During the summer of 2019, Anheuser-Busch launched a marketing campaign starring a pink-haired Megan Rapinoe, fresh off a captivating U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup victory, and calling on other brands to join Budweiser, the National Women’s Soccer League’s official beer sponsor, in supporting the NWSL and its players.
It worked. In the past two years, the league has brought in record-setting sponsor dollars from a growing list of corporate partners, seen significant spikes in viewership through new television deals, and raised player salaries.
And now it’s all at risk, as the nine-year-old league has been rocked by allegations of verbal and sexual abuse by coaches, in a mushrooming scandal that has sparked cancellations of games, an outcry from the league’s players, a trio of investigations, calls for ownership changes and several firings and departures, including the resignation of NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird just 19 months into her tenure and mere weeks before the Oct. 30 close of the regular season.
The NWSL has announced new policies and retained the law firm Covington & Burling to investigate a number of previously reported incidents. The firm will also review league and individual clubs’ procedures, policies and treatment of players, and make recommendations for reforms and sanctions. While it’s unclear yet whether the 10-team league’s efforts go far enough for players and fans, corporate sponsors and partners have not deserted the league yet.
“We support the NWSL’s mission and support all steps to ensure a safe environment for players and employees,” a Budweiser spokesperson said in an email. “We’re committed to this sport and its players, and intend to continue that commitment as we understand how the league plans to fully address these important issues.”
Sponsorship money is a key revenue stream for the league, which reportedly brings in about $2.5 million annually from its media rights. CBS pays around $1.5 million per year and Twitch’s parent company Amazon pays slightly more than $1 million, according to people familiar with the arrangement. And while NWSL attendance had steadily grown prior to the pandemic, jumping by 22% in 2019 in the afterglow of the women’s World Cup, ticket sales are still not one of the league’s main revenue sources.
There is fear, a source close to the league said, that the scandals could impact potential partners who may now be hesitant to join the NWSL’s sponsor roster. With supporters such as Verizon, whose contract reportedly runs through the end of this year, nearing the end of their current deals, renewals are also a concern, to say nothing of the potential for some sponsors to invoke morality clauses to exit early.
But several sponsors contacted by Sportico echoed Budweiser’s commitment to the NWSL, including Nationwide, which joined as a league sponsor in March.
“We unequivocally expect NWSL’s leadership to be accountable for the steps they’ve outlined, most especially in supporting those who’ve been impacted by this misconduct and rooting out anyone who abuses their power and mistreats others,” a Nationwide spokesperson said in a statement. “We remain committed to supporting the athletes who play in this league and creating long-term change together.”
Nationwide was one of several new corporate partners the league added in 2021 alongside Ally, the NWSL’s first banking partner, financial services company Mastercard, professional services consultancy Deloitte and iHeartMedia. Budweiser, Nike and Verizon round out the NWSL’s corporate partners.
“We are encouraged to see NWSL take these allegations seriously and we look forward to a thorough, thoughtful, impactful resolution that gives the players the support they need and deserve,” Ally said in a statement, declining to comment any further on its plans for continued partnership with the league.
The response from Nike, a founding sponsor of the league whose deal runs through 2022, was one of the strongest.
“We are deeply disturbed by the allegations,” Nike said in a statement. “Nike believes the safety and wellbeing of athletes are non-negotiable. We welcome the decision taken to investigate and will closely monitor the situation. Nike continues to invest in and support women’s sport while using our voice to advocate for positive change.”
Mastercard similarly said it is watching the NWSL’s response, articulating a commitment to advancing women in sports without commenting on whether or not the NWSL will remain part of those efforts in the future.
“We support the players on and off the field, especially those who have shared their stories or spoken out against harassment and abuse,” a Mastercard spokesperson said. “Every player deserves protection and we support an immediate, independent and thorough investigation into these concerning allegations. We are in contact with the league to understand the actions they will take to address this situation and protect the players.”
CBS declined to comment on whether it plans to honor its current commitments, but a person familiar with the network’s partnership with the league said it will continue as the NWSL’s media partner. After play was paused over the weekend in the aftermath of the allegations and Baird’s resignation, CBS broadcast the league’s first match back between Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit, when players from both teams stopped the game early and joined together on the field in protest.
CBS signed a three-year television deal with the league in early 2020. Neither Twitch nor iHeartMedia responded to requests from Sportico, nor did the league’s other corporate partners.
All of these companies no doubt will be following the results of the several NWSL investigations closely, including the revived probe into the Portland Thorns’ handling of the accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against former coach Paul Riley. On Wednesday, after players released a list of demands for the organization, Portland placed general manager and president Gavin Wilkinson on administrative leave from the Thorns, but not MLS’ Timbers, pending the results of the club’s outside investigation of its previous conducted 2015 investigation into Riley. Covington & Burling will report its findings on this and other matters to a new, three-person executive committee that will oversee league operations until a new commissioner is hired.
Amanda Kramer, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, will oversee the investigations for Covington & Burling. The league also partnered with RealResponse, a platform where users (in this case, current or former players and staff) can share anonymous feedback in real time regarding misconduct, policy violations and other issues related to health and safety.
U.S. Soccer, which helped found and subsidize the NWSL, also launched an independent investigation into the allegations and tapped former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to lead it. FIFA will be investigating as well.
Those efforts may not be enough for NWSL players. Many of the league’s stars have articulated clear dissatisfaction with the handling of the reports and said the instances of abuse and misconduct reflect broader cultural issues that the league has long failed to address. Fans have also been quick to voice their dissatisfaction, pointing toward reports that Kramer, in her previous role, refused to investigate Jeffrey Epstein in 2016 after she was approached by lawyers representing his victims.
(The story was updated to include comments from Nike and Mastercard and developments in the Portland Thorns situation.)