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Megan Rapinoe Is SI's Sportsperson of the Year. Hey Corporate America Are You Paying Attention?

Women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe joins the coveted ranks of Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year. Because it's 2019, sure, but is corporate America ready to step up with its wallet?

Everyone knows the world of sports endorsements is male-dominated. After all, if you’re Adidas, Nike  (NKE) - Get Nike Inc. Report, Umbro or Puma, it only makes sense to have your brand splayed across the chests, arms, feet, equipment and everywhere else on the field, court or rink that a live spectator can see.

The presumption is that the live spectator – or the television cameras broadcasting the sport – is only going to be watching a professional game with male players.

However, 2019 may well be the year looked back on when that officially all changed. On Monday, women’s professional soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe was named as Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year. She's the fourth woman in the award’s 66-year history to win it unaccompanied.

Putting aside the perpetual debate over gender equality, and the right for a 10-year-old girl to play professional sports with equal opportunity as a 10-year-old boy, the acceptance of women on professional sports teams playing in professional leagues has finally caught a wave.

And with it, corporate America is looking to catch that same wave to millions of dollars, possibly billions, in sponsorship gold.

Women’s Soccer, Brought to You by …

First up to the centerline: beer-giant Budweiser  (BUD) - Get Anheuser-Busch Inbev SA Sponsored ADR (Belgium) Report, which this past summer became the first official beer sponsor of the National Women's Soccer League.

"Budweiser's support is significant and will amplify the visibility and influence of the league, our players and avid supporters,” Amanda Duffy, president of the National Women's Soccer League, said back in July when the deal was announced.

And first up to both promote and encourage other brands to jump into supporting women’s soccer: Megan Rapinoe.

Back in October, Rapinoe starred in a short film aired during an NWSL matchup on ESPN to drive awareness – not just of the NWSL, female participation in sports or even herself, but as a way to tell other brands that if there wasn’t a time to jump on board before, there is now.

In the video, Rapinoe makes the case that “… the more support the league gets, the more the world will watch. The more the world watches, the closer we get to an equal playing field.”

Official “Insert Brand Here” Endorsement

That was followed by Budweiser’s “Future Official” campaign, starring Rapinoe herself in a series of “insert-product-here” newspaper ads specifically targeting opportunities for “Official Timepiece,” “Official Restaurant” and “Official Deodorant.”

For comparison’s sake, Major League Soccer currently has 24 league partners, in addition to media and community partners. The NWSL: One - Budweiser.

Of course, Rapinoe is not the first female athlete to participate in a professional sporting league and receive an endorsement deal: The Williams sisters have redefined women in tennis and are credited with pioneering a game in which women are focused on power.

The U.S. Women's National Team has had several athletes become icons since the 1990s: Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, to name but two. Martina Navratilova, Michelle Kwan, Lindsey Vonn and Steffi Graf are all household names.

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And long before them, multi-sport American athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias broke boundaries in sports - in the early 1900s. She was voted Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press.

Endorsing Not Just a Player but a Sport

What’s different, however, is the large-scale brand endorsement of not just women athletes, but the teams, leagues and sports they play – not to mention the potential windfall the likes of Budweiser, Nike and others see, and in Nike’s case, are already reaping.

“It’s hard to overstate how important this year has been to the evolution of the women’s offense at Nike,” Nike CEO Mark Parker said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in July.

The reason for Parker’s enthusiasm: The U.S. women’s national soccer team home jersey was the best-selling soccer jersey - men’s or women’s - ever sold on Nike's website in one season.

Nike boasted a 13% fourth-quarter revenue increase to $9.8 billion, according to its earnings report. That included double-digit growth in women’s footwear and apparel. The company was also the top bra seller in North America for the first time ever.

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once shot back about his gender-equal cabinet: “It’s 2015.”

And now it’s 2019, and the world of professional sports and accompanying endorsements of women athletes, is finally, at long last, catching up.

Supply and Demand = Revenue and Salaries

To be sure, there is still one thing that differentiates Rapinoe's much-deserved crowning as SI's Sportsperson of the Year from her predecessors: How much she is paid. 

Despite the surge in women athletes and corresponding sports endorsements, Rapinoe remains far out of the top-10 list of highest-paid professional sports athletes.

Naomi Osaka earned a total of $24.3 million over the last year, according to a recent Forbes list of the Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2019, making her the second-highest-paid woman in professional sports after Serena Williams. 

Compare that, however, to Barcelona Captain Lionel Messi's $127 million paycheck last year, which doesn't include bonuses and other winnings or endorsements, or Chicago Cubs' linebacker Khalil Mack's $55 million.

The pay disparities in almost every major sport - baseball/softball, basketball, hockey, and others - come down almost entirely to the revenue their leagues generate.

It's more opaque for the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which in March filed a complaint noting that female WNT players "... earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game.” 

What it boils down to is league revenue - bums on seats at stadiums, bums on sofas and barstools during prime viewing times, and, of course, how much advertisers and sponsors are willing to pay to have their brand associated with a particular sport, league and individual. 

“It’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s one that we gladly take on,” Utah Royals FC soccer player Becky Sauerbraunn told ESPN following the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. “And it’s something we’re going to keep trying to push and push and push until we feel that everything is equal. That’s far away from here, but that’s what we’re fighting toward.”