“Women have to be a lot more creative, and it’s not just recovery, it’s with their training,” Rachael Rapinoe tells me over the phone, after a question about the pay gap between men and women athletes. Men, she explains, have access to a gym in “pretty much any city… not just a gym, a private gym, private workout facilities. Everything is handled for them. It’s a lot easier for them to be able to go and train on their own with no disruptions.” But for top women athletes, like her twin sister Megan Rapinoe, a World Cup Champion and Olympic gold medalist, accessing training tools is much harder. Where men have endless resources provided to them through the infrastructure of their teams and leagues, women are largely on their own outside of training camp dates.
Rapinoe is the CEO of Mendi, a company geared toward athlete recovery through the use of CBD supplements, which researchers say can help some people with better sleep and muscle pain relief. Her current focus is on women athletes, and the way they are underserved across the board; for instance, until recently women didn’t even have soccer boots made for their feet, playing instead in men’s and boy’s shoes that manufacturers slightly altered with a “shrink it and pink it” approach. Through Mendi, Rapinoe hopes to set a standard for companies to make investments in women’s sports and women athletes by catering to their needs and pouring money into their leagues. To this end, Mendi recently sponsored two teams in the National Women’s Soccer League: the Utah Royals and the North Carolina Courage, and Rapinoe has brought on eight players from the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) as investors in the company. “From the very beginning [we] wanted to champion inclusivity. We figured what better way to really put our money where our mouths are than by investing in the league, investing in players in the league.” The invested athletes also play a role in the direction of the product—WNBA star Sue Bird, for instance, helped come up with the concept of putting CBD salve in stick form.
Rapinoe says her vision was to give women athletes and athletes of color—who are disproportionately punished for cannabis use—an opportunity to invest in something made for and by their own. It’s a revenue stream that is often closed to women athletes, who are usually only tapped for campaigns for non-sports products like almonds or deodorant, and even then, in the case of women soccer players, it’s only when Team USA is winning. “[The NWSL is] not as sexy or as big maybe as some of these other bigger leagues,” she says. “And I had the relationships and, you know, they need resources and they need dollars and other companies to step up and really invest in them in order to grow the league.”
This is Rapinoe’s contribution to growing the league and pushing for equity in sports—through entrepreneurial sponsorship and financial backing to the Royals and Courage, with potentially more teams to follow. Yet there’s still a much bigger hurdle for the NWSL and other women’s leagues: broadcast television. Until this year, out-of-market fans could only watch regular-season soccer games via subpar streams online; last season, ESPN carried just a handful of matches, while this year CBS Sports acquired the rights to air NWSL games across three of their platforms domestically. In comparison, Major League Soccer—the men’s league—is carried on ESPN, FOX, FOX Sports 1, and ABC, guaranteeing wider audiences and the potential revenue that follows. Rapinoe’s goal, through her company, to “level the playing field” between men and women in soccer is limited by the fact that some women’s teams don’t even have their own field to level.
“They don’t have the money,” she said of the NWSL, which is the only professional soccer league for women in the United States. Revenue streams and pay equity are the most pressing issue for women’s sports at the moment, and women in soccer are presently at the forefront. Rapinoe’s vocal sister Megan is one of the plaintiffs in an equal pay lawsuit against the U.S Soccer Federation, along with many other players in the NWSL. The issue of pay disparity isn’t limited to the archaic attitudes of the USSF front office. Women athletes have long been undervalued and seen as too much of a financial risk to big-time investors. The NWSL is still a young league—it began in 2012—and while viewership has grown over the last two years, large swaths of people just don’t seem to want to watch or buy tickets. “I think part of the reason why the league hasn’t been able to do more to market the players more is because, you know, marketing is expensive. And I think that the times have shifted, or at least the players are wanting the shift in their branding,” says Rapinoe. “These women are badass players. They’re professional athletes; they train day and night to get to where they’re at, and they want to be marketed in a ‘cool’ way.”
Still, large companies don’t seem motivated to put their names to a team, nor do they want to invest in advertising campaigns that include NWSL players outside of World Cup years. While the MLS may be currently earning millions in revenue, that wasn’t the case in the early years. The league was a money pit, and yet to them it made sense to continue investing in men and waiting years to see a return, even despite the conventional wisdom that Americans don’t care much about soccer. Women have yet to receive such a luxury. “Men’s sports have been invested in 100 times more than women’s sports. So, of course, you know, brands are going to be attracted to that,” says Rapinoe. “But female athletes win the hearts of so many fans in America. They just need dollars. They need more resources invested in them. There’s more than enough dollars in this country to make [the NWSL] something incredibly special. People just need to step up and do it—because the U.S. Women’s National Team is arguably the most beloved team, male or female, in this country.”