Visa this week has announced a new five-year deal with the U.S. Soccer Association specifically to support the U.S. Women’s National Team through 2023, which includes becoming the title sponsor for the annual SheBelieves Cup. The brand has also added USWNT star Megan Rapinoe to its roster of athlete ambassadors.
On the surface this appears to be just another global brand cracking open the sponsorship coffers to keep its name in lights across yet another major sport. But over the last few months, Visa has actually changed the game when it comes to boosting and empowering women’s soccer through the scale and structure of its investment.
“The inspiration behind what we’re doing is Visa’s broader focus to inspire women both in sports and in the boardroom,” says Mary Ann Reilly, the brand’s senior vice-president, head of North American marketing. “It’s really about the overall focus on women’s empowerment, and so therefore we’re expanding our investment in women’s soccer.”
Visa. Proud partner of the U.S. Women’s National Team. pic.twitter.com/XeMH2oD9bs
— Visa (@Visa) May 30, 2019
Traditionally, major soccer sponsorships bundle both men’s and women’s programs and tournaments together. What that’s meant in most cases is that brands want to buy in to the major men’s teams and tourneys, and are forced to take on the women’s game as a feel-good add-on, but rarely do they put the same push–TV ads, fan events, and so forth–behind the latter. There’s also the not-so small matter of how the sport’s governing bodies around the world choose to divvy up those sponsorship dollars between the genders. Prize money for this year’s women’s World Cup, for example, is $30 million across all 24 teams, double the $15 million it was in 2015 but it’s still a tiny fraction of the $400 million in prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia.
UEFA has recently unbundled those sponsorship rights, and Visa back in December was the first major sponsor to make an investment specifically in women’s soccer, with a seven-year deal to be the main partner of major tournaments like the Champions League, European Championships, Under-19 and Under-17 Championships, and the Futsal European Championships until 2025.
Rebecca Smith is the global executive director of the women’s game for Copa90, but also spent four years working within FIFA, and is a former FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year nominee. She says the money Visa is investing may be the least important part of the brand’s deals in women’s soccer. “The most important part is the length of the contracts, which show the business and social maturity of a brand to have the foresight to see the women’s game for what it is, the biggest growth area in football right now,” says Smith. “It’s just smart business.”
U.S. Soccer hasn’t officially unbundled its sponsorship structure. When I reached out to VW, for example, back in March, for comment on the USWNT equal pay suit against the association, a brand spokesperson told me that the brand essentially allows the organization to decide how it will spend the brand’s investment.
With its new deal, Visa has taken a more specific tack. “The U.S. federation is not unbundling it, so we are sponsoring both the men and the women’s teams,” says Reilly. “But over 50% of our investment will go to the U.S. women’s team. And why would it not? They are the best team in the world. They really stand for the values that Visa embraces and supports, which is all about driving women’s empowerment. So that’s where we’re controlling what we can control, which is our investment to support the women’s team.”