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Alexi Lalas and Stu Holden – bold, opinionated but never just 'fine'



Alexi Lalas and Stu Holden – bold, opinionated but never just 'fine'

“I’ve worked with Alexi for 10 years,” says Stu Holden, Fox Sports analyst and former United States men’s national team midfielder. “He’s one of the first people that I am asked about. They say: ‘What’s that guy like off-camera?’.”

It is a thought many may share while watching Alexi Lalas, the formerly goatee-bearded U.S. central defender who rose to prominence at the 1994 World Cup, now best known for his tinderbox contributions on American soccer television.

He comes with a significant soccer pedigree, recording almost a century of caps for his country and playing in Italy’s Serie A and Major League Soccer. A signpost of his influencer status came in 2021 when the world governing body, FIFA, undertook a feasibility study as part of a failed attempt to introduce a biennial World Cup. Lalas was invited along to a seminar hosted by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as part of a cohort that included Brazilians Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, former Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and Australia’s Tim Cahill.

On U.S. television, Lalas, 54, a studio analyst for Fox during the European Championship and Copa America this summer, is bold and direct in his opinions. This week, he has already compared the England national team to the Dallas Cowboys, saying the English are as “insufferable as they are talented”.


And over 40 minutes in a Manhattan coffee shop, he is no different. Topics cut across the future of Gregg Berhalter as coach of the U.S. men’s national team (“We’re letting the players off the hook”, he insists), or his “video game” approach to social media. This is a dose of pure, undiluted Lalas. Sitting beside him, ordering a piccolo coffee (“Don’t encourage him,” Lalas says, when I ask what a piccolo involves), is the more reserved Holden, 38, who also packs a punch in his analysis.

I tell Lalas that some people took a deep breath when I mentioned I was due to interview him. He smiles. First and foremost, Lalas says he sees his studio role as “hopefully having an interesting and informative take, and doing it in an entertaining way”.

He stirs. “But I’m in the entertainment business. I am a performer. When you say that, sometimes people cringe. By no means am I saying that I can’t be authentic and genuine. But I recognise the way I say something is as important as what I say.

“When I go on TV, I put on a costume and when that red light goes on, I don’t want people changing the channel. I don’t care if you like me or you don’t. I am as human as I possibly can be with the recognition that, on television, things have to be bigger and bolder.”

Holden interjects: “He’s one of my good friends. People ask me: ‘Does he believe everything he says?’. And I say, ‘We have the same conversations at the bar that we have on air’.


“I’ve learned from Alexi that you have to be interesting in this business to have longevity. Whether that’s the role that he plays, still authentic to who he is and the opinions he carries — but maybe a little bit of juice on there to fire it up — you never want to be in between. You never want to be in the middle of it, where people are just like, ‘Ah, that guy’s fine’. So be on one side, be bold, don’t care about opinions, but be authentic to who you are. And that’s who he is — on and off camera.”

Holden made 25 appearances for the USMNT but a career that included Premier League spells at Sunderland and Bolton Wanderers was cruelly cut short by injury. He and Lalas apply diligence to their output, often meeting with coaches, players or front-office staff the day before the match to explain to viewers what the team is seeking to achieve.

Lalas on the US team at 1994 home World Cup (Photo: Michael Kunkel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

As time passes, they are more distant from a modern locker room but Holden says it’s important “to take people inside the tent”.

“It’s not as common in England,” he adds, “but it is ingrained in American sports television where they will go to NFL practice, sit with the coaches, get exclusive breakdowns of play. Europeans have a hard time understanding this when they come here. Patrick Vieira (when he was manager of New York City FC) didn’t want to meet with us. Frank de Boer (at Atlanta United), too. Often the European or South American coaches are like, ‘Why are you guys in here?’.”


They believe that being that little bit detached, in terms of age, allows them to come down harder, when appropriate, on those they analyse. I suggest that many within the sports industry police themselves carefully when on television or radio these days, cautious about a public backlash.

“Life’s too short and f*** them,” Lalas says, bluntly.


“Ultimately, I’m talking about soccer. I know we get incredibly passionate and emotional about these things — something I love about sports. I try to be honest and sometimes it comes off in different ways and people perceive it differently. It’s one thing over a keyboard but it’s a very different type of interaction in normal life. There are people that come up to me who disagree with me but we have a cordial, civil and respectful conversation, even if we vehemently disagree about things on and off the soccer field.”

His on-screen character, he says, takes inspiration beyond sports broadcasting. “It is an element of a shock jock, an element of political commentary, an element of late-night television host. And then when it came to actual sports, I grew up in the ESPN age where the hot take was happening, but then I also like Gary Lineker (the former England international striker and long-time presenter of the BBC’s football coverage in the UK).

“The way he talks about things, you almost forget that he was a player — and not just a player, but a f***ing great player. When I hear him talk about the game and life, even if I agree or disagree with the way he does it, it makes me forget that he was once this great player because it’s interesting, informative and entertaining in the way he does it. And so I have a lot of respect for what he’s carved out.”

