Power in the Platform: How Global Sports Brands Can Move the Needle Toward Gender Equality

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

In honor of International Women’s Day, Morgan Lewis Chair Jami McKeon and global sports industry team co-leader Louise Skinner hosted a panel of barrier-breakers in the sports industry to talk about the role and responsibility of global sports brands in pushing for greater gender inclusivity and equity.

Sharing their experience and insights were:

Karen Leetzow

Karen Leetzow, chief legal officer for the US Soccer Federation, who was instrumental in a historic collective bargaining agreement between the men’s and women’s US soccer teams that equalized FIFA’s World Cup prize money and provided a first-ever revenue-sharing framework for both teams.

Daniel Gallo

Daniel Gallo, chief people and sustainability officer for McLaren Racing, who is helping shepherd a series of programs designed to bring more women into F1 and motorsports more broadly.

Bonnie Jarrett

Bonnie Jarrett, senior intellectual property counsel at the NFL, who has seen the league make real strides in including women in coaching and training staffs, as well as in the corporate office and legal teams.

Samantha Ojo

Samantha Ojo, a Morgan Lewis labor and employment associate who—before she joined Morgan Lewis’s global sports industry team—worked for the NFL, NFL Players Association (NFLPA), LA Clippers, and the MLB Players Association and saw firsthand how the players, management, and lawyers need to work together to keep the momentum going.

Jami: Sports has always had an incredible power to change lives. From uniting a nation to cheer on their athletes during the Olympics to teaching one child the joy of the game, sports has unique scope in our global society to reach a broad audience and effect real change. While professional sports has played a significant role in breaking down gender, ethnic, and racial barriers—just think of the barriers broken by Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Jason Collins, Luis Miguel Castro, Babe Zaharias, and Jesse Owens—we are now seeing more systemic shifts originating with the teams and leagues themselves. In the past few years professional sports has harnessed that power for change to make historic moves to better gender diversity and equality. Our panelists are behind some of the most impactful movements in professional sports today and share their perspectives on why now is the moment to push for equality.


Louise: US soccer saw a truly historic moment this past year when the men’s and women’s US national soccer teams signed collective bargaining agreements with US Soccer that formalized identical pay structures for appearances and tournament victories, revenue sharing, and equitable distribution of World Cup prize money. But this didn’t happen in 2019 when the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup, or when US soccer icon Mia Hamm became a household name in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

What factors set up in 2022 led to such a historic deal?

Karen: Particularly in sports, teams have to be successful before you invest in them. You can’t get a broadcast deal unless you are winning. It’s now clear to all of us that this formula is completely backwards. Real change doesn’t happen unless you invest first.

Many of us have accepted a narrative that you don’t deserve investment until you are successful. It begs the question, then, why didn’t this happen when [the US] women won the World Cup? People got comfortable in this dynamic that women’s soccer was not as popular as men’s, so people didn’t question the pay structure. It took the women themselves to say, “We won’t do this anymore.” They took a very public stand why this doesn’t make any sense and used their profile on the world stage to say this is unacceptable.

What has the impact been on everyone involved?

Karen: When you look at how other federations pay their players, they pay them a percentage of prize money as part of their compensation. That percentage is often equal, but the pool of prize money for women is that much lower, so women end up with less money. The US soccer deal blew up that definition of “equality” by saying that all prize money should be pooled, and it’s US Soccer’s responsibility as a federation to drive that equality into players’ paychecks. If you watch other women’s professional clubs around the world, there are many more conversations about what equality actually means, driving a lot of disruption in other federations—so much so that they are looking at pay structures more similar to ours. We honestly didn’t understand the domino effect this deal would have around the world.


Louise: In many sports, the male game has been so dominant for so very long, so it’s great that you have that visibility as leaders. There was so much interest last year in the Women’s Euro competition, which captured the imagination and the hearts of everyone participating. We saw a record crowd attendance at the UEFA Women’s Euro Championship final in July, with more than 87,000 people packing into Wembley Stadium in London—the highest ever recorded for the men’s or women’s tournament.

Do you think we’ll see the same engagement in the Women’s World Cup this summer? What goes into creating that fandom on a global stage for this event?

Karen: In the US, soccer is still growing, and the excitement around the women’s game is real. I don’t think it’s limited to soccer; you are seeing it in all kinds of sports. It is new to see women competing on the world stage at this level, and it’s waking up the secret side of all little girls and women who have always wanted to see it but didn’t know why it was missing. We are all realizing the growth will not continue if we don’t support it. We are going to have to actively, as women, support the women’s game as much as we do the men’s.


Louise: Just like US soccer, McLaren Racing is becoming known as a barrier-breaker. McLaren Racing recently launched a flagship DEI program, McLaren Racing Engage, which aims to tackle the STEM skills shortage, address systemic inequalities, and seek new ways to bring more women and diverse talent into Formula 1. Over the last year and a half, you’ve allied with four companies to provide sponsorship for younger engineers, mentors to students from diverse backgrounds, a STEM challenge day for students in local schools, and a comprehensive career-development program.

How are we seeing these efforts pay off in what has been viewed as a male-dominated sport?

Daniel: If I look at Formula 1 and motorsports, 2020 was a really pivotal year. Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” has opened up F1 to a completely new audience, in particular female and younger viewers. We have to be reflective of our customers and our fans. As an organization we’ve always prided ourselves at being pioneering and challenging the norms. So we undertook an audit of our own organization to really look at ourselves and ways we can improve. That’s how McLaren Racing Engage was born. While McLaren is a huge global brand, we aren’t a huge organization. The fastest way to progress change was to align ourselves with outside organizations that share the same passion to deliver progress and deliver change.

