As the battle for pay equity in sports rages on, more and more women are investing in themselves

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Cassandra Negley
·Writer
·17 min read
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WHM
WHM

The ESPY icon trophy is behind her glistening on a shelf set up for video call backdrops. It’s additional proof Abby Wambach is a big-name presence, a household name with the U.S. women's national soccer team record for international goals. There are two World Cup titles. An Olympic gold medal. All said it's a career worthy of the trophy.

Wambach walked onto the stage that July with fellow 2016 honorees Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant feeling like the world was finally acknowledging women. Women had finally made it. But then she looked to the men and her mind shifted.

“It was the most sobering reality check of my life,” Wambach told Yahoo Sports. “It was like I got slapped in the face with the inequity. Their biggest concern was where they were going to invest their hundreds of millions of dollars that they rightfully earned. And mine was how I was going to recreate myself to pay my mortgage. How could we have such vastly 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, the NWSL announced Angel City FC as an expansion team with Wambach named to the star-studded ownership group. Athletes Unlimited, a player-driven company with women’s softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues, counted Wambach on its board of advisers. Both organizations feature predominately female athletes.

And they’re not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced sports shutdowns around the globe a year ago, there was worry it would set women’s sports back — again. Would priorities shift? They asked.

The answer does appear to be a yes. But not in the way initially feared. Viewership for women’s sports was up last summer even amid declines for the men because of better broadcast deals that actually make it easier to watch. It’s also because diehard and emerging fans alike have media outlets dedicated to women’s sports to promote them, discuss them and even do the obvious of designing a viewing schedule for them with information otherwise difficult to find. Just Women’s Sports (JWS), which partners with female athletes, did that and more after its 2020 launch. (JWS is also a media partner of Yahoo Sports.)

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

“I think we just need to cover women’s sports for what they are because they’re awesome. And bringing the women in that are a part of this world, I think that’s going to be a huge part of that.”

To do all of this — grow expansion teams, cover those teams, launch a podcast, keep it all afloat — takes sponsorship money. And after years of calls for investment in a space on track for climbing revenues, businesses are finally making the move even amid a potential economic downturn.

Much of it comes down to women. Women are taking control and being the change they want to see in women’s sports from ownership to media companies to sponsorship opportunities.

Angel City FC set groundwork for women’s investments

Kobe Bryant, Abby Wambach and Peyton Manning hold ESPY Icon awards in 2016.
Abby Wambach realized the inequities between men's and women's sports when she received the ESPY Icon award alongside Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning in 2016. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

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

“I don’t get very many direct messages from famous people,” Wambach told Yahoo Sports. “And I was like, sure, Natalie Portman? This feels weird.”

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

“She’s sweet to say that,” ACFC co-founder and CEO Julie Uhrman told Yahoo Sports. "But we actually heard a lot of ‘no’s.'”

The standardly applied format for women’s sports is to take whatever the men are doing and copy it. What people are starting to come to terms with is that the same old rules don’t always apply from men’s leagues dating back a century to women’s only reaching a quarter of one.

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

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

Uhrman got involved early because she played in a basketball league with the third co-founder, Kara Nortman. She’s been a member of male-dominated professions for decades and had to work harder than them to be “successful and seen.” It was the same feeling she had playing sports. Certainly a feeling other women in the ownership group hold.

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

Uhrman thinks the timing is right given the success of the USWNT over the past decade. Its ownership model was revelatory and other NWSL teams have followed suit with famous athletes.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams is part of ACFC and Naomi Osaka bought a minority interest in the North Carolina Courage. Kendall Coyne Schofield, a two-time Olympic hockey gold medalist and the Chicago Blackhawks development coach, headlined a new Chicago Red Stars investment group announced March 1. Brittany Matthews, the fiancee of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, has a stake in the new Kansas City team, which was previously the Utah Royals.

It's a stark comparison to the standard older, rich white man owning a franchise. ACFC has clearly laid the groundwork for investing and ownership. And other leagues are seeing it the same. 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 venture are experiencing an ownership stake and playing simultaneously.

Athletes Unlimited gives power to players

ROSEMONT, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 29: Janie Reed #39 of Team Warren leaps to catch a fly ball in the third inning against Team Fagan at Parkway Bank Sports Complex on August 29, 2020 in Rosemont, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Janie Reed of Team Warren leaps to catch a fly ball during an Athletes Unlimited softball tournament. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

The professional women’s sports timeline is a short one in the U.S.