Lineker and Lalas share another thing in common, in that both men appear to be in a love-hate relationship with social media. Lineker’s show Match of the Day, the BBC’s Premier League highlights programme, was plunged into crisis last year after the corporation took a dim view of his political commentary on Twitter, now known as X.

If Lineker is on the centre-left, Lalas appears to be a political antidote, recently announcing on Twitter that he will be attending the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee. Like Lineker, he seems unable to resist being sucked into the vortex of culture war politics. He shared posts recently that appear sympathetic to Donald Trump and is in regular playful combat with his social media detractors. Yet he has already said that he places so much more value on in-person interactions. So why bother with X?

“I’m sure there’s an element of addiction that I will cop to,” he acknowledges. “It’s just the world in which we live. There is an element of ego. But I’m also under no delusions that I’m not solving the world’s problems. Nobody gives a s*** what the hell I have to say about most of this stuff. First off, Twitter is an information machine.”


But it can also be a misinformation machine.

“At times,” he laughs. “It depends on who you ask or where you look. I look at it almost as a video game that I play.

“There’s an element of poking the bear and being provocative that I enjoy. When it comes to things off the field, like politics, there is a cathartic release to being honest, especially in this day and age. There was a time we were all so bold. And now we live at times, unfortunately, in fear of the real backlash that can come from just saying something people disagree with. Whether it’s politics or sports, I don’t want to live in a world like that. Maybe this is just the way I retaliate.

“I’m not saying that it’s smart or prudent, especially if it can be alienating to people. When it comes to separating the sports and the personal, sometimes they blur and sometimes they infect or affect the other side. But I will only live once and I’d rather just be as honest as I possibly can, regardless of whether anybody listens or cares.”

During this summer’s Copa America, with the USMNT looking for signs of substantial progress under Berhalter, Lalas will be as direct as ever. Holden, too, makes clear the expectations.


How to follow Euro 2024 and Copa America on The Athletic

“Passing the group stage is not negotiable,” Holden insists. “If we don’t get out of a group containing Panama and Bolivia, then what are we doing? That becomes the time to make a change.”

Lalas cuts in: “Is it untenable? Maybe from the outside and how we look at it. But ultimately it’s (U.S. Soccer’s technical director) Matt Crocker who will make that decision. And he had the opportunity (Berhalter was reappointed as USMNT coach in June 2023).

“Nobody would have begrudged cleaning house and getting rid of everybody. And yet he (Crocker) didn’t. So something really bad has to happen for U.S. Soccer to make a change.

“But there are a lot of people sitting with their arms folded saying, ‘All right, Gregg, you got a long leash, you got a second opportunity, we need to see something different, we need to see something that makes us believe that come the World Cup 2026, there’s the possibility for the first time ever, that a U.S. men’s national team could win a World Cup.’ And we haven’t had those moments. He needs a statement type of game and statement type of summer to mollify some of that.”


Holden points out the USMNT, who exited the last World Cup in the round of 16 against the Netherlands, had the second-youngest team in Qatar and cites the draw against England, where he says the USMNT went “toe-to-toe”, as evidence of what might be possible.

Lalas says: “We’re letting the players off the hook a bit when we constantly talk about the coach. They have been given every benefit, every resource. Nothing has been spared from an early age. It is fair for us to expect more out of them individually and collectively. They’re no longer teenagers. Some of them play for the best teams and in the best leagues in the world. It’s time to put up or shut up.

“We put a lot of emphasis on coaching — and I’m not saying they can’t have an effect — but this is a players’ game. When that whistle blows, you get to decide what happens and the onus is on you. And if you want it, that’s great. If you don’t, then don’t blame the coach.”

Holden grins: “If the U.S. wins the Copa America, it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done as a soccer nation on the men’s side — hands down.”

(Top image: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)



Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning



Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning

The telling bit in the video of Enzo Fernandez and other Argentinian players singing a racist song about France following their victory in the Copa America final is the voice you can hear just at the end.

“Corta (el) vivo,” someone says — “stop the live stream.”

They know. They know what they’re saying. They know that what they’re saying is profoundly offensive, and they know what will happen if the outside world hears it.

This isn’t one of those things that can be equivocated. It’s not something that can be denied. The words are clear, and we know the words because it’s a song that has been around for a couple of years.

The words to the chant were: “They play for France, but their parents are from Angola. Their mother is from Cameroon, while their father is from Nigeria. But their passport says French.”


The song in question came from a group of Argentina fans before the 2022 World Cup final, which was flagged at the time by French anti-racist protestors as an “expression of a far-right ideology”.


French Federation filing complaint over ‘unacceptable racist’ chants by Argentina players

Frankly it’s bad enough that Argentina, presumably insulated from a PR perspective by their victory at the World Cup, didn’t seek to distance themselves more from the song, but the fact the players seem to have incorporated it into their celebrations is so much worse. If nothing else, it speaks to an unpleasant collective mentality and pervading culture that a group of players, at a moment of triumph, would choose this song as part of their celebrations.

