Forum: Will stakeholders step up to support women’s soccer?
The true legacy of the most recent World Cup title for the U.S. women’s national soccer team will be if it results in a sustainable and successful women’s league. There is real momentum around women’s soccer and, to a greater extent, women’s sports. I spoke to a number of sources after the women’s inspiring performance, and all agreed that the real test is whether the U.S. marketplace will react differently in 2019 than it did after the USWNT won its third World Cup title, in 2015, or its second, in 1999.
That test will come not just in the commercial marketplace. It will also be in the human marketplace. It will be from fans, viewers, sponsors, media and even fellow athletes. It’s a collective. It’s easy for fans to support a successful and high-profile national team, or for brands to run congratulatory ads around a victory parade. But women’s soccer — and women’s sports — needs support beyond just a monthlong global tournament that takes place once every four years. It’s far more difficult to promote, activate and attend weekend NWSL games in Cary, N.C., or Piscataway, N.J. Will the groups that need to step up do so this time?
The USWNT’s performance will be what’s remembered from the last few weeks, but two commercial moves can’t be overlooked. Budweiser’s savvy decision to announce its multiyear sponsorship of the NWSL with its call to action really stood out to me, stating in a full page ad, “It’s the best women’s soccer league. It’s in our own backyard yet we let it go unwatched. How can we support the U.S. women’s national team if we don’t support the women’s game?” A hint of guilt that spoke volumes — an endemic in sports calling out everyone to support women’s sports. Now, I’ll be closely watching how A-B supports the NWSL by activating locally and nationally.
Around the same time, ESPN said it would televise certain games around the second half of the NWSL schedule, including the semifinals and final. That’s another boost to the league from a network that sources told me wasn’t interested in the product as recently as a year ago.
What big players will be next? Can the NWSL fill automotive, payment card and hotel categories? Will brands believe they can be part of meaningful, long-lasting change and make a significant impact in growing a sport — which would result in more clubs, players, exposure and, more importantly, revenue? That is truly aspirational. It will be a long, slow grind to viability, but as the product continues to improve, there is a path to success.
A lot of challenges remain, and unfortunately many of them are within the insular world of soccer. There is the dispute over pay equity, but there are also leadership and organizational challenges, as U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn steps down this year. There is the largely unknown leadership of President Carlos Cordeiro, who the women’s team will be watching very closely as he negotiates pay equity — a public debate that U.S. Soccer will lose all day long. In addition, there is U.S. Soccer’s long-running dispute with the other large soccer player in the country, Relevent Sports. All of this outlines a challenging road aheady, rife with politics and potholes.
What more can the players do? After winning it all, they must continue to be advocates of the sport and voices for change. These players may not have been universally loved, but they are strong, confident and committed to the game. They want to be treated and respected as athletes and will be role models for the next generation.
Finally, don’t believe this is a U.S.-only issue. The World Cup proved that there are great players all over the world; FIFA is studying expanding the women’s tournament; the Premier League and FA are at odds in England over who will take the lead on the country’s Women’s Super League, which is not profitable, but has potential; and in one of the most underreported stories, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Joe Tsai have committed $145 million to grow women’s soccer in China. The business interest in women’s sports is there. Last week, six of the top 10 stories in Sports Business Daily were dedicated to women’s soccer.
There is once again an opportunity to support women’s soccer on a daily basis in the wake of a World Cup triumph. Wouldn’t it be discouraging if we are having the same conversation four years from now?
First Look podcast, with more on the World Cup and women’s soccer, at the 34:34 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.