By Nancy Armour |
Change does not come cheap.
The popularity with the general public, the star turns after big tournaments, the inspiration they’re providing for younger generations – those are all well and good for the U.S. women’s team and other high-profile female athletes. But to fill the gaps left from decades of disparity, to achieve true equality, it’s going to take money. Significant amounts of it. From federations, leagues and corporations.
As the U.S. women prepare for the World Cup, which begins Friday in Paris, there has been a marked shift in their quest for equity – in athletics and otherwise. Setting an example and hoping others follow is no longer enough. They’re pushing for money, from stakeholders and others with the power to change the narrative.
“I would like to see a major paradigm shift, a major overhaul,” Megan Rapinoe said last week. “Realizing that there’s been such a lack of investment all of these years and such a lack of care and attention that doubling, tripling or quadrupling investment, care, attention to the women’s game would be appropriate.
“To make incremental change obviously leaves the game wanting more, and is not nearly enough at this time.”
Rapinoe was talking about FIFA, but the criticism is applicable across the board. It’s why the national team has sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, accusing the federation of short-changing the women’s program in favor of the men’s team despite the women having considerably more success and, in some years, superior earnings.
The lawsuit is the long game, likely to take months if not years to wind its way through the courts. In the meantime, corporate sponsors are waking up to the idea that equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s good business.
Luna Bars said earlier this year it would make up the difference between World Cup bonuses for the U.S. women and men, a sum of almost $720,000. Adidas has said it will award the same bonuses to its female athletes as it did its male athletes in the men’s World Cup last summer.
And on Thursday, Visa announced a five-year sponsorship deal with U.S. Soccer that requires at least 50 percent of the money go toward the women’s national team and other programming initiatives to benefit the women’s game. It refused to put a dollar figure on its investment.
Visa will be the title sponsor for the She Believes Cup, a multi-confederation tournament the United States hosts each spring, and also will sponsor the player of the match award at the World Cup. It has personal endorsement deals with Rapinoe and 16 other female soccer players.
“It’s time for us to be helping to take a stand and empower women of all ages to pursue their passion, whether it be on the field or in the boardroom,” Mary Ann Reilly, Visa’s senior vice president of North American marketing, told USA TODAY Sports.
“Women are underrepresented, and we look at the U.S. as an example,” Reilly continued. “The women’s team is the best team in the world. It’s only right that they should be getting more of the support from sponsors and promotions. We want to make sure we’re helping to do our part to close that gap.”
This isn’t simply a money grab – though it is not lost on the women that men who’ve achieved comparable success are often financially secure for life whereas they’re contemplating second careers. This World Cup is proof that when you invest, growth follows.
Following the 2012 Olympics, England launched a five-year plan to grow women’s soccer, including creation of an Elite Performance Unit and splitting off commercial and television rights from the men’s team. Three years later, England won the bronze medal at the World Cup in Canada. Now it’s considered among the favorites in France.
La Liga took over the Spanish women’s league in 2015. Three years later, Spain’s under-17 team won its World Cup while the under-20 team reached the final. In March, a league match between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid drew more than 60,000 people.
“The women’s game is on a steady climb and I would like to see it exponentially rise,” said Becky Sauerbrunn of the U.S. team. “I would like to see a lot more countries invest in their women’s programs. I’d like to see more domestic leagues.
“We’ve taken a lot of steps, but I think there are a lot of steps left to go.”
The women aren’t asking for anything extra. After generations of being short-changed, they just want what they’re owed.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.