Abby Wambach, Serena, Alex Morgan among those women who invest in themselves

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The ESPY Icon Trophy shines behind her on a shelf set up for video call backgrounds. It’s additional evidence that Abby Wambach is a well-known presence, a household name with the US women’s national team’s record for international goals. There are two world cup titles. An Olympic gold medal. Everyone said it was a career worthy of the trophy.

Wambach took the stage in July with 2016 award winners Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, who felt the world was finally recognizing women. Women had finally made it. But then she looked at the men and her mind shifted.

“It was the most sobering reality check of my life,” Wambach told Emox News. “It was like punching my face with inequality. Their main concern was where they would invest their hundreds of millions of dollars that they rightly deserved. And so I wanted to recreate myself to pay my mortgage. How could we have such different experiences? “

It broke her heart. And when something breaks your heart, as her wife Glennon Doyle says, you find your people and do life changing work.

Four years later, in July 2020, NWSL announced Angel City FC as the expansion team, with Wambach joining the star-studded owner group. Athletes Unlimited, a player-oriented company with softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues for women, counted Wambach on its advisory board. Mostly female athletes are represented in both organizations.

And you are not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought sport to a standstill around the world a year ago, there were concerns that it would affect women’s sport again. Would the priorities shift? They asked.

The answer seems to be a yes. But not in the way that was initially feared. Viewership for women’s sports even increased last summer due to declines in men due to better broadcasting deals that actually make it easier to watch. This is also because die-hard and aspiring fans alike have media devoted to women’s sports to promote them, discuss them, and even do the obvious, devising a schedule for them with information that is otherwise difficult to come by are found. Just Women’s Sports (JWS), which works with women athletes, has done this and more after launching in 2020. (JWS is also a media partner of Emox News.)

“I think for women’s sport to really break through and become mainstream and all we want is, we need women,” said Haley Rosen, CEO and co-founder of JWS. “They’re in the room, they know what this world is, they know how to cover it authentically. They know what feels real to them in their sport. And I think that’s really, very, very important.

“I think we just have to treat women’s sport the way it is because it’s great. And bringing women into this world is part of this world. I think that’s going to be a big part of it.”

To achieve all of this – growing expansion teams, covering those teams, starting a podcast, keeping everything afloat – sponsorship money is needed. And after years of asking to invest in a space that is on track to grow revenues, companies are finally taking the step, even in the midst of a possible economic downturn.

Much of it depends on women. Women are in control and are the change they want to see in women’s sports, from ownership to media companies to sponsorship opportunities.

Angel City FC laid the foundation for women’s investment

Abby Wambach recognized the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports when she and Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning received the ESPY Icon Award in 2016. (Kevin Mazur / Getty Images)

Wambach was understandably curious when two-time Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman slipped into her DMs last year and asked for a chat.

“I don’t get a lot of direct messages from famous people,” Wambach told Emox News. “And I was sure, Natalie Portman? That feels weird. “

Portman offered Wambach the opportunity to be part of an NWSL expansion team. The predominantly female owner group includes actresses and more than a dozen former USWNT players. The offer was an easy yes for 40-year-old Wambach, who believes that if the “opportunity were offered to anyone on the planet, they would say yes”.

“She’s sweet to say,” ACFC co-founder and CEO Julie Uhrman told Emox News. “But we actually heard a lot of no.”

The standard format for women’s sports is to copy everything the men do. People are starting to come to terms with the fact that the same old rules don’t always apply to men’s leagues that go back a century to women that hit a quarter of one.

ACFC is doing things differently, and Uhrman said this confused potential investors who couldn’t figure out the foundation of the organization. Yes, it’s a sports team that is focused on success both on the field and in the pockets. It is also an organization built out of the “Time’s Up” movement that wants to do good to the world.

“You had to have someone who understood the field and wanted to level it and meet great athletes,” said Uhrman. “But they also understood that they had a responsibility to use their platform and voice to amplify what we are doing because that will raise both ships. So an investor had to understand both sides of the equation. “

Uhrman got involved early on because she played in a basketball league with third co-founder, Kara Nortman. She has been a member of male-dominated professions for decades and has had to work harder than she to be “successful and seen”. It was the same feeling that she had while exercising. Certainly a feeling that other women in the owner group have.

“[It was] The idea that I could play a role in not only building a professional women’s team here in Los Angeles, “Uhrman said,” but also raising awareness and increasing how amazing these women are on and off [field]. And to be able to say that we should be seen as equals, we are just as talented and just as hard and can be just as profitable. And I wanted to prove that it was possible. “

Uhrman believes that given the USWNT’s success over the past decade, the timing is right. The ownership model has been insightful and other NWSL teams have followed with famous athletes.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams is part of ACFC and Naomi Osaka has bought a minority stake in North Carolina Courage. Kendall Coyne Schofield, two-time Olympic ice hockey gold medalist and development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, led a new Chicago Red Stars investment group that was announced on March 1 for the Kansas City team that was previously the Utah Royals.

