The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Women’s Sports Marketing: A Q and A With Sociologist Rachel Allison

As women's pro leagues grow, the way that they're bought and sold prompts new questions — so we brought in an expert.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Few topics are subject to more widespread consternation in the world of women’s sports fans and media than the ways in which they are sold. It’s clear that some off-the-field gamesmanship is required to draw people into this so-long-marginalized world, but many of the efforts to make teams and leagues appealing are not just ineffective but actually offensive. It’s this particular minefield that sociologist Rachel Allison, associate professor at Mississippi State University, has spent the past decade studying. Her book, Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer, is about the founding and development of the National Women’s Soccer League — specifically, about how the league tried to succeed where so many prior women’s pro leagues had failed. Here, we talked a little about the state of women’s sports marketing today, at a crucial tipping point for both the WNBA and the NWSL.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to work with women’s sports in an academic context?

Like many white middle class girls of a certain age, I grew up playing soccer most of my life. I was very passionate about it, and took it as far as I could based on my… limited talents [laughs]. But after I graduated from college, I kind of left it behind. I felt a little burnt out on it, honestly. 

When I went to graduate school, I thought that I would become a very different type of scholar. I’ve always been interested in gender as a broad area of focus, and what it meant to be a feminist in society, but I didn’t think about sports as a site to study that, when those are clearly incredibly related things! I had played sports my whole life, but I’d almost never watched women’s sports except maybe during the Olympics. I didn’t care about them until, all of a sudden, I did.  I was in Chicago for graduate school, and I read in the local newspaper that a new women’s pro soccer league was starting, and that Chicago would have one of the inaugural teams. Something just kind of clicked, and I said, “Wow, that’s really interesting — I should check it out.” 

When I started going, the quality of play was amazing, I was having great, exciting experiences as a fan — and yet, there was nobody there. I read a lot of the press about the major challenges the league was experiencing, especially just after the economic downturn, getting any press, major corporate sponsors not signing on, struggles with attendance, etc. I felt like there was a disconnect there, because the league was awesome. I started learning about how many attempts at women’s professional team sports there had been in the U.S. throughout history, and how many of them had come and gone so fast. That’s really what started me on the pathway of wanting to understand, specifically, women’s professional team sports.

I feel like my own trajectory was somewhat similar, in that I was interested in plenty of things that would have seemed to lead naturally into women’s sports and just didn’t even think about them until I was well into adulthood. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture to write them off. 

I wrote about it in the book on women’s soccer, I called it the “ideology of interest.” It is really deeply ingrained in our minds, but also within media and corporate organizations, that there’s just somehow less interest in women’s sport. In the case of investment decisions, one of the things that I found with the kinds of corporations and media entities that tell women’s sports “No,” is that oftentimes, it’s an assumption that there’s just not a lot of interest. It’s not based on rigorous market research. There is just a much lower risk tolerance for investments in women’s sport than in men’s sport across the board, without necessarily having a lot of data to support that. It’s interesting juxtaposed with some really, really risky investments in men’s sport and other ventures.

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Looking at the ways that people have tried to develop professional women’s leagues throughout history, what has stayed the same in the way they’re sold and marketed to people, and what’s changed?

I’ve seen at least in women’s soccer, I know there’s… I’ve read a lot of the research on women’s basketball as well. And In women’s soccer, I do think that it’s changed to some extent. I wish I could say that I feel uniformly positive and optimistic about that. But I think in the last year or two, we have seen a lot of gains for women’s sports in some areas, and a lot of people will herald this as progress for women’s sports. I don’t want to negate those [gains,] but I also feel kind of skeptical about things like linear narratives of progress. Our history shows that progress is often cyclical, it’s met with backlash, it’s one step forward and a couple steps back.  

Definitely in the past, especially with women’s soccer, it has been marketed and sold through tropes relating to gender difference — the way that women are unique from men, and as having new sources of value for consumers on that basis. So it’s often relied really heavily on gendered stereotypes about women, that are also racialized and class-oriented. Basically, white middle class femininity has been positioned to consumers as the unique selling point for women’s soccer because historically, and even today, the majority of elite players have been white and from relatively affluent backgrounds.

They looked at participation statistics and saw that soccer, especially girls and women’s soccer, had grown rapidly since the 1980s — so they decided that all the girls who were playing soccer and their parents were going to be their target market.  Most of these were relatively affluent white families, and they decided to market to what we think they want: this imagined form of white middle class womanhood. What I wrote about in the book is the way that doesn’t work. Even if you’re willing to overlook the fact that it’s problematic to use gender stereotypes to sell something, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t effectively reach the so-called target market and get butts in seats. 

Yeah, the “for the children” angle was big for the WNBA too, I think. 

Honestly, I’ve seen a really big shift within women’s sports away from that type of marketing, and towards marketing that’s not just focused on femininity or heterosexual appeal as a selling point — this kind of idealized wholesome womanhood — but instead just athletic talent. Some leagues were also doing that a long time ago, like with the early years of the WNBA and their “We Got Next” campaign.