The WNBA enters its 25th season this May as the longest-running professional league in the country. The NWSL is the longest-running soccer league at nine years after failed attempts in the 2000s.

Other sports have struggled to break through even given their popularity at the youth levels. Take women’s volleyball, the second-most popular sport for high school girls behind outdoor track and field. There have been three attempts at a professional league and all disbanded within two years.

“Having gone overseas and played over there, we’ve seen [a professional league] is possible,” Cassidy Lichtman, a gold medalist volleyball star with Team USA, told Yahoo Sports. “I think a lot of the myths around what people want to watch, and ‘Will they watch women’s sports? Will they watch volleyball?’ get broken a little bit when you go, ‘OK, well they're watching it everywhere else.’ So is it that people don't want to watch or is it that we haven’t put the money and the priority on it within the U.S.?”

Lichtman is the chair of the Player Executive Committee for the Athletes Unlimited volleyball league that launched last month. The company has three leagues (softball, volleyball and lacrosse) and doesn't use city-based teams to limit operating costs. The model is based on fantasy sports with individuals earning points and the top four serving as captains for the weekly draft.

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

“I think that if you look at women’s sports over 100 years — a century-long span — I think we’re still in the kind of early stages of building out what’s going to work and what won’t,” Wambach told Yahoo Sports. “Athletes Unlimited is a new and innovative approach to trying to solve this big problem. And also doing it for the right reasons. It’s not like they are trying to invest the right amount of money. They are trying to give these women the right kind of ownership to what they’re a part of.

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

That little aspect is meaningful. The women actually playing the games can be their own change. There’s no lobbying for better amenities or equal treatment. No doing something because that’s “the way it’s always been done.”

“It’s been incredible and so refreshing to be asked our opinion and to be given actual decision-making power in something that’s so important to us and that we have much knowledge on,” Lichtman said. “This isn’t even one step forward, it’s 100 steps forward in terms of how much our insights are included into the development of this league.”

Athletes Unlimited also had what other leagues have not: buy-in from media outlets and TV broadcast deals. Because as every single story about women’s sports will tell you: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Tackling the tricky 4 percent problem

Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara in blue USWNT jerseys.
A new wave of USWNT stars, Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara, entered the media space to give women athletes more coverage. (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 that. There is no emphasis on asking what it’s like to be a woman in sports. It’s about what it’s like to be an athlete. Her conversations are fun, lively, intriguing and don’t miss on star power. For fans of women's sports, that's still rare.

“I’ve come to realize in life that if you want to see something happen, you can’t look around and expect someone else to do it. You have to be the one to do it,” O’Hara told Yahoo Sports shortly before the July 2020 premiere. “So for me it was like, if I want this to be better, if I want there to be better storytelling around athletes, I need to get involved.

“If we just leave it up to somebody else to do it, they’re going to do it their way.”

O’Hara did 20 episodes all remotely during the pandemic and many while she was playing in the NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup. She lets the guest tell the story and pokes deeper than the surface-level questions often emphasized when predominately male-focused shows have on a female athlete. In an episode with WNBA Players Association President Nneka Ogwumike, O’Hara compares the woman who had to be talked into going pro to the heralded leader we see on morning TV announcing a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement.

Just Women’s Sports viewed a podcast as its flagship product after it launched a newsletter in January 2020 to curate women’s sports content for fans and ran into a problem.

“What we learned really quickly and what sort of launched the rest of the company is [that] 4 percent is nothing,” Rosen, who played at Stanford, told Yahoo Sports.

Though 44 percent of all sports participants are female, only 4 percent of media coverage goes to them. JWS is chipping into it with stories, the podcast and “The Soccer Show” that launched this month on YouTube.

“I’m living the day-in and day-out of being a female athlete, a professional female athlete, and not getting the coverage we deserve [like] not being able to turn on ESPN and see all the score lines or the highlights I want to see,” O’Hara said. “Haley roped me into this because she made me realize this is super important. And I believe in the mission that is Just Women’s Sports.”

USWNT superstar Alex Morgan, O'Hara's first guest on the podcast, is now a part of her own media company 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 intends to bridge the coverage gap. Montgomery, the new Dream co-owner, also plans to continue her broadcast and podcast career she launched during the pandemic.