It’s a stark comparison to the normal older, rich white man who owns a franchise. ACFC has clearly laid the foundations for investment and personal responsibility. And other leagues see it the same way. Renee Montgomery retired from the WNBA to buy into the Atlanta Dream ownership group, becoming the first former player to own a team.

Athletes in Wambach’s other company have ownership and play at the same time.

Athletes Unlimited gives players power

Team Warren’s Janie Reed jumps to catch a fly ball during an Athletes Unlimited softball tournament. (Photo by Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

The timeline for professional women’s sports is short in the United States.

The WNBA starts its 25th season in May as the longest running professional league in the country. At nine years of age, the NWSL is the longest running football league after failed attempts in the 2000s.

Other sports, despite their popularity among youth, struggled to assert themselves. Take women’s volleyball, the second most popular sport for high school girls behind outdoor athletics. There were three attempts in a professional league and all of them broke up within two years.

“After we went overseas and played there, we saw [a professional league] is possible, ”Cassidy Lichtman, a gold medal volleyball star with Team USA, told Emox News. “I think a lot of myths about what people want to see and” will they watch women’s sports? Are you going to watch volleyball? “Get a little broken if you leave.” OK, they see it everywhere else. “So people don’t want to watch or we didn’t invest the money and the priority in the US?”

Lichtman chairs the Player Executive Committee of the Athletes Unlimited Volleyball League, which launched last month. The company has three leagues (softball, volleyball, and lacrosse) and does not use teams in town to limit operating costs. The model is based on fantasy sports where individuals earn points and the top four act as captains for the weekly draft.

Wambach is one of seven women on the advisory board, mainly athletes.

“I think if you look at women’s sports for over 100 years – a centuries-long period of time – I think we are still in the early stages of figuring out what will work and what will not,” Wambach told Emox News. “Athletes Unlimited is a new and innovative approach to solving this big problem. And for the right reasons too. It’s not that they are trying to invest the right amount of money. You are trying to give these women the right ownership of whoever they belong to.

“And then of course only giving women more opportunities. That’s so important. Giving women and showing them that women are represented at tables where big decisions are made is everything. “

This little aspect makes sense. The women who actually play the games can be their own change. There is no lobbying for better convenience or equality. Do nothing because “it is the way it was always done”.

“It was incredible and so refreshing to be asked for our opinion and given real decision-making power on something that is so important to us and that we know a lot about,” said Lichtman. “This is not even a step forward, it is 100 steps forward when it comes to how much our knowledge goes into developing this league.”

Athletes Unlimited also had what other leagues don’t: buy-in from media and TV shows. Because like any single story about women’s sports will tell you, if you can’t see it, you can’t be.

Overcoming the tricky 4 percent problem

A new wave of USWNT stars, Alex Morgan and Kelley O’Hara, entered the media room to provide more coverage for women athletes. (AP Photo / Mark Humphrey)

The beauty of the Just Women’s Sports podcast, hosted by USWNT star Kelley O’Hara, is that she never tells you. It doesn’t emphasize what it’s like to be a woman in sports. It’s what it’s like to be an athlete. Their conversations are fun, lively, fascinating and never miss out on star power. This is still rare for fans of women’s sports.

“I’ve come to realize in life that if you want something to happen, you can’t look around and expect someone else to do it. You have to be the one to do it,” O’Hara said shortly before the premiere at Speaking to Emox News July 2020. “For me it was like that if I want this to get better, if I want there to be better storytelling about athletes, I have to get involved.

“If we just let someone else do it, they’ll do it their own way.”

O’Hara filmed 20 remote episodes during the pandemic and many while playing in the NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup. It lets the guest tell the story and digs deeper than the surface-level questions that are often emphasized when predominantly male-focused shows involve an athlete. In an episode with Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association, O’Hara compares the woman who had to be persuaded to become a professional with the announced leader we see on morning TV who announces a groundbreaking collective agreement.

Considering a podcast as its flagship product after launching a newsletter in January 2020 to curate women’s sports content for fans, Just Women’s Sports ran into a problem.

“What we learned very quickly and what a start the rest of the company is [that] 4 percent is nothing, “Rosen, who played at Stanford, told Emox News.

Although 44 percent of all sports participants are women, only 4 percent of media coverage goes to them. JWS is interfering with Stories, The Podcast and “The Soccer Show” posted on YouTube this month.

“I live every day from being an athlete, a professional athlete, and not getting the coverage we deserve.” [like] not being able to turn on ESPN and see all the score lines or highlights that I want to see, ”said O’Hara. “Haley tied me to it because she made me realize that this is super important. And I believe in the mission that is only women’s sport. “

USWNT superstar Alex Morgan, O’Hara’s first guest on the podcast, is now part of her own media venture with four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird and Olympic gold medalists Chloe Kim (snowboarding) and Simone Manuel (swimming). Togethxr launched at the beginning of Women’s History Month and aims to fill the gap in coverage. Montgomery, the new co-owner of Dream, also plans to continue her broadcast and podcast career that she started during the pandemic.

