Twitter It was quite new when Alex Morgan – still a college student, not yet famous – tried it out around 2009. Soon, Instagram also came along and started posting there as well.
“I went on social media a little more innocent,” she says. “It was just fun.”
As the years went by, as Morgan graduated from playing soccer at UC Berkeley to the US women’s team, winning World Cups and Olympic medals, she began to mix business with pleasure.
Like many female athletes, the San Dimas native realized that her sport was severely hampered, and all too often ignored by mainstream newspapers, magazines and television. She saw a way around the problem.
Social media helped her promote women’s soccer by connecting directly with fans and telling her story. Her fan base grew to 9.5 million, which made her attractive to corporate sponsors because – on Instagram, at least – she was three times more popular than the Dodgers.
“I don’t have a Ronaldo or Messi salary,” says Morgan, who is now with the San Diego Wave of the NWSL. “I think women have been able to use their platforms to achieve greater financial viability.”
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, a pioneering law that prohibits sex discrimination in all programs or activities in federally funded schools. Its anniversary has prompted much talk of numbers – the continued growth in sports participation among women and girls, increased funding for their high school and college teams, the gap between boys and men who still need work.
Just outside the jurisdiction of the law another aspect of the story is emerging, with female athletes continuing to struggle for attention.
A study conducted by the USC and Purdue over the years found that women accounted for only 5% of the highlights of the nightly news, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and other broadcasts. Research in print and digital news has identified similar inconsistencies.
“Men’s sports – especially the ‘Big Three’ of basketball, football and soccer – get the lion’s share of coverage, whether in-season or off-season,” the USC-Purdue study noted. “When the story of women’s sports comes to light, ‘one and done’ is usually a case of one sports story for women hidden by a collection of men’s stories.”
Female athletes still compete with Cristiano Ronaldo’s social media outreach at 455 million Instagram followers or LeBron James at 124 million, but Serena Williams has built 14.9 million and Simone Biles has 6.8 million. Years after retiring from tennis, Maria Sharapova still has 8.4 million followers on Twitter.
“Women athletes need to be more creative,” says Cheryl Cooky, a professor of American Studies at Purdue. “The advent of social media and the changing landscape of media, where anyone can produce content, has given them more power.”
In the spring of 2021, a performance coach from Stanford posted photos on Instagram of the difference between men ‘s and women’s weightrooms during March Madness. Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince followed a TikTok video that went viral.
“If you are not upset about this problem, you are a part of it,” Prince told his 3.1 million followers.
The NCAA responded with an apology and a quick upgrade.
The episode highlighted the trends of years in the making – trained female athletes marketed themselves and their sports through images that ranged from careful planning to the informal and personal.
Williams shares photos of hanging out with Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner at a former Oscars partner. Biles posts pictures of going to a Houston Astros game with his fiance, Houston Texans safety Jonathan Owens. Soccer player Ali Krieger, a Morgan’s teammate on the national squad, shows pictures with his daughter, Sloane.
By tracking “likes” and talking to fans, Krieger, who plays for Gotham FC in the NWSL, helped identify the types of jobs that most resonated with.
“People want to share a little bit more with you because that’s how they connect,” she says. “Not only do they make a connection through football; they connect through your personal life and your stories. ”
Social media plays a slightly different role for Liz Cambage, who has found a place in the world of fashion and appeared in an advertising campaign for French designer Thierry Mugler. The 6-foot-9 Sparks center asks you to post and tag photos of herself in stylish attire “second business to me.”
“It’s part of being an athlete now,” she says. “Some people don’t like it.”
Disclosure is crucial for women who may not get as many commercial opportunities as their male counterparts. Even Williams, who is well known on TV, posts for migraine medication and a video of himself drinking in the kitchen, cooking with the sponsor’s plant – based eggs.
As one of the most famous soccer players in the U.S. – male or female – Morgan highlighted a mattress and sports drink company that she supports, saying; “For many sponsors, it’s a numbers game. They are looking at followers and analytics and responding to sponsored posts. ”
But self-marketing can raise difficult questions. Hanna and Haley Cavinder, a couple who play college basketball in Miami, have attracted 4 million followers and have a series of lucrative NIL markets with a TikTok account where they dance in bikinis and tight dresses.
“It’s still expected to stick to a certain type of image or create a particular brand,” Cooky says. “It could fall into a trap, the usual femininity or beauty or heteronormative roles.”
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, research shows that the media tended to modify female athletes by portraying them in sexual attire or writing about them as wives and girls. The situation has improved but it is still a matter of concern. Cambage talks about the archetypal “Instagram girl, pretty girl, all the time, wearing cute clothes.”
“It’s sad that buying in has helped me promote my marketing,” she says. “I think that’s more of a reflection of the world in which we live.”
Some athletes insist on sticking to a daily topic. Family life, lunch dates, holidays. This approach is invaluable to Krieger who, for years, has remained silent in public about his relationship with colleague Ashlyn Harris. As members of the US roster, they were concerned about back pressure.
“We were not sure how our sponsors or staff responded,” she says. “You have to realize that if you take this risk, you could lose your job.”
The couple decided to announce their 2019 marriage on Instagram. Thousands of congratulations and enthusiastic responses from sponsors were overshadowed by the supposed bad comments.
“The support we received was incredible,” says Krieger. “I never thought in a million years.”
The presence of female athletes on social media has helped drive wider efforts such as the sports series Athletes Unlimited and “Just Women’s Sports, a website which has reported a steady audience growth. Cooky sees another path to success.
“You have to cultivate an audience,” says the Professor. “You have to build a market.”
The legacy media is not entirely out of the picture.
The 2018 Nielsen poll found that 66% of the population and 84% of fans in the United States, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand showed interest in at least one women’s sport. A recent report from Deloitte, the accounting and consulting giant, predicted that more television and print heights could encourage women to progress.
But female athletes are not waiting around.
“Building a brand is very difficult,” says Krieger. “You have to be strategic.”
For women who have learned how to use social media, that means staying motivated and resourceful. It means they will continue to do the work themselves.
Times staff writer Myah Taylor contributed to this report.