Angel City and the Wave: Setting the standard for NWSL fan bases

Much of Los Angeles was asleep at midnight on a seemingly ordinary Thursday in July of 2023. But two 33 Taps locations on opposite sides of town were bustling at a time when they would usually be closed. That was because masses of Angel City FC fans had flocked to the sports bar, hoping to see their favorite team’s captain, Ali Riley, in action.

Riley was not playing for Angel City or any team with ties to Los Angeles then, though. She was playing for her national team, New Zealand, in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Nonetheless, standing room was the only seating available before the game began, as the Angel City fans chanted Riley’s name nearly every time they glimpsed her on the screens.

Their support hardly faltered as they saw their captain and her country win their first World Cup game, beating Norway 1-0. The moment was special for Riley, not only because of the moment’s magnitude but because Angel City’s fans shared the moment with her from thousands of miles away.

“They’re so dedicated, and most of them are not New Zealanders,” Riley told ESPN. “For them to be that supportive, loving, and proud, and then for it to be such a special moment for me with the team, to know that I shared that moment with so many people from LA that I already felt connected to made it even more special.”

Such support is nothing new for Los Angeles’s NWSL team, as they have set the standard for fan bases in women’s soccer since starting play in 2022. Their rival, San Diego Wave FC, has also made similar gains.

In their first two years, Angel City and the Wave have been the top two teams in home attendance among NWSL clubs. Both sides average around 20,000 fans in attendance per match, offering an enticing product for fans.

Their support is showcasing what’s possible with fan turnout, as they have led the league in attendance (averaging 20,000 per game) during their first two years, helping the NWSL surpass an average of 10,000 fans per game in 2023. It’s also vital to note the example set by the Portland Thorns, who were close to such a total before Angel City and the Wave entered the league. In 2023, six teams surpassed an average of 10,000 fans, with Angel City and the Wave leading the way.

Angel City has six recognized independent supporter groups, filling “La Fortaleza,” the supporters section. The Wave have one, the San Diego Sirens, who also show up with numbers at Snapdragon Stadium. Such groups are the ones leading the matchday experience. However, the rest of their stadium sections offer experiences for all fans, whether they are looking for premium seats or more affordable options.

“We want every game to be accessible, but we want to value the product and the players appropriately,” said Angel City co-founder and president, Julie Uhrman. “You can come for $15. You can come for $1,000, but we want to make sure it is accessible to everyone.”

Such an experience is elevated because of the fan culture. Angel City and Wave followers do not gate-keep regardless of a supporter’s level of support. Many of their die-hard followers ensure that ordinary fans are included at prematch tailgates, among other festivities.

“We want as many people as possible to enjoy what we’re enjoying and to share that joy with us,” said Sirens vice president, Zakiya Khabir. “Even among our leadership, there aren’t a lot of strict rules about [what] you have to do; it’s what do you want to do? How can we make this better for you? How can we support you?”

The inclusive environment has led to packed and enthusiastic stands. The supporters are loud during matches as drums, nonstop chanting, and even flares fill La Fortaleza regularly. The section is also incredibly diverse, with people of many backgrounds packing the stands.

“It’s been wonderful to watch the amount of diversity that we have from not only age and location and ethnicity and travel time,” said Rebellion 99 supporter group president, Tory Lathrop. “It’s wild to see that a simple, kind of like, Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. That’s all we needed.”

Rebellion 99 is Angel City’s largest supporter group, with membership numbers in the hundreds. But each group contributes to the game day atmosphere through collective chants and brightly colored flares to liven the passion and performance in the stands. The Sirens are also enthusiastic, showing up to matches with flags, drums, and more. One aspect of their culture that many of their supporters are proud of is their camaraderie.

“It’s the togetherness that matters,” said Sirens president, Tali Lerner. “It’s being welcoming and seeing somebody lurking 20 feet away from you at a tailgate, and walking up to them and inviting them in. It’s shouting at somebody in the street that is wearing a Wave shirt. I’ve been to a lot of other sporting groups and stuff like that, but there’s something about what’s going on in San Diego right now that is special in this togetherness that we feel.”

The Sirens 2024 membership had over 250 sign-ups in the first three weeks.

It is not only the gameday atmosphere that is special; the clubs and supporters make significant efforts to engage and give back to their local communities. Angel City’s supporter groups organize many events and programs to give back. For example, Rebellion 99 is providing two $1,000 scholarships for LGBTQIA+ students in the great Los Angeles Area.

Supporters in Rebellion 99 are not required to volunteer. However, many of them choose to do so. Fundraising for community-based initiatives mostly comes from voluntary contributions, whereas yearly membership dues fund their events. For example, Rebellion 99 hosted a bonfire on Jan. 27, and some of the annual costs went towards purchasing smores, etc.