It’s also worth noting, without wishing to detract from the blatant racism, the transphobia that is at play here too. The full lyrics of the song make reference to French players being “cometravas, like Mbappe.” “Cometravas” is a slang term that essentially translates as “someone who has sex with transgender people”.

Football in general has made positive steps to make the game more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. Players who actively choose not to participate in anti-homophobia campaigns are thankfully few and far between, and those that do are often punished — like Monaco midfielder Mohamed Camara who, after covering up an anti-homophobia message on his shirt last season, was suspended for four games.


Things like this song, however, do not help and in fact actively harm the effort to make football a more inclusive place.

But if the song itself and the gleeful willingness of the players involved to sing it was not depressing enough, the aftermath has been almost as bad.

Fernandez himself issued an apology of sorts, claiming that he got “caught up in the euphoria of our Copa America celebrations” and the song did not “reflect my character or beliefs”. He also said, rather laughably, that “I stand against discrimination in all forms”. Let’s just say that when he is inevitably forced to participate in some sort of anti-racism campaign in the weeks or months to come, his words will ring hollow.

Chelsea themselves reacted in fairly responsible fashion, putting out a statement that set out their own position and values, saying they will use this as “an opportunity to educate” and that they have started an internal disciplinary procedure.

It will be interesting to see what comes of that process, given that if Fernandez was a fan and was caught singing that song in the stands at Stamford Bridge, he would be looking at the ugly end of a fairly lengthy stadium ban.


Beyond that though, things have been very quiet.

Wesley Fofana, the French Chelsea defender, called it “uninhibited racism”. David Datro Fofana, the club’s Ivory Coast striker, put a statement on Instagram saying that “racism in all its forms should be condemned in the strongest possible terms” and that the fight against racism “needs to be taken seriously by everyone involved in the sport”.

David Datro Fofana has also condemned the incident (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

It’s the last bit that feels the most pertinent. Because aside from those two responses, plus a picture posted by Nicolas Jackson of Fernandez hugging a black child, the meaning of which is open to interpretation, there’s not been much else.

Only black players have acknowledged the incident publicly so far. No white players have condemned the song. Perhaps some of Fofana’s white team-mates have offered private support, but as things stand there has been nothing beyond that.

As will be depressingly familiar, it is the black players that have been left to do the emotional work, to carry the mental baggage of having to deal with a racist incident. It enforces the idea that racism is a problem only for black people, when it’s a blight that shames us all. It isolates the black players, suggesting that it’s not something that anyone else has to worry about.


Imagine the power that would come from a white player standing up, unprompted, and condemning the song. It would provide a valuable symbol, but it would be more than just a surface-level thing. It would have genuine import.

The clubs of the other players in the video have, at the time of writing, decided not to comment. It is, in fairness, a little tricky to definitively identify exactly who is singing in the video, but everyone seems to be trying their best to ignore the issue entirely.

Perhaps we could give them the benefit of the doubt and say that, in time, they will speak to their Argentinian players and remind them of their responsibilities — not as footballers or representatives of a club, but as human beings. But at the moment it would seem that they are just hoping the whole thing goes away.

Even if it is tough to identify the individuals doing the singing, anyone who sat in silence while such a racist song was being sung probably could do with at least a talking-to. Surely the least we can expect from the clubs is for them to acknowledge the incident, that they will investigate and if it is found that any of their players were involved, they would face the appropriate punishment.

Chelsea are the only club to have said anything so far, not that we should necessarily be handing out extra credit for that: after all, they couldn’t possibly have avoided it.


Elsewhere though, crickets. For all the glossy campaigns and well-intentioned initiatives and solemnly shot ‘No to racism’ UEFA videos, when so much of the game is silent at moments like this, the idea that football is serious about combating racism is very hard to take seriously.

(Header photo: Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy



From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy

Follow live coverage of day one at The Open 2024 from Royal Troon today

HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland — About 3,000 miles from here, Rory McIlroy walked along Manhattan’s West Side five weeks ago; shoulders pushed up, head slung down, earbuds in. He strolled the High Line, a repurposed freight rail running from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street. The 1.5-mile footpath towers 30 feet over 11th Avenue, above the fray, but through the noise of America’s busiest city.

That’s where McIlroy went to get away from it all.

He needed to process the latest close call in a career coming to be defined by them. This one? Especially cruel. Pinehurst. Three bogeys in the final four holes. Those missed putts. Two feet and 11 inches on the 16th. Three feet and nine inches on the 18th. A solo runner-up finish at the U.S. Open. Again.

McIlroy wanted the blur of a big city, where everything is fast, faceless. It’s what he prefers nowadays. He walked alone, hidden under the brim of a baseball cap, then dipped into Milos, a world-class Mediterranean restaurant in Hudson Yards. He elbowed up at a bar seat, checked his phone and opened a text message from a close friend.


That message? It asked if he’d just been walking the High Line. Apparently, McIlroy had been spotted. Word got around.

