Probably one of the most surreal moments of this Women’s World Cup happened to me nowhere near a football pitch. It was, instead, inside a salon in the Eiffel Tower, at a corporate event hosted by Luna, where the invitations asked for a “cocktail cool” dress code and the guests were Julie Foudy, Hilary Knight, and Venus Williams.
Maybe there’s a point at which you get old enough that being around cultural icons in sports isn’t enough to phase you, but that day in the Eiffel Tower certainly wasn’t it. Venus Williams appears to be something like seven feet tall in person, and on stage she is charming and funny. Off of it, she was quiet, gracious with young fans, but clearly not in a gregarious mood. I was starstruck, which usually manifests itself in me completely avoiding the star doing the striking, and in any case I was there to work. Luna had invited several media members to attend their panel on women in sports, moderated by former E! host Catt Sadler, and they talked about things like wage disparity and how to advocate for yourself as a woman in a male-dominated environment.
The entire time, it was hard to ignore that we were in the underbelly of the Eiffel Tower, with Paris spread out all around us. Mutiple tourists kept peering into the floor-to-ceiling windows of the salon and doing double-takes as they figured out it was Venus Williams onstage. And it made me wonder if this was going to be the future of women’s sports as more and more corporations realize they can make make even more money from female consumers through conscientious branding efforts.
Let’s not mince words: Luna gave the USWNT Players Association $718,750 to make up the difference between USWNT and USMNT World Cup roster bonuses, and will now come up every time that discrepancy is discussed in the media. It’s a savvy branding move, to have your product, which is primarily marketed towards women, now associated with an extremely prominent legal and cultural battle between a popular women’s national team and their federation over gender-based discrimination. Does Luna actually care about the players? Maybe they do!
Kit Crawford, co-owner of Luna Bar’s manufacturer Clif Bar, said she would love it if other corporations followed Luna’s example with regards to supporting female athletes. She talked to me about a variety of projects that demonstrate their commitment to corporate responsibility, from solar-powered bakeries and carbon-neutral offices, to looking into environmentally-friendly end-of-life options for their packaging, to ensuring approximately half of Clif Bar’s employees are women. It’s entirely possible Crawford and Clif Bar’s other corporate leaders do genuinely care about gender discrimination and at the same time saw an opportunity to gain even more favorable market position among their targeted consumer demographics.
It’s not that much different from Nike pouring millions of dollars into their World Cup advertising - there’s a lot of money in developing women as a market, and it helps if your consumers also feel like they’re being cool and progressive when they’re buying your product.
But there is an edge of uneasiness to it all. Some of it has already been crystallized in similar discussions around corporations at LGBTQ Pride events - will any of these businesses actually invest in the progress of marginalized communities through their hiring practices or public policy influences? Or do they just want the gays to sign up for checking accounts with predatory overdraft policies? When we look closer at Nike’s branding efforts around the World Cup, they’re very cool on the surface, but in the end, have they shown the women’s game the respect of believing in consumer demand by actually making World Cup products easily available and in the right quantities?
The ubiquity of corporate brands can certainly move the needle of cultural perception. Luna is in every store in the United States - I ate Luna bars by the box before I ever got a sniff of the Eiffel Tower event, and I personally asked Crawford at the end of our interview to consider making the lemon zest bars just a little more lemon-y. (Note for lemon zest believers: she said she would consider it.) You can’t discount the effect on the public zeitgeist of big brands publicly acknowledging and celebrating the existence of marginalized groups.
But as more and more money enters the sphere of women’s soccer, it’s hard not to worry about corporate or other financial interests beginning to dominate the way the game is administered and developed. It’s what we, the fans, have wanted for so long: to have the women’s game be considered profitable and worthy of the same level of investment as the men’s game. But money can also bring greed, bribery, and corruption. How are we to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors while also making women’s soccer a financially stable global enterprise that provides a living for all professional players? How can we balance the reality that expanding the game means bringing in corporate interests that may run counter to what’s best for players or fans against growing the game in a responsible, healthy way?
We as fans and members of the media have to be watchdogs. Supporters groups already serve this function for a lot of clubs - look at the way Sky Blue’s supporters group, Cloud 9, was ready to boycott the 2019 season over player conditions. Or the way Vancouver Southsiders walked out of a game to protest the Whitecaps’ handling of abuse allegations. Fan activism can extend to how their clubs and national teams partner with sponsors.
It’s on the media as well to be critical of how money is entering the women’s game. Sponsorships and TV deals - yes, good. But companies can’t just indiscriminately put money into the game to reap the benefits on their end; there have to be benefits for players and fans as well, in a tangible way that improves their day-to-day experiences in the game. More games on TV and more ways for fans to watch; a better standard of living for players whether they’re national team stars or the last woman on the bench; more and better merchandise available; better production values around broadcasts. These are things that can benefit both parties. No one is saying corporations need to be in it solely for the good of womankind, but like Luna’s partnership with the USWNTPA, there does have to be some level of thoughtfulness and responsibility to the ways in which they invest.