has left to join Chelsea.
Two other recent examples of U.S. players preferring to play in foreign leagues are Lindsey Horan, who plays for Lyon, and Catarina Macario, who’s with Chelsea. Macario lived in Brazil until she was 12, left Stanford University early and never entered the NWSL Draft.
Unlike other professional American leagues, soccer operates in a global labor market. Men and women can move around frequently and the leagues must compete for their talent.
Women’s leagues will separate from men’s; Australia should consider it now
When Angel City entered the National Women’s Soccer League, the hot topic was, “Can a women’s league compete on its own?” Now with the success of the NWSL as the only large independent league in the world, the question is, “Can this success be replicated elsewhere?”
The Australian Soccer League, also known as the A-League, is a single entity that runs both the men’s and women’s leagues. It’s a good place to look at the benefits of independence. There is an emerging rationale around the benefits of focused decision-making specific to the women’s game; talent that wakes up at 3 a.m. thinking about the women’s game (not the men first) and a growth-oriented league income statement that has clear allocation of costs and revenues for the women’s league. In contrast to the European leagues, the A-League is a new(er) soccer league that has recently capitalized at the league level to grow both the men’s and women’s game.
The A-League’s leadership and shareholders undoubtedly felt a change firsthand at this year’s World Cup. I saw it with my own eyes, too. As I walked around Sydney in the days following the Matildas’ semifinal loss in their historic World Cup run, I saw so many pops of yellow out of the corner of my eye — people were still wearing their scarves. And as I overheard bits of conversation floating in the air, it wasn’t just Sam Kerr’s name on their lips, but Caitlin Foord’s, Steph Catley’s and Mary Fowler’s, too.
Australian women’s soccer has the potential to be a superior league internationally compared to the men, who are participating in a more mature global soccer market. What a missed opportunity it would be for Australia and New Zealand to not spin out an independent women’s league in the months or years following this World Cup.
New Zealand is seeing signs of shrinking demographics for its top national team, the All Blacks rugby team, with new enthusiasm moving over to soccer. New Zealand World Cup attendance for the first 10 World Cup matches far surpassed many All Blacks games of recent years and is on par with the last men’s rugby World Cup hosted by New Zealand in 2011.
Australia’s semifinal match against England averaged more than 7 million viewers and had nine out of 10 TVs in the country watching the game at one point. That’s a higher ratings share than the last Super Bowl. That is a big deal!
While the time difference to the rest of the world creates a challenge for “exporting games” internationally, the A-League Women could begin by focusing on an incredible in-person domestic market and build strong commercial partnerships with the U.S. and England over time.
Australian treasure Kerr started playing professionally in Perth at the age of 15. She then played for five years in the U.S. (New York and Chicago) and now plays for Chelsea. Kerr has a host of choices for where to play and has built a following in the biggest English-speaking leagues in the world. What would it take to lure Kerr back home?
Domestic leagues will lean into their unique superpowers to grow
In addition to the support of specific sports heroes, every team will have an opportunity to leverage or develop a specific “superpower” that is unique to their domestic market.
For example, European countries like England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy have centuries-old soccer fandom woven into the fabric of their cultures. European girls learn from watching the men play and hearing pundits analyze the sport every single week. Their soccer IQ is akin to a child learning a language at birth.
In the United States, we have the largest commercial market for professional sports, modern facilities and a 50-year lead on female player development due to Title IX. The U.S. is also hosting the Men’s World Cup in 2026, which could be a moment of culture shift and shock predictors much the way the Women’s World Cup did in Australia and New Zealand.
Australia has a women’s team that just went to the semifinals, the top striker in the world and is further along than most when it comes to gender equity. It is a sports-loving nation that can also move fast and prioritize its women above its men commercially.
Finally, countries like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have fanatic, endemic enthusiasm for the sport and can play a big role in both global academy development and perhaps strong domestic leagues over time with funding and thoughtful governance structures.
In sum, I know many are making predictions coming out of this World Cup. Many are excited to change systems. I also fear that many will feel overwhelmed looking at the mountain to climb. For each of us, it’s important to find joy in whatever we are trying to prove and double down on working with collaborators who give us energy.
When I share the Angel City story now, I want it to feel possible to anyone listening. I too felt the task of starting a team was daunting when Natalie Portman first put the idea in my head after the 2019 World Cup. Similarly, I felt that way when I considered starting a women’s sports fund with my partner, Jasmine Robinson. There were no other funds with similar strategy decks to review or even many female fund managers to whom I could ask my questions. The education hurdle was high for the investment community even six months ago.
Angel City was and is the case of valuing both history and a beginner’s mindset. We appreciated how much we had to learn, while testing assumptions that had been held for years around how to fund, how to create incentives for players, how to build a supporters group and team, how to build commercial revenue streams and how to start something that quickly turned into a movement with self-perpetuating energy. This is where Julie Uhrman, Angel City co-founder and president, came alive. This ethos is evident in our numbers, notably a supporters group that only overlaps 25% with our companion L.A. men’s team, $50 million-plus in committed sponsorships and regularly sold-out regular-season stadiums.
It’s a time to remember what brought us all to this sport. More than anything, this World Cup showed us that women’s soccer is here to surprise and delight us, both on and off the pitch. Each of us can show up with whatever we have to contribute — as an operator, investor or short-term fire-starter — knowing the future of women’s soccer is being built now. How often do any of us get a chance to play a role in building something global nearly from scratch? It’s time to dream. It’s time to execute. It’s time to play.