“It’s hard to get any sort of privacy these days,” he says. “But it’s nice to try to blend in as much as possible.”

Ages ago, McIlroy found solace along the narrow streets of Holywood, this small town where the butcher knows the baker, and the bartender knows the banker, and the bookmakers know the bookkeepers. They all live here, tucked between Belfast and Bangor, along the shoreline of Belfast Lough, the inlet connecting this section of Northern Ireland to the Irish Sea. A little more than 10,000 people. Solidly middle-class. Wealth around the edges. A mix of Protestant and Catholic. They’re abundantly proud to have raised generations of kids well isolated from the religious tensions that long defined the region.

As one local puts it: “A lovely little town. Everybody has grown up with everybody.”

Holywood was the early proxy used to explain Rory to the world upon his arrival in 2008 as a potential superstar. Sportswriters and broadcasters traveled here like pilgrims. More and more from his breakout U.S. Open win in 2011 to his thunderclap in 2014 — winning his third and fourth majors in succession at age 25.


The visitors drove rental cars down High Street. They squeezed into parking spaces and popped into one business after another. Holywood’s main strip is dotted by coffee shops, cafes and retail shops. You can’t read a story from back then without a mention of Skinners Bakery, where owner Valerie Baker designed biscuits and buns with Young Rory’s face. In 2014, after McIlroy’s win at the PGA Championship, she told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s become something of a tradition now. This is the fourth time we’ve baked our special Rory biscuits. They always sell out.”

Next door to Skinners is Orrs Butchers. That’s where writers found Stephen Moore. He’d say how much the town was buzzing. How Rory put little Holywood on the map. How he was going to win the next major, and then the next one after that.

Inevitably, the visitors would head up the hill, deeper into town, to Holywood Golf Club. Where Rory learned the game. Where local liquor laws were winked at as family and friends watched final rounds of major tournaments long after last call. Where television cameras broadcast them cheering their boy, Rory. He would win, return to town with a trophy, and everyone would be together again.

Today, things are different, but Holywood remains.

It’s a Friday afternoon and Paul the barman is looking for the key again.


Two Americans are coming off the 18th hole and want their turn. Rory’s Corner, a mini custom-built McIlroy museum in the middle of Holywood GC’s clubhouse, is open to the public. The walls are covered. Pictures of a 15-year-old with big freckles and bigger hair. Framed newspapers of long ago wins. Plaques. Memorabilia.

So for the umpteenth time today, the trophy case is opened, and replicas of the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy are handed over. Big smiles. Pictures snapped.

Later, two Aussies will come in to do the same. Paul will fetch the keys, take them to the trophy case, pop it open again.

Shortly after that, near sunset, a sightseeing bus from a docked cruise ship will climb the hills of Holywood, turn down Demesne Road, and pull onto Nun’s Walk, the tiny road leading up to the clubhouse. The Home of Rory McIlroy is a stop on the tour.

“All day, every day, seven days a week,” says Stephen Tullin, president of Holywood Golf Club.


You can make a reasonable case no club is so associated with a player it produced as Holywood is with Rory. Arnold Palmer and Latrobe Country Club? Jack Nicklaus and Scioto? It’s a short list.

“I don’t know what course Tiger Woods was involved with as a lad,” says Tony Denvir, a Holywood GC member. “But everyone knows Rory McIlroy was, and is, a member of Holywood Golf Club.”

The reason, it seems, is the fairy tale, one told so many times. Born in 1989 to Gerry and Rosie McIlroy, Rory McIlroy was immediately a prodigy. His parents worked multiple jobs, trading night and day shifts, assuring the boy every opportunity. Gerry, a fine player in Belfast’s amateur golf leagues, taught his son the game and let him loose at Holywood. He was so good, so soon, the club made him a member at age 7. Rory left high school at 16 to focus on a game that grew larger than life. The result was a young lad coming from a working man’s club to conquer the world.

“Nobody was ready for what happened,” says Barry Dobbin.

Now 78, Dobbin still seems to be wrapping his head around it all. A lifetime ago, he owned a timber-frame housing kit company and employed Gerry as an insulation installer. He, Gerry, and Gerry’s father, Jimmy (Rory’s grandfather), played golf together. Dobbin drove Gerry and Rosie to their 1988 wedding, then to the reception at Pips International, the best-known nightclub in Belfast.


He remembers Rory as a baby.

And he remembers that baby suddenly becoming the biggest story in the golfing world.

“It all happened so quickly,” Dobbin says. “And suddenly we were this magic place.”

The waves of tourists that come through today want exactly that. A piece of magic. Americans, Canadians, Swiss, French, Japanese. They fork over greens fees to play what amounts to a simple, short, 120-year-old parkland course. They ask to hear all the stories. They take pictures of the sign in front of Rory’s reserved parking spot.

On this day, a nondescript sedan is parked there.


“Oh, that’s Paul’s,” Denvir says.