We look at this in a few ways: One, as an employer, how do we diversify our own organization? Two, how to do we help to accelerate the diversification of sports as a whole? And three, how do we use the reach and platform we have globally for good, to promote the importance of DEI? In the first two years since the launch of McLaren Engage, our female and male mix of employees has improved by 5% across engineering and manufacturing. The intervention we have done around early career engagements, scholarships, mentorships, and returnship engagement—to tap into this wonderful talent pool of women who have left the workforce and want to come back in—is paying off. We have increased our female applicants from 15% to 27%, and 27% of our new hires last year were women. The more you can increase the funnel from the start, the more you can attract really talented women across a range of disciplines.

These are great early indicators; do you expect the trajectory to continue?

Daniel: This is going to take time; it’s not a linear progression. We’ve had great initial results, but we know exactly where our stumbling blocks are. For all organizations that are looking to make systemic change, you have to look at your managers to identify and deal with any internal bias. You can’t fix that overnight. So internal education is as critically important as external promotion. As a sport we only have two athletes competing at a time, but we have hundreds of engineers/manufacturers/artisans who produce these phenomenal machines. To get the message out there that these careers are accessible to women will take years. We aren’t going to see the dividends on this investment for a decade. But we aren’t just doing it for McLaren, we are doing it for F1 and for sports in general.


Louise: The NFL has one of the largest platforms to make a real difference in social change. We’ve seen it from individual players taking a stand for what they feel is right, and we are now starting to see changes coming from the teams and leagues as well. But it is a sport that has been traditionally played, and watched, by men and boys.

Is the NFL doing anything to encourage women to play football?

Bonnie: Our fan base is 50% women. During the Super Bowl, we ran a commercial called “Run With It.” It starred Diana Flores, who is an international flag football star for the gold-winning Mexican team; Billie Jean King; and California high schooler Bella Rasmussen, who made California history by scoring two touchdowns in a football game and aspires to play at the college level. We want to tap into that passion to show girls and women the different ways they can be part of professional football…such as being a coach or trainer, working in the front office, or reporting as a sports journalist.

In 2020 women made NFL history during a Washington Football Team—now known as the Commanders—and Cleveland Browns matchup when there were female coaches on opposing sidelines and a female official on the field. Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach Autumn Lockwood became the first Black woman to coach in a Super Bowl this year, and last summer the Raiders hired Sandra Douglass Morgan, who is the first Black female team president in NFL history. There are several teams with women who are partial or full owners of the team. Women are part of the future of football. They just are.

How is this next generation of athletes organizing around change and equality?

Sam: It is a very exciting time for college athletics. At my undergraduate college, there was a new group called Women of Troy [at the University of Southern California] that was dedicated to supporting female athletes, both in terms of game attendance and their endeavors off the field. This college generation has taken it further and has been very vocal about inequality in sports, and that has brought tangible change. It is very exciting to see women advocating for themselves and succeeding.

Name, image and likeness—NIL—deals have provided a world of new opportunities for female athletes. While two-thirds of early NIL deals went to men, 60% of NIL deals that were not football-related went to women. Having these female college athletes able to partner with these big brands will grow women’s sports and give exposure to a new audience of young girls who may have never seen someone like a female softball player in a commercial before.


Louise: Even though we are talking about why now is the moment for change, we know that the groundwork for these historic shifts started long before now.

How did you see the players associations start this work, and what more can sports lawyers do to help continue the momentum?

Sam: The NFLPA is beginning to partner with women’s players associations in terms of marketing to help those women athletes get licensing deals and become more well known. We also saw some really famous male athletes speaking out publicly about the need for equality and improvements in the women’s sphere and serving as strong allies, which is paramount in achieving change in these spaces. All of this early work set the stage for the amazing collective bargaining agreement in US soccer, which did help close the gap.

We are seeing more opportunities for women not only to play sports, but also to hold legal positions or office positions. That stems from the governing bodies being really intentional about the importance of having diversity in the workplace and understanding the value it brings. That empowers women athletes as they are competing, but also as they think about transitioning to their next careers. As lawyers we can help continue the momentum. It starts with conversations like these to make sure we are aware of the inequities for women in sports, and the fact that the inequities are really compounded for women of color. We need to make sure any kind of conversation includes advocates for women in sports because we need people doing that work at every level. It is exciting to see how more women in these positions are going to affect the future of the game.

What do we need to do next to push forward this positive change?

Karen: Change usually requires some agitation; usually in society and corporate America, you need to have something that is agitating for that change. The equal soccer collective bargaining agreements might still have happened, but not necessarily right now without the women fighting for it.

Sam: Revenue sharing and pooling is the strongest idea in this moment, so the more we can mirror those in sports with both a male and female version, the better. That will only come by raising the profile of women’s sports, by televising women’s games during prime time, encouraging engagement with women players, and having corporations invest really intentionally in the leagues we have to show that they value women participating.

Daniel: Someone told me a very powerful statement—that sports teams are more trusted by the public than politicians or businesses. If that is the case, that is pretty powerful, and we have to use that platform for good. If you aggregate all of the major sports teams around the world, that reach blows the mind. We can amplify the message of equality. Sports teams have to step up and put their power and voice behind this to make real change. We have to stand up and be counted.