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Sports and Politics 2019: USA Women's Soccer

The US National Women's Soccer team was the biggest sports story of the summer. This was an easy one to call — a roster of already-known stars, the US team as a heavy favorite, an equal pay controversy, etc. I called it out on a podcast episode taped well before the tournament started.

The story played out spectacularly and as expected. The crowds wore the red, white and blue and the media could write endless stories about sex based discrimination. I should add that it's actually difficult to decipher the true financial aspects of how the US men's and women's teams are compensated (and the fairness of the agreements).

The key point is that the narrative was easy and the cultural moment was predictable. This combination of sports and politics created opportunities for not just sponsorship but "newsworthy" sponsorship. Sponsor the team or a player, and a brand received not just the impressions and associations from the connection to US women's soccer but also a great deal of free traditional and social media.

Budweiser played the media particularly well.

Last summer, Budweiser encouraged fans to support the National Women’s Soccer League with the #WontStopWatching movement, which encouraged attention all season and not only during high-profile events like the World Cup. Following the success of that campaign, Budweiser is now calling on sponsors to step up and support NWSL.
Launching today, the “Future Official” campaign calls on businesses to become the next sponsors of the league. Budweiser already occupies the “Official Beer” category, but newspaper ads that will run as part of the campaign tease opportunities for the “Official Timepiece,” “Official Restaurant” and “Official Deodorant” of the league.

Let us take a moment to think about a brand encouraging other brands to sponsor a league. It's a great marketing play. The more sponsors, the more free promotion of the team. If all of corporate America gets behind women's soccer, maybe the publicity translates into increased attendance and the value of the beer sponsorship (maybe) goes through the roof.

But there was clearly something else going on with this appeal. Budweiser was clearly playing the media. And the media couldn't help but play their part. It was too easy of a story. Budweiser becomes not just a corporate sponsor (boo! corporations are bad!) but also an advocate for the beloved and abused woman players (Yay! Allies are good!)

It is sort of the opposite of the NFL's "Kaepernick" public relations dilemma. Budweiser is surfing the cultural wave while the NFL is fighting against it.

I understand Budweiser's play but the skeptic in me has some doubt. Assessing the marketing value of women's soccer is complicated because its not just sport. It is also patriotism and a compelling (to some segments) social issue (equal pay). Ideally, I'd like to know how much interest in the team can be attributed to the soccer, to wearing the USA uniform and to the free media from today's politics. This is a tough analytic challenge and, in fact, given the lack of data and transparency it is currently an impossible one.

Understanding the impact of "politics" on sports marketing outcomes is a fascinating topic.

In the absence of data we can at least frame the underlying issue of damned for women's soccer. Let's take a look at the "marketing" star of the USWNT and the NWSL. Megan Rapinoe became the headliner through a combination of her play and her politics. She has also made a lot of money post tournament. Politics is part of the Rapinoe brand and she was an early supporter of Kaepernick. The picture below is a look at her pre-tourney protest. Not exactly a capacity crowd.

I have no idea if this picture is an unfair representation (maybe it was cold and raining) of consumer demand for non-national team women's soccer. It is the first image that shows a shot of the crowd from a google search for Megan Rapinoe.

There are two obvious interpretations.

  1. Interpretation one is that there is little interest in Women's soccer without the flag and a hype machine.

  2. Interpretation two is that the poor attendance is merely reflective of a history of neglect and discrimination in the marketing of the Woman's game.

The interesting thing from my perspective is the corporate and media reaction to the Women's team. Sponsorship dollars and accolades flowed to the team and its members. Again, we can have two interpretations. Interpretation number one is that corporate sponsors are seeing a undervalued market opportunity. Maybe. Interpretation number two is that corporate sponsors see an opportunity to leverage a media environment to ride a wave of free publicity and to (maybe) create a new market opportunity.

In the short-term, the Budwesier strategy makes sense with either interpretation of reality. There is an obvious opportunity to use the media to magnify a relatively small investment. In the long-term, the situation is less clear. Does the cheap media translate to the right kind of brand equity? Does this sponsorship make the Budwesier brand more appealing to the core beer drinker?

Regardless, I think its clear that politics has now infiltrated the world of sports sponsorship. It's a fascinating time. Are companies picking up on real trends and aligning their brands with a changing culture OR are companies abandoning their core customers for some cheap politically motivated media?

Bonus Question - Is sports culture evolving or being steered?



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