The sound on the 18th green at Pinehurst last month was guttural. A gasping, shrieking, sighing, moaning anguish. The thousands of fans surrounding the final hole of the 2024 U.S. Open couldn’t believe McIlroy missed that putt. At the same time, they absolutely could believe it. They’ve seen it before. That’s how a major tournament winless streak goes from 36 to 37.

In Holywood? All was quiet that night.

“Back in the day, Rory in contention at a U.S. Open, this place would’ve been jam-packed for that,” Denvir says. “Bar would’ve been full. Overflow seating in the other room. Would’ve been fantastic craic.”

That was back when the bar stayed open late and the cameras came out. BBC, Sky Sports. Maybe ESPN. Photographers snapping away.


“That’s died off a wee bit,” Denvir says.

Instead, everyone watched the misadventures of Pinehurst from home.

Blank faces in front of the flickering screens.

“Pinehurst was … ” Denvir says, lifting his hands and dropping them. “You really could tell that the wee lad just wanted to stand there and cry. He was obviously heartbroken. It was so hard to watch.”

Sitting on a deck perched over Holywood’s 18th green, Denvir looks over at Tullin, who has known McIlroy’s family for 50-some-odd years. Tullin remembers watching Rory play junior competitions when the bag was taller than the boy, when he’d step to the tee and the whispers would begin. “Who’s this now? Oh, that’s Rory McIlroy.”


“We were heartbroken as well, yeah?” Tullin says, looking back at Denvir.

“Absolutely. Just stunned,” Denvir says, pausing, thinking, “Ten years now, since he’s won a major? Ten. Just incredible.”

“It is incredible.”

“2014, yeah? That’s just…“

“Crazy, isn’t it?”


These are the conversations that have replaced the parties at Holywood Golf Club. The lover’s lament, so to speak. It’s impossible to change the topic when there’s only one topic. So pints are poured and Rory is discussed. The keening of near-misses or summoning of old times. Eventually, inevitably, his face pops up on the TV screen and everyone stops.

The whole town is subscribed.

“Hi, I’m wondering if Stephen Moore is here?”

“Ah, s—,” the old man says, eyes pressed closed, hands atop the cold metal of a butcher’s display, “what’ve I done now?”

Meet the most popular man in Holywood. Moore was born here in 1965, took a job at Orrs at age 15, bought the shop years later, continued working, sold it a few years ago, and now shows up each Saturday, pulling on an apron, mainly so he can still see everyone, and so they can see him. Moore can not go more than two minutes without being interru…


“Hi, Tommy!” he hollers.
“You good?”
“I’m fine.”
“Good man.”

Moore was interviewed by the likes of ESPN and the Washington Post back in 2011, when Rory was on the rocket and the Open Championship was on its way to Royal Portrush, only 60 miles from Holywood.

“It was a phenomenon,” he remembers.

Moore went to school with Brian McIlroy, the youngest of Rory’s uncles, and worked at Orrs alongside Eva McIlroy, Rory’s grandmother. She drove a Volkswagen Beetle, but couldn’t park it. So she’d arrive at work, leave the VW in the middle of the street, and tell Young Stephen to go park it. Later, Moore’s sister married Colm McIlroy, another of Rory’s uncles.

Today, all the McIlroys still live in Holywood. Colm runs a pressure-washing business and plays golf out of HGC. Gerry and Rosie split time between Northern Ireland and the United States. When they’re in town, Gerry can be found each morning on the 4-mile stretch of beach from Seahill to Holywood. He likes to walk alone, Moore says.


“Down to earth, solid people,” he adds, waving to a passerby.

“Heyyy, Sam.”
“Hello, Stephen!”
“You get that thing sorted?”
“I did, I did.”
“Good, good. Cheers.”

Moore remembers both childhood Rory bouncing down High Street as a kid and, only a few years later, a freshly famous Rory drawing crowds and newspaper photographers when stopping for coffee. He couldn’t imagine such attention.

“Hi, Stephen!” a passing woman says.
“Hi, Annie! Go sit in your garden and enjoy this weather, would ya!”

Moore watched the U.S. Open at his house. A few mates. A few beers. They thought it was over as Rory teed off on 15. The boys damn near began celebrating.


“Two silly putts,” he says. “Everyone was heartbroken.”

It’s odd, like storms in one sea changing the currents upon another shore. Even though he’s not there — and hasn’t been here in at least a year or two — as Rory goes, so goes the Holywood. There’s the buildup to each major, that this will be the one. Then the letdown. McIlroy has 11 top-five finishes in the 37 majors since his last win, including three second-place finishes in the last three years. It didn’t seem like anything could be more wrenching than the near-miss at St. Andrews in 2022, but Pinehurst was somehow worse.

So here sits Holywood, waiting for time to change.

“I think it’d just be a relief, to tell you the truth — to just see ‘em get it off his back,” Moore says. “I think he’s just trying too hard sometimes. Who can blame ’em? He’s won loads of championships, but this major thing is just following him around.”

