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Journalismism

The Era Of Lady Boss Sports Team Owners Is Upon Us

Chicago Red Stars celebrate during 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty

If you’re a feminism-curious celebrity or an affluent woman athlete, you might soon be an anomaly for not owning some stake in a professional women’s sports team. A new, much-lauded wave of women-fronted investment groups promises to diversify the stuffy ranks of sports ownership through “investment” in young women’s futures, a historically undervalued market. Missing from the celebration is any scrutiny of what it actually means to join the ownership class.

In October, the newly formed Los Angeles NWSL club, Angel City FC, announced that a flock of famous people (Billie Jean King, Ilana Kloss, Candace Parker, Lindsey Vonn, PK Subban) would be joining an initial flock of famous people (Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy, Serena Williams, Alexis Ohanian, Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner, Uzo Aduba, and Serena Williams’s three-year-old daughter) as club owners, which Billie Jean King said sent “a strong message to young girls in the community and beyond.” World No. 1 Naomi Osaka described her own investment in the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage in January as “far beyond just being a team owner, it’s an investment in amazing women who are role models and leaders in their fields and inspirations to all young female athletes.” The Washington Spirit, meanwhile, united new investors Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager together in some thrilling, bipartisan meeting of the wallets.

That’s how this news is usually framed, anyway: Team ownership represents a kind of solidarity with women athletes. Where we might chuckle at the idea of, say, purchasing the Utah Jazz as a nod to the inspirational power of Donovan Mitchell, here we’re meant to swoon. The framing doesn’t exactly stand up, though. If the last five years in women’s sports are notable for athletes’ high-profile battles to make demands of their leagues—for better salaries, fairer revenue splits, benefits like maternity leave and family planning allowances—it’s worth remembering who their opponents were. Ownership necessarily involves being on the other side of the bargaining table. 

So does it matter if women are on the other side? In any case, it certainly looks better. The best person to answer the question might be former Atlanta Dream player Renee Montgomery, who announced last week that she was one of three people purchasing her old WNBA team from vanquished senator and erstwhile lady boss owner Kelly Loeffler. In sports media, Montgomery’s membership in the ownership group was a kind of triumphant coda to the team’s season-long campaign against Loeffler. The attention to Montgomery, though, helped obscure the man putting up most of the money in the deal: the Dream’s new majority owner Larry Gottesdiener, a businessman the Hartford Business Journal called “Hartford’s most prolific landlord.”

Anonymous tycoons recruiting well-liked celebrities to their ownership bids is hardly a new practice in sports. (You’ll recall a prospective Mets group headlined by the A-Rod/J-Lo power couple, or Jay-Z’s public association with the Brooklyn Nets, despite his owning .067 percent of the team.) But the recent movement of these groups into women’s sports only accelerates a confused notion of ownership, one drained of its inherent antagonism. A diverse celebrity investment group can’t change the fact that ownership that doesn’t include labor—the athletes actually providing the value—can’t be an ethical one. 

Take yesterday’s news that the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars’ expanded ownership group includes Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield and ESPN personality Sarah Spain. Spain wrote in her announcement blurb that she hoped “to inspire more ownership rooms across both men’s and women’s professional sports to better reflect the diversity within their team’s ranks.” (For what it’s worth, the team’s founding owners, three white men, retained their majority stake.)

Spain’s investment in the Red Stars is especially wrinkly given that she works for the Worldwide Leader. While ESPN has more or less given up on bothering to adhere to any semblance of ethical norms, the company allowing its employee to actually own a stake in a professional sports team says less about its ethics, perhaps, than about ESPN’s low regard for women’s soccer. In ESPN’s calculus, the NWSL isn’t an entity worthy of journalistic judgment or distance; it’s a kind of feel-good hobby, as if Spain had joined the board of a local food bank. In fact, while ESPN covered as news—or at least syndicated wire reports about—Montgomery acquiring an ownership stake in the Atlanta Dream, both of Angel City FC’s ownership group announcements, Osaka becoming an owner of NC Courage, and the Washington Spirit’s aisle-reaching investment group, the news of the Red Stars’ new ownership group wasn’t covered at all anywhere on the site. This could have been a simple oversight or it could signal that ESPN recognizes the conflict of interest inherent in its employee owning a sports team it covers and is therefore trying to avoid it. It could also suggest that expanded ownership of the Chicago Red Stars just doesn’t rise to the level of news ESPN cares about enough to cover. Of course, it’s more than possible it’s some sort of combination of the three.

Rarely does such inattention serve the athletes these new owners say they’d like to elevate. Women’s sports are often the site of player mistreatment and mismanagement, in some part because would-be watchdogs are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. In 2018, for example, players for the NWSL’s Sky Blue described dismal playing conditions and inadequate facilities; in one more vivid anecdote, Olympian Carli Lloyd had been forced to take a post-match ice bath in a trash can. Though the NWSL does have a players union, there is no collective bargaining agreement with the league, meaning that players have to be happy with whatever the league wants to pay them; last year that was $50,000 in maximum salary per non-allocation player. If the time comes for the NWSL to negotiate a CBA, will these new team owners still be public advocates for the inspiring female role models on their teams, for supporting these amazing women leaders with, say, higher salaries and better facilities? Or will it then be time to assume the role of owner? It’s not just the NWSL facing these pressures. WNBA players have talked about the toll the league’s travel conditions take on their bodies and NWHL players have spoken about their paltry pay. All of these cases suggest a divide within the world of women’s sports, which would be better understood as a site for issues of equity and workers’ rights to be waged, rather than as a good cause itself. 

ESPN did not respond to a request seeking comment. Sarah Spain said she could not comment without clearing it with ESPN first. She did write on Twitter that “of course I will always disclose my role with the Red Stars when discussing the team and the NWSL.” In a press conference, she described this to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald as “the coolest disclosure possible.”

If anyone can gracefully navigate this rather obvious conflict in real time, it’s a veteran TV personality like Spain. How the new role will color her commentary is a little trickier; presumably owning a team will change the way one thinks about power dynamics in the league. And whereas former athletes-cum-ESPN analysts are transparently and primarily opining from their experiences as former players, will an ESPN journalist-cum-team owner approach sports punditry from the point of view of an owner? 

The ostensible job of a sports journalist is to ask questions of and challenge sports leagues and figures. That requisite tension shouldn’t disappear when the leagues have lofty missions. These lofty missions also won’t magically erase the inherent opposition between team owners and players, and it’s a safe bet that that tension won’t disappear just because there’s some new faces in the front office.