“I think one of the things about women’s sports is we’re not talked about enough on women’s platforms,” Montgomery said on a media call. “It’s not normally national media that cover women’s sports as I feel that they should. For me to be able to be in the media space, [I can] talk about the Dream and women’s sports and not even just the Dream, but the WNBA.”

All aim to give female athletes the proper coverage, and not a standard one-template-fits-every-female athlete cover.

“When we box female athletes in that way, the content is stale, it’s boring, it’s redundant,” Rosen said. “And we’re really reducing rich, interesting, thoughtful, innovative, great women to just being these one-dimensional things.”

Sponsorships grow with change in consumer habits

A deeply invested ownership group and lively podcast aren’t going to pay the bills alone. Teams and media outlets need money, and for decades, women’s sports haven’t had it.

Businesses strike sponsorship deals with the NFL and NBA for the brand recognition and increased revenue it can bring. Women’s sports, because of lack of investment from every angle, don’t have that same glean.

Yet consumers’ attitudes and buying habits are changing. The “official sponsor” of the NFL may be top of mind, but does it align with that customers’ values? Maybe not. Women’s sports realize this and are tapping into it.

Birdies, a footwear company founded in 2015, is the exclusive sleeve patch partner of ACFC, its first sports partnership. The choice was intentional by owners Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey, who were prompted by the pandemic rather than scared away because of its economic impact. They are working moms and experienced the disproportional toll it took on women so they wanted to support that segment anywhere they could.

“We took a different lens. Our mission is, how can we use our platform to lift up women?" Sharkey told Yahoo Sports. "And so last summer in the middle of the pandemic we thought, ‘OK, what is something that we can control in a time where everything feels like we can’t control anything?'”

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

“When they see Angel City showing up in a meaningful way," Uhrman said, "that has nothing to do with packing a stadium or LED signage, but has to do with making real impact and creating an emotional connection and a relationship with customers, it is an incredibly unique proposition and proposal that we have that they’ve not heard from other brands."

Birdies launched to fill a void in the footwear industry and has a similar mission as ACFC. The families are also sports fans and watch the U.S. women's national team.

“We are so much better together. Our mission is to lift up all women. It’s almost impossible to do it alone, right?” Gates told Yahoo Sports. “To rally with another company whose mission is the same and we can work together, that is powerful. That is 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 launched a challenge for others to join. O’Hara, who famously received beer from fans at the 2019 World Cup ticker-tape parade, launched season two of her podcast by announcing Heineken as a sponsor.

“I think that that shows people from the outside, like, OK, our [podcast listener] numbers are great,” O’Hara told Yahoo Sports. “People want to be involved, they want to connect their name with Just Women’s Sports, with this podcast. Heineken being a big-time beer brand, I think it’s a great partnership.”

On an even bigger stage, the WNBA announced Glossier, who collaborated with them based on social justice work, as the official beauty partner of the league in a move that feels a long time coming. Why shouldn’t beauty products for women be marketed by a women’s league that has players using those products on the court every night?

What happens amid all this partnership is crossover interest between brand consumers and league fans in both directions. That creates more viewers, more purchasers, more interest, more investment.

Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports
Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports graphic)

The trickle-down effect in women’s sports

This isn’t a hot trend that will peter out. Women’s empowerment in the sports space has been growing for years and is seen daily as a collective. It takes a level of confidence and unity as a player or coach to publicly call out the NCAA for unequal treatment in the men’s and women’s basketball tournament bubbles. They couldn't have done that without women before them speaking out about inequity.

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

“What happens is when you give a woman an opportunity like that, all she wants to do is spend the rest of her life trying to pay you back. And that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Every woman Yahoo Sports talked to about a changing landscape spoke of an investment that went beyond money. These steps forward are passionate ones that continue to build upward. It’s the next step in correcting persistent problems. They can be the change they want rather than lobby for others to change it.

“Female athletes are invested in changing the space,” Rosen, who started JWS with four athlete partners, told Yahoo Sports. “And it’s just wild to me because they’re competing at the highest level [and] there’s so much pressure on them but they’re also thinking bigger picture: ‘How do we leave this space better for the next generation?’ Getting connected, getting these women involved — I’m not going to say it’s been easy but it’s been very natural for us. It feels like everyone wants to work together to make this space better.”

In an unprecedented year that was initially forecast to set women back a decade, they launched forward to set a better standard for decades to come.

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