Yes, the summer of 2019 will be remembered for an awesome performance from the US Women’s National Soccer Team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But, it will also be remembered for an extraordinary demonstration of the power of women’s sport to be about much more than just sport.
Athletes, sponsors, fans and the media all stepped up this summer to make the most of the US Women’s National Soccer Team’s showing in France, to drive home some important social messages around equal rights and fair play. This sent a shot across the bow of the business of sport that, let’s face it, has generally been reluctant to seriously embrace the move to purpose that is underway across society.
First up, the players — with Megan Rapinoe, pink hair and all, leading a unified group of women’s soccer players leveraging the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a platform to drill home their point that female players are not being treated fairly by the US Soccer Federation (USSF); and that they deserve to be paid the same as their male colleagues. The team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Federation earlier in the year and used every opportunity during the tournament to make their voices heard.
As has become the norm in US culture today, not everyone was supportive of Rapinoe and the team’s activist-type activity — several media commentators sided with the Federation, and labelled Rapinoe and the team as unpatriotic and not the kind of role models we want for our children. One media platform went as far as to headline a story, “We all wanted to love the USWNT but the team, led by foul-mouthed Megan Rapinoe, disgraced society.”
Despite the detractors, there were and continue to be a significant number of supporters for Rapinoe and her teammates — the least of which are a vocal and growing group of fans, who took it upon themselves to amplify the team’s message with lively chants of “Equal Pay” from the stands during World Cup Games. This continued back home after the tournament, with fans keeping the chant going from the Canyon of Heroes Parade to the sold-out stadiums, where the team played on its victory tour.
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The fans took their show of support a step further by coming out in huge numbers to purchase the official replica USWNT home team jersey; and in the process, established a new record for the number of soccer jerseys, men’s or women’s, ever sold on the Nike website in one season. And it wasn’t just women buying the jersey — record numbers of men did so, too; in a show of male solidarity with the women’s team and, by extension, their cause.
And then the sponsors, with P&G’s Secret deodorant brand — also an official sponsor of the USNWT — coming out in support of the team’s fight for equal pay by gifting $529,000 to the players to help close the gap between what them and their male counterparts.
Secret took things a step further, by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times urging the US Soccer Federation to "be on the right side of history and take this moment of celebration to propel women's sports forward.” The brand went on to urge the USSF to be a beacon of strength and end gender pay inequality, once and for all. Given how reluctant sponsors have traditionally been to challenge their rights-holding partners, Secret’s actions are profound and reflect a growing recognition amongst brands that the fans expect them to stand for something more than just profits — even if that means putting otherwise-lucrative relationships at risk.
The media, too, embraced everything that Rapinoe and Co threw at them; and in the process, helped to amplify their message to a deafening crescendo. Appearances at the ESPYs and on major morning and late-night television shows proved to be a perfect platform to further amplify the team’s message.
The whole issue around how much the USWNT team members are paid and how they are treated is a complicated affair, but that doesn’t matter. The USSF’s attempts to defend themselves have fallen on deaf ears, with the court of popular opinion definitely painting them as the bad guys in this story. One can only conclude that they must be living in a success bubble of their own making, or that they just don’t care — or if they had been more in touch with what’s happening around them in society, they would have seen all this coming and reacted more proactively. But they didn’t; and instead, they have been forced to play defense and catch up. It’s such a wasted opportunity for them, for they could have been the heroes in this saga.
And it hasn’t ended with football. Emboldened by the success of the USWNT, other women athletes are starting to come forward and use the power of their platforms to make themselves heard on important social and environmental issues.
Six-time Olympic Gold Medalist Allyson Felix is one such athlete, who quite openly credited the USWNT for giving her the confidence to speak up about what is important. In her case, the issue is the right for women athletes to take time away from their sport for reasonable maternity leave, and not be punished financially for doing so by sponsors. While Nike quickly announced — in response to Felix’s open op-ed in the New York Times on the subject — that it was changing its policy on pregnancy in sponsorship contracts with female athletes, Felix declined not to renew a multi-year partnership with Nike and instead signed with Athleta — the Gap’s B Corp-certified, ethical women's athletic wear brand.
In another example of sponsor activism, Athleta took full advantage of the opportunity to sign Felix as a way to loudly signal its commitment to championing women and girls. It was also interesting to see Athleta state that it sees its partnership with Felix as a way of changing the way that sponsor contracts are structured with women athletes across the board; in other words, to leverage the opportunity change a system that treats women unfairly.
The message in all of this for executives running the business of sport is clear: The athletes, the sponsors and the fans are getting on with it, with or without you. They expect you to stand for something more than just profits and will make sure you know about it if you don’t. This is not philanthropy or CSR — this is about embracing purpose at the center of your organizational DNA and giving this purpose authentic expression through every aspect of your business. The exciting aspect to all of this is that those organizations that do embrace a higher purpose in a real and authentic way outperform those that don’t. The athletes, the sponsors and the fans — particularly the younger ones that are hard to reach and keep — will reward those that do with their support.
This is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-published book, Legacy $port – how to win at the business of sport in the age of social good. Written by Neill Duffy and Fabien Paget, Legacy $port is an important book for sports executives looking to stay at the top of their game in a world where the fans increasingly expect more from sport that just sport. You can pre-order the book at Publishizer.com.