“I think one of the things about women’s sports is that it’s not talked about enough on women’s platforms,” ​​Montgomery said on a media call. “It is usually not national media that report on women’s sports as I see fit. So that I can be in the media room, [I can] Talk about the dream and women’s sports and not just the dream but the WNBA as well. “

All are aimed at providing the right coverage for women athletes, rather than a standard coverage that includes just one template for each female athlete.

“When we female athletes box this way, the content is stale, boring, redundant,” said Rosen. “And we reduce really rich, interesting, thoughtful, innovative, great women to just being these one-dimensional things.”

Sponsorships grow with the change in consumer habits

A deeply invested group of owners and a lively podcast won’t pay the bills alone. Teams and the media need money, and women’s sport hasn’t had it for decades.

Companies enter into sponsorship deals with the NFL and the NBA to generate brand awareness and the associated increased revenue. Women’s sport does not have the same effect from all angles due to a lack of investment.

However, consumer attitudes and buying habits are changing. The “official sponsor” of the NFL may be on the mind, but does it align with the values ​​of these customers? Maybe not. Women’s sport recognizes this and uses it.

Birdies, a shoe company founded in 2015, is the exclusive sleeve patch partner for ACFC, its first sports partnership. The decision was made by owners Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey, who were more likely to be sparked by the pandemic than terrified of its economic impact. They are working mothers and have experienced the disproportionate burden on women. That’s why they wanted to support this segment wherever they could.

“We took a different lens. Our mission is how can we use our platform to uplift women? “Sharkey told Emox News.” And so, in the middle of the pandemic last summer, we thought, “OK, what can we control at a time when anything is possible.” does it feel like we can’t control anything? ‘”

They focused on rallying women to get the vote. When they met Uhrman shortly after the presidential election, it was the perfect time for that success. They also learned that Angel City’s sponsorship model gives 10 percent of its revenue back to the community.

“When you see Angel City show up in a meaningful way,” Uhrman said, “it has nothing to do with packing a stadium or LED signage, but with making real impact and creating an emotional connection and relationship with customers to manufacture. ” It’s an incredibly unique suggestion we have that they haven’t heard from other brands. “

Birdies was founded to fill a void in the footwear industry and has a mission similar to ACFC. The families are also sports fans and watch the US women’s national team.

“We’re so much better together. Our mission is to uplift all women. It’s almost impossible to do it on your own right? “Gates told Emox News.” It’s powerful to partner with another company whose mission is the same that we can work with. It’s tremendously powerful. “

There are still more traditional sponsors getting into the women’s game. Budweiser became the first official beer sponsor of the NWSL in 2019 and encouraged others to do so. O’Hara, who is known to have received beer from fans at the 2019 World Cup Ticker Tape Parade, started the second season of her podcast by announcing Heineken as a sponsor.

“I think that shows outside people like, OK, ours [podcast listener] The numbers are great, “O’Hara told Emox News. “With this podcast, people want to be involved and associate their name with Just Women’s Sports. Heineken is a big beer brand and I think it’s a great partnership. “

On an even bigger stage, the WNBA announced Glossier, who worked with them on a social justice basis, as the league’s official beauty partner. Why shouldn’t beauty products for women be marketed by a women’s league where players use these products on the pitch every night?

What happens with all of this partnership is the crossover interest between brand consumers and league fans in both directions. That creates more viewers, more buyers, more interest, more investments.

Emox News Women’s History Month (Graphic by Amber Matsumoto / Emox News)

The trickle– –Down effect in women’s sport

This is not a hot trend that is about to wear off. The empowerment of women in sports has been increasing for years and is seen daily as a collective. It takes a certain level of confidence and unity as a player or coach to publicly call on the NCAA for inequality in the bubbles of men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. They couldn’t have done that without women speaking about inequality in front of them.

“People don’t understand when you give a woman an opportunity, the trickle-down effect is real,” Wambach told Emox News [Angel City FC founders] They found that by offering this ownership interest to the very women who helped build women’s football in this country, they have recruited the strongest team they could possibly recruit.

“If you give a woman such an opportunity, she just wants to spend the rest of her life paying you back. And that’s all we’re trying to do. “

Every woman Emox News spoke to about a changing landscape spoke of an investment that was beyond the money. These steps forward are passionate ones that keep moving upwards. This is the next step in resolving persistent issues. You can be the change you want instead of working to see others change you.

“Women athletes are investing in changing the space,” Rosen, who founded JWS with four athlete partners, told Emox News. “And it’s just wild for me because they compete at the highest level [and] There is so much pressure on them, but they are also thinking about a bigger picture: “How can we better leave this room for the next generation?” Connecting, including these women – I’m not going to say it was easy, but it was very natural for us. It feels like everyone wants to work together to make this space better. “

In an unprecedented year that was originally intended to set women back a decade, they started moving forward to set a better standard for decades to come.

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