The focus on appearance and beauty and femininity and motherhood, and all these types of things, has partially fallen away, especially when you consider internal league marketing. But where I do still see that is often external. What I wrote about in the book is this interesting juxtaposition between how women’s soccer as a league wants to portray itself and market itself versus how it’s often portrayed externally, in other types of media or online, where it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of control over its own image.

The focus on appearance, and beauty and femininity, and motherhood, and all these types of things have partially fallen away, especially when you consider internal league marketing. But where I do still see that is often external. What I wrote about in the book is this interesting juxtaposition between how women’s soccer as a league wants to portray itself and market itself versus how it’s often portrayed externally, in other types of media or online, where it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of control over its own image.

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What are some of the shifts in the way women’s sports are marketed that give you pause?

Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on it — maybe just a wider skepticism that might be my own problem [laughs]. But we’ve had a lot of new, major corporate partnerships, and that’s an example of the types of things that people are celebrating. In my mind, a lot of these changes are just greater and more enhanced commercialization of women’s sport. There are many benefits to that, especially as they hopefully trickle down to players in terms of increasing their compensation, improving training standards and facilities, and all of these things — like, that’s uniformly good. We have a long way to go to improve the experience of professional players.

In other ways, the successes of women’s sports are mirroring men’s sports. That’s to be expected, that’s always been the goal. These are for-profit entities, that’s been very obviously the intent. A lot of the ways they define success are in meeting these benchmarks and getting investments the way that men’s sports get investments. I’m a little concerned about making that the ultimate definition of what success means for women’s sports — to just entirely mirror the hyper-hyper-commercialized nature of men’s professional sports.

Definitely — and personally, I don’t really know what the ideal version of a sports league for either gender looks like. I can sit here and be like, “Well, I think this is bad. And I think this is bad. And I think this is bad.” I definitely struggle with a lot of the ways that the WNBA markets itself, but I don’t know if there is a way that they could market themselves that would feel right.

I struggle with that too with soccer — it’s really easy to say, “Well, that’s troubling!” Honestly, jobs in marketing for women’s sports are probably very difficult jobs to have because it is such a tricky thing to navigate, to figure out what’s going to be effective without falling into a lot of these really easy tropes. I wouldn’t want that job right now — actually, that’s not true. In some ways. I would love that job. But it’d be a hard job to have.

I don’t really know what the ideal is. I think it just has to be like, hyper-specific. You know what I mean? The tendency towards very often cisgendered generalizations is where everyone gets into trouble….you put it really astutely in the abstract for a recent paper

“Privileging difference” is a narrative whereby players recognize belief in women’s physical inferiority to men and argue for women’s moral superiority to men as a source of value and reward for women’s sport. Sportswomen’s moral authority is defined from a position of racialized class privilege, as players construct an idealized woman player who sacrifices material reward for emotional satisfaction and who emphasizes future change over present conditions.

I mean, that’s perfect. How do you see that kind of future focus in the world of women’s sports today?

That’s one of the features of marketing that I think has been pretty consistent in women’s soccer for a long time. This idea that they’re like, inspirational, especially to the next generation of girls. That’s still everywhere in women’s soccer marketing. Sometimes it’s kind of repackaged — instead of using terms like “role models,” it’s “empowerment” or “inspiration” or “barrier-breaking,” but it’s always like, “For whom?” And it’s always little girls. I think it’s really limiting to say that that’s the value of women’s sports. Like all athletes can be inspirational to kids, but we don’t market men’s sports that way.

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It’s insulting, the whole way through. It’s like, “Well, this is for children.” Women aren’t entertaining enough for adults, but kids might get something out of it.

Plus it’s just so not true. Women’s soccer assumes that kids are going to be a major part of their market. But there are a lot of adults there who are just fans of women’s soccer — more ignored than any others are probably LGBT fans. They’re a huge and important part of the fan base, and that’s always been true despite the fact that they’ve been so often marginalized or ignored and made invisible by marketing and other decisions that teams and leagues have made. There’s been some change to that more recently, but the kid thing — the “family friendly” coding — can be marginalizing of LGBT fans.

Plus obviously, embracing queer identity does not make you not “family friendly.” But I think the very, very recent (and extremely belated) shift on the parts of teams and leagues to be at least a little more proactive with regard to LGBTQ inclusivity speaks to a broader acknowledgement that there are women’s sports fans right now; that we don’t need to keep acting like we’re in a holding pattern for a hypothetical someday when women athletes will be respected and given what they deserve.

The interviews that formed the basis of that “Privileging Differences” paper were wrapping in 2015, right at the time that the U.S. women’s national team’s battle for equal pay and better playing conditions was getting a lot of attention, but not as much attention as it would get later on. I think if I had done the interviews a couple years later, around 2019 or so when the lawsuit was getting a ton more attention and the battle had been kind of ongoing for a while, maybe it would have been a little different. Because to some extent, that’s kind of a counter narrative.

It’s like, “Yes, we care about resources for future girls, but we also want to be paid now.” 

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