At The Maypole, a pub in Holywood’s town center, you’ll find things can begin to feel odd after 10 or 15 minutes. Then it hits you — the bar is full, but also quiet. Everyone is talking, but not shouting. No music is playing. No TV is on. A sign by the door reads: “In the interest of good conversation and serious drinking, please refrain from using mobile phones.”


This place is a free competition of ideas, and when it comes to Rory, everyone has an opinion.

One local philosopher, eyebrows raised toward the ceiling, slows his brogue to say McIlroy needs to stop speaking to the media and only worry about playing golf.

Others have their own varying thoughts, namely, the man is worth multiple hundreds of millions, so, yeah, it’s tough to feel too bad. “Poor Rory?” one said. “I don’t think so.”

But even those cynics want to see McIlroy win again, if only for a change of conversation.

Plenty in town are suspicious of an out-of-towner. Antennae are up, assuming questions about golf will lead to questions about Rory’s personal life, one month after he withdrew his petition to divorce wife Erica Stoll after a seven-year marriage. Seeing a notebook, plenty in Holywood kindly scooted away.


The instinct, of course, is to protect.

He is theirs, not ours.

Rory McIlroy’s major tournament winless streak extended to 37 at the 2024 U.S. Open.  (Luke Walker / Getty Images)

Walking off the 18th green at Royal Troon on Monday, 21-year-old Tom McKibbin folded his arms, thinking about home. He grew up in Newtownabbey, across the Belfast Lough, about 12 miles from Holywood. Growing up, he spent his days playing on Rory’s old course, training in facilities installed by Rory and, after developing into an elite talent, answering constant questions about being The Next Rory.

McKibbin turned professional in April 2021 at age 18, just as Rory did. This year, he won the European Open in Germany — his first tournament championship on the DP World Tour. Cameras returned to Holywood to capture members’ reactions.

This week, McKibbin is appearing in his first Open Championship. He says he feels comfortable. A top-40 finish in last month’s U.S. Open — his first career major — was reassuring. Plus, he’s getting older and is out on his own more. While McKibbin lives at home with his parents in the summer, he now spends part of the calendar in Dubai and is eying an eventual move to the States — “hopefully someday soon.”


On a recent return trip home, he got a glimpse of how such success changes things.

“Suddenly a lot more people know you at home,” McKibbin says. “I guess that’s sort of what you sign up for.”

McKibbin is a product of what McIlroy means to Holywood. There’s been charitable work — both seen and unseen. There’s been loads of money made off his draw to the town. According to those at the club, he helped keep the place afloat during COVID-19 and single-handedly put €800,000 into clubhouse renovations. He pumped financing into an expanded junior program, thinking that, if every kid in the area wants to be Rory McIlroy, they should be able to practice where he played.

Part of the clubhouse renovations Rory paid for included the installation of a modern gym, one for him to use when in town, whenever he visits the massive property he owns. Though it’s been awhile, he’s been known to show up at the club in shorts and T-shirt, wearing earbuds, to get in a workout. “He’s totally normal when he’s here,” Tullin says. “Like he just wants to be normal.”

But that’s the hard part. The longer he’s gone, the harder it is to be normal.


“When you go home seldomly, it’s almost like you’re more of a novelty,” McIlroy said last week. “It’s sort of counterintuitive.”

Perhaps there needs to be a reason for a proper reunion.

And perhaps this could be it.

Stephen Moore says he played a round at Holywood with Colm McIlroy the day after the U.S. Open. The two smacked shots and recounted that impossible ending at Pinehurst. According to Stephen, Colm decided to fire off a text message to Rory. Something like, “Well, nephew, get ‘em the next time.”

The phone dinged back. Rory replied that the loss only made him more determined to win at Troon.


Wouldn’t that be something? After all this time? As of now, the plan is for the bar at Holywood Golf Club to stay open on Sunday. Maybe this is the one.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Brian Lawless /PA Images, Luke Walker, Saype / Belfast Photo Festival)

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How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'



How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'

On Wednesday, Angel City FC became “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world” after the club entered into a definitive agreement for Willow Bay and Bob Iger to become the new controlling owners.

The team’s board of directors unanimously approved the sale via a vote, but it still must be approved by the NWSL, the sport’s top women’s league in the United States. The sale is expected to close in the next 30 to 60 days.

Bay, dean of the Los Angeles-based USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, have acquired the controlling stake of the club at a total valuation of $250million (£192m), and have committed to an additional $50m in investment. Bay will serve as the club’s primary representative on the NWSL board of governors and also serve on and control Angel City’s board.

“We are so excited to be here,” Bay told The Athletic before the announcement. “I keep thinking how historic this moment is — historic in sports and in women’s sports. What we’re seeing now is breathtaking, and it’s only the beginning of the ascent, and that’s for women’s sports but particularly for this team.”

The dollar figures attached to the sale will make history.


According to Angel City’s official press release, the $250million enterprise valuation makes it “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world”. While there’s no official list, a $250m valuation outstrips the most valuable team in women’s basketball’s WNBA (the Las Vegas Aces at $140m, per Sportico, earlier this year) and the Women’s Super League in England (Chelsea has explored the sale of a minority stake in its women’s team with a total valuation around $200m).

Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, recently visited Angel City’s practice facility to highlight the efforts of Kamala Harris, the U.S. vice president, to promote gender equality. He called the sale a “great statement” for the league.

“The fact that people like Bob Iger and Willow Bay are potentially investing in that team is a great statement about the health of the league and the prospects going forward, especially with the media,” Emhoff told The Athletic on Tuesday during the Olympics send-off game for the U.S. women’s national team.

Originally founded by actor Natalie Portman and entrepreneurs Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman, the expansion team was the unexpected result of connections between Portman, Nortman and the USWNT players’ association via Time’s Up. The three brought on businessman Alexis Ohanian as the club’s largest shareholder and controlling owner before the team’s launch in 2020. Despite that title, Ohanian did not actually control the Angel City board, writing on social media that it was “one of many hard lessons (he) learned as a first-time sports team owner”.

The club also added dozens of smaller investors, among them former USWNT players, including Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Lauren Holiday, as well as celebrities and other famous athletes, such as Billie Jean King, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba.

Angel City has largely struggled on the field since starting play in 2022 — though they did make the 2023 NWSL playoffs before being knocked out in the first round — but the team has been a runaway success from a business perspective.

Wednesday’s $250million valuation is a massive step up from last year’s Sportico figures, which Angel City led at $180m, and the Los Angeles club laps the rest of the NWSL in revenue. It makes more than $30m a year, about double that of the next highest, fellow Californians San Diego Wave.

This year, Angel City’s four primary owners voted to hire New York investment bank Moelis & Company to find a new controlling owner, with that decision becoming public in March after reports of squabbling among the board. Four months later, the board collectively announced the club’s sale to Bay and Iger, but individual founding owners were not made available to the media.


“Willow and Bob bring unparalleled operational experience, expertise and passion to Angel City and the NWSL,” the club statement begins.

“They are the right partners to lead us into this new era — they are committed to strengthening Angel City’s position as a preeminent organization and brand in women’s sports and to championing the team’s broader mission, including the advancement of equity for athletes and women-founded businesses.

“With their leadership, we will continue to harness the industry’s momentum and build on Angel City’s strong foundation of fan and community support.”

Portman, Uhrman, Ohanian and another early investor and board member, Gillian Berry, will continue their roles on the board once the sale is completed. But Bay will soon be at the head of the table, along with Iger, hoping to advance the existing Angel City mission. Bay believes that the work ahead must be done as part of a local community, even as Angel City’s reach extends globally.

“We’re committed to doing whatever it requires — leveraging expertise, capital and our networks to continue building and elevating this franchise on and off the pitch,” Bay said on Tuesday


Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman and Kara Nortman in 2023 (Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When Angel City unveiled itself as a new NWSL expansion team four years ago, no one could have predicted that it would be up for a $250million sale, even with all the excitement of Hollywood connections, USWNT star power, and the anticipation for the return of women’s professional soccer to Los Angeles for the first time since 2010.

The team brought in forward Christen Press as their first signing, then pulled out all the stops for their home opener in May 2022, with a sold-out crowd of 22,000 watching them eke out a win over North Carolina Courage.

“What you see here (with Angel City) is a combination of so many people getting together and going, ‘No. It can be different. It can be this, don’t do that’. We can make this whatever we want,” Wambach said before that 2-1 victory.

That’s largely been the story of Angel City’s approach: leverage the knowledge and experiences of Wambach, Hamm and the rest across various former leagues — WUSA, WPS, even the early days of the NWSL — then combine it with the ambition of new investors who are bound by the historical fear of a league folding too soon. For the most part, it has worked — though not perfectly.

Chief among the criticisms of Angel City has been that the club has been more interested in building a brand than an actual soccer team. While most of the team’s early language has been scrubbed from its website, the business-centric theme is still present in the page description for its online store: “Angel City is not just another football club. We’re a brand on a mission to make a difference in this world. We’re born of the streets of Los Angeles and stand side-by-side with our community.”

Angel City FC

Angel City’s Claire Emslie, left, celebrates her goal against NJ/NY Gotham in 2022 (Ira L Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

Since March, however, the team has been followed by reports of infighting on its board as it decided to find a new controlling owner.

The Los Angeles Times reported Ohanian was unhappy over the team’s spending. This week, The Wall Street Journal went in-depth on power struggles within Angel City’s leadership, primarily between Ohanian and Uhrman. According to that report, internal documents show team officials complained about Uhrman’s “financial and personnel management”, with Ohanian cited as having concerns over her spending, the hiring of her sister as a team executive, and her temperament.

The Wall Street Journal also reported there is disagreement over Uhrman continuing as the team’s president. That decision would fall to Bay as the new controlling owner, with Uhrman herself mentioning that in the Journal’s story. However, Wednesday’s confirmation that Uhrman (and Ohanian) will remain on the board following the sale’s closure shows she will still have some role with the team moving forward.