Other supporter groups also give back through school supply drives, fundraisers, and more. The Angel City Valkyries hosted a Black Women for Wellness (BWW) Fundraiser during the NWSL Challenge Cup. Fans pledged a dollar amount per goal during the tournament and the proceeds were given to BWW to support black women and girl’s well-being.

The Sirens have given back to their community through events such as beach clean ups, and are looking to expand their impact.

“I really want to see the Sirens grow in terms of what we advocate for or support… We can make real change and we can come together and be this huge force,” said Sirens public relations coordinator, Googie Puvvadi-Daniels.

Angel City also hosts many events and has delivered over 1,212,406 meals through its partnership with DoorDash, run 19 fellowship programs through Birdies (a women’s footwear company), coached 6,700 youth players, and more.

The Wave also engages in community service and is elevating its efforts under vice president of community relations, Shannon Mac Millan. The club is partnered with various organizations, and even head coach Casey Stoney has donated 1% of her salary toward “soccer for good” through the Common Goal movement.

The dedication to giving back is another reason fans root for the clubs. They can also volunteer alongside their favorite players, furthering their bond with the team.

“We want fans and supporters to come to the games and have a connection to the team,” Mac Millan said. “Not just be, ‘Oh, it’s my team. I should go support them.’ We want them to say, ‘Hey, I was out volunteering and doing meal service alongside some of the players and have gotten to know the front office; they’re out there rolling up their sleeves working alongside us.’ Because when you have that connection, it’s powerful, and then you build on that. They’re your biggest advocates out there.”

Such support is visible not only when the fan’s favorite team is in town, though. They regularly meet up for watch parties, such as the one to see Riley play in the World Cup. The Sirens and Wave also held multiple watch parties throughout the tournament.

Star talent playing in the World Cup and other top tournaments is another reason the clubs gained such strong support. The NWSL is also arguably one of the world’s top women’s soccer leagues, so each club has multiple international stars. Such players attracted numerous fans to the clubs’ matches, some of whom became dedicated supporters afterward. The Wave’s Alex Morgan and Angel City’s Christen Press are two names who boosted such efforts.

“Christen Press was the player that our community wanted. Angel City wouldn’t be what it is without having Christen Press be our first signing,” said Angel City’s head of community, Catherine Dávila. “That speaks to not just a focus on on-field performance because she’s exceptional on the field, but also the fact that genuinely, even in these decisions, we’re including community, and we’re taking into account, this is what they care about.”

The level of support Angel City and the Wave could serve as a guide (at least, partially) for other clubs. One example is Bay FC, an expansion club starting play in 2024. They want to build the club their way but have considered what Angel City and the Wave have created.

Bay FC is engaging their fan base in various ways, representing them in the product. Such an effort involves community events, connections with other Bay Area teams, and more. Relationships with locals is a major aspect of how Angel City grew their support.

Angel City hosted over 500 street team events from 2021 to 2023. Similarly, Bay FC held over 80 events to interact with their local community around the final six months of 2023.

Chief executive officer Brady Stewart said Bay FC wants to become a global brand. Building a prominent fanbase is a key part of becoming one.

“One of the things we’ve done as we’ve gotten ready for the season is we have gone out to other NWSL games to understand the fan experience and understand the on-field experience,” Stewart said. “What was really kind was Angel City hosted us multiple times at their games. They certainly have an absolutely incredible in-game experience. To get to spend time at their games, with their teams, just really soaking in the atmosphere and learning from what they’re doing so well down there in LA has been really helpful.”

Others have also considered what the Southern California teams have done. North Carolina Courage president, Francie Gottsegen, said the club is working to continue building its support. However, being an existing club, stadium limitations and more make the Angel City and Wave guide less possible to follow.

Nonetheless, the Courage added to their game-day experience in 2023 by hosting a fan fest and more. They are also in talks with local officials regarding “significant improvements” to their stadium and the possibility of a new arena. Their current home, WakeMed Soccer Park, has a maximum capacity of 10,000 fans.

Courage’s supporters, the Uproar, also consider what Angel City and the Wave have done. Some of their members attended an Angel City match in 2023 and appreciated the atmosphere.

“We’ve had members of our leadership go out there (Los Angeles) and experience matches,” said Uproar board member, Jennifer Longee. “They definitely have more people willing to come out and drum, which, the more noise you make, the better. We are always looking for more people to come and do chanting with us.”

NWSL attendance is snowballing, some of which is due to Thorns, Angel City and the Wave’s efforts, as well as the growing culture around the sport across the league. Higher attendance usually indicates increased interest, enticing potential fans, sponsors, and more, and while each market is different, some pieces from their journey could be helpful to existing and expansion clubs. Nonetheless, what these clubs have done is hard to ignore, and it is setting the standard for other teams.