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Pushed by Consumers, Some Sponsors Join Soccer’s Fight Over Equal Pay

Moments after the United States women’s soccer team won the World Cup last month, Nike released a bracing commercial celebrating the championship as a triumph of female empowerment.

“We will keep fighting not just to make history, but to change it, forever!” the ad’s narrator says as a crowd of voices bursts into the ubiquitous “I believe that we will win” cheer.

This team wins. Everyone wins.

Victory is when we all win. It’s only crazy until you do it. #justdoit @USWNT

— Nike (@Nike) July 7, 2019

The impeccably timed and beautifully crafted spot was an implicit endorsement by Nike of players who are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, a particularly expedient position for a company that recently had been accused of gender discrimination by both sponsored athletes and employees.

After withering criticism from runners it had once sponsored, Nike announced in May that its contracts no longer would include performance-pay reductions that effectively penalized female runners for becoming pregnant. Allyson Felix, an Olympic gold medalist who went public with her dispute with Nike over maternity coverage, recently was signed by Athleta.

Nike also is fighting a class-action lawsuit filed by two former employees who have accused to company of gender bias in pay, career development and other aspects of work. And last year, at least 11 Nike executives were forced out after an investigation into complaints of harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

Only three months ago, a Nike vice president said she feared the company was “sliding back into old muscle memory.”

In a statement to The New York Times last month in response to questions about the soccer commercial and the equal pay fight, Nike noted its broad support of women’s soccer — it sponsored 14 of the 24 teams in the recent World Cup — and of women’s sports in general.

“We are proud to draw from the incredible momentum for women’s sports today to serve the next generation of female athletes,” said Nike, which paid $27 million last year to sponsor U.S. Soccer.

As the United States women’s soccer team embarks on its World Cup victory tour, the fight over equal pay is only intensifying. Last week U.S. Soccer released a fact sheet that claimed women’s national team players actually had earned more than their men’s counterparts over the past decade; a spokeswoman for the players disputed the federation’s math, calling U.S. Soccer’s calculations “utterly false.”

As the sides prepare to enter mediation over the gender discrimination lawsuit, the players and their union know how influential sponsors will be. “Sponsors are incredibly huge because they put a lot more pressure than we are able to on U.S. Soccer,” Alex Morgan, a team captain, said in an interview. “Especially the sponsors that are already partners with U.S. Soccer.”

Nike is not the only U.S. Soccer sponsor to embrace the players’ equality campaign, a broadly popular effort that inspired chants of “equal pay” from fans inside the stadium at the World Cup final and later at the team’s victory parade.

The campaign comes at a time when consumers want corporations to make public stands on social and political issues.

“More than ever, corporations are expected to reflect the values of their customers,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies corporations and civil rights. But he cautioned that, ultimately, corporate decisions are driven by money, not beliefs.

“I don’t think we would see businesses wading into the political thicket if they didn’t think it was in their interests,” Winkler said.

Just before the World Cup, for example, Visa announced a five-year sponsorship agreement with U.S. Soccer that was applauded by some soccer fans because Visa executives claimed more than half of the money would support women’s soccer. Sheerin Salimi, a Visa spokeswoman, said the split was written into the contract.

Chris Curtin, Visa’s chief brand officer, said the company was not necessarily trying to address thorny issues with sponsorship dollars, but rather was “attempting to articulate who we are as a company and what we stand for as a brand.”

Visa’s sponsorship is an anomaly. The negotiations coincided with the equal pay debate (and litigation), leading to the unusual step of formalizing how a sponsor’s money would be spent, with U.S. Soccer acceding to close the deal.

Nike and Visa’s entrance into the equal pay debate stands out, because U.S. Soccer sponsors generally want to avoid taking public stances on contentious issues. Several other federation sponsors — Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Continental Tire — did not respond to requests for comment, and another, the watchmaker Tag Heuer, declined to comment. Volkswagen said it believed in “equality, inclusion and access,” and AT&T said the company had “clearly communicated our position that we expect players to be equally compensated” to U.S. Soccer.

Matthew Kohan, a Budweiser spokesman, said the company did not plan to renegotiate its contract with U.S. Soccer soon; its deal expires in a few years. He added that most of its sponsorship contracts contain incentive-based compensation, and so Budweiser was paying the women for winning the World Cup, though he would not reveal the amount.

“There are still plenty of businesses sitting on the sidelines, that think the best thing is to stay quiet, to stay out of hot-button controversies,” said Winkler.

And then there is Secret, the women’s deodorant brand of the consumer goods conglomerate Procter & Gamble. Secret became a U.S. Soccer sponsor on March 4, emphasizing women’s strength and teamwork. Four days later, the players filed their lawsuit, and 10 days after that Secret introduced a commercial supporting equal pay that featured Morgan and other players.

Secret said that it had been working on the commercial for nine months and that the timing was coincidental. The timing was not coincidental the next time Secret talked about the issue.

One week after the United States won the World Cup, Secret bought a full-page ad in The Times announcing that it would donate $529,000 — $23,000 for each of the 23 players on the roster — to the national team’s players association. The ad announcing the donation criticized U.S. Soccer directly, urging it to be on “the right side of history.”

So why did Secret partner with U.S. Soccer only to criticize it months later?

Sarah Black, a Secret spokeswoman, said in a statement that its deal with the federation does not mandate equal pay, and that it was in discussions with U.S. Soccer about its sponsorship, which lasts through 2019.

“We were compelled to join the players to help create long-term change,” Black said. “And to create real change, we knew we needed to not only use our brand voice and our platform for progress, but also put our money where our mouth is in a public way.”

Nike, the soccer federation’s top corporate benefactor has yet to wade that deeply into the debate.

The company has a long history of savvy campaigns about women’s sports, said Steve Papson, a professor at St. Lawrence University who wrote a book about Nike’s advertising. He pointed to the company’s lauded 1995 “If You Let Me Play” commercial, which was released as substantial opportunities to sell athletic shoes to young women emerged.

“It positioned themselves right then and there as supporters of women in sports,” said Papson, adding that “it didn’t hurt themselves in terms of the marketplace.”

More Coverage of Soccer’s Equal Pay DebateU.S. Soccer Says It Pays Women’s Team More Than Men’s TeamJul 29, 2019U.S. Soccer Sponsor Enters Equal Pay Fight on Women’s SideJul 14, 2019U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender DiscriminationMar 8, 2019What’s a World Cup Title Worth? For U.S. Women, Six Figures and CountingJul 7, 2019


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