Still, there was always going to be incredible interest in the club’s controlling stake thanks to the growth of Angel City, the NWSL and women’s sports as a whole.

Angel City had the NWSL’s highest attendance in 2022, was barely off San Diego Wave’s pace the following year, and leads the league again in 2024. According to the club, they also top the league in season ticket membership and sponsorship revenue.


“We’re going to be the first women’s team to have a billion-dollar valuation in five years,” Uhrman told The Athletic last year. “There’s no better investment today than women’s sports.”

On the league front, when Angel City was still building its ownership group in 2019, team valuations had not yet exploded. In December of that year, OL Groupe bought out Seattle Reign for just $3.5million. Last month, when a group led by Seattle Sounders of MLS and investment firm Carlyle finalized its purchase of the Reign from OL Groupe, it was for $58m. Just before the Angel City news broke in March about the search for a new controlling owner, San Diego Wave sold for $120m.

Valuations can’t be viewed in a vacuum, however, with media rights, facilities, attendance and other metrics weighing in. The NWSL has enjoyed good news on those fronts, too, whether it’s the purpose-built stadium in Kansas City, last year’s media-rights deals, or increases in attendance and engagement figures in 2024.

Women’s sports, in general, are having an extended moment.

Global financial company Deloitte had to revise its initial predictions on women’s sports revenue, predicting that 2024 would be the year that it would surpass $1 billion. North America is expected to account for 52 percent of that revenue, with soccer’s revenue forecast figure ($555m) the highest among all sports.


It is not surprising that there were interested bidders, though a representative of Bay’s declined to comment on other bids or the bidding process itself. Marc Lasry, former owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and CEO of Avenue Capital Group, as well as Avram Glazer, part owner of the Premier League’s Manchester United and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were linked as potential bidders, with sources confirming to The Athletic this month that Glazer had pursued Angel City’s controlling interest.

The Bay-Iger bid emerged as the favorite this month, with the deal already close to completion.

It is easy to assume that Angel City — a product of the connections formed between women — would want a woman as its controlling owner, they could do one step better: someone who had been a fan since day one.

“The team has been on our radar since its inception,” Bay said, calling herself and Iger, her husband, members of the Angel City community — but she also knew two of the founding investors, Uhrman and Nortman, so she took particular interest in their new project. Bay and Iger have attended games, but Bay has gone further and included Angel City in her role as a professor at the University of Southern California.

“I bring students as part of my sports class to visit Angel City, to learn about the trajectory of the team and its development,” she said, adding she has also hosted the team’s co-founders on campus. “It’s important to offer a platform to this team, part of this community, and these women who have helped create it.”


Bay, who has a lengthy media and journalism resume that spans Huffington Post, Good Morning America, Moneyline, the Today Show and NBA Inside Stuff, loves a narrative.

“This is a great business story, a great sports story, a great community story, and certainly a great story about driving equity with a purpose-driven brand,” she said. “So for all those reasons, I’ve followed this team since the beginning.”

Asked about changing her mindset from fan to owner, Bay didn’t want to get into too many specifics about the club’s new day-to-day. To her, there is time ahead to dig into priorities, strategic planning and the decisions that have to be made. The sale is a month or two from being finalized, and she’s still embracing the moment to celebrate. Bay is in big-picture mode, not the nitty-gritty logistics.

Bob Iger and Willow Bay

Bob Iger and Willow Bay at the Academy Awards in March (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

That said, the purchase of Angel City has repercussions beyond just the club. Bay will be one of 15 (eventually 16, once the next expansion team is chosen) governors who can help shape the league’s future.

“There have never been limits for this team,” Bay said. “That also applies to the NWSL, with this new infusion of energy, capital resources, and incredible people joining this ownership group. There are certainly no limits to what we can expect from these athletes.”


One of those athletes, Press, addressed the player side of the sale, acknowledging that the team does have “a lot of things that they need to get right”. The deal — plus that extra $50million of investment — means a lot of money is about to flow in.

“It allows the club to continue to professionalize. Angel City recognizes that they have a lot of room to grow on that end,” Press told The Athletic this month.

Angel City's Christen Press

Angel City’s Christen Press in 2022 (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

While Bay promised the specifics of priorities would come later, she did say that facilities are absolutely on the list, “particularly with player development and player support”.

That’s not new information. The Bay-Iger group’s pitch deck, acquired by news website Semafor, shows that the group wants to “improve team performance, player support and retention”, which does include a training facility — but Bay and Iger also offer their expertise on media, content creation, and managing brands.

A pitch deck is one thing, reality can be another. Bay, unsurprisingly, said the first couple of months once the sale closes will be filled with a lot of listening.


“It’s premature to even speculate about where we land first and what we do first, but we’re committed to listening, understanding where the opportunities are, then making decisions about how to prioritize resources,” she said. Player support and development across the board, including players, technical staff and front office staff, are areas they have already circled.

As of Wednesday, they’re one step closer to the real work ahead.

(Top photo: Angel City in recent action against visitors San Diego Wave; Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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