Twitter was fairly new when Alex Morgan – still a college student, not quite famous yet – tried it around 2009. Instagram soon came along and she started posting there as well.
“I went on social media a little more innocently,” she says. “It was just fun.”
Over the years, as Morgan rose from playing soccer at UC Berkeley to the US women’s team, winning world titles and Olympic medals, she began to combine business and pleasure.
Like many female athletes, the San Dimas native recognized that her sport had hit a roadblock too often ignored by mainstream newspapers, magazines and television. She saw a way around the problem.
Social media helped her promote women’s football by connecting her directly with fans and sharing her story. Her following grew to 9.5 million, making her attractive to corporate sponsors as she was three times more popular than the Dodgers — at least on Instagram.
“I don’t have the salary of Ronaldo or Messi,” says Morgan, who is now with San Diego Wave in the NWSL. “I think women have been able to use their platforms to gain more financial profitability.”
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, a landmark law that prohibits gender discrimination in any program or activity in state-funded schools. Its anniversary has sparked many conversations about numbers — the continued growth in women’s and girls’ sports participation, the increased funding for their high school and college teams, the gap between boys and men who still need work.
Just beyond the jurisdiction of the law, another element of the story hovers as female athletes continue to compete for attention.
A decade-long study by USC and Purdue found that women made up just 5% of the highlights shown on the evening news, ESPN’s SportsCenter, and other shows. Research has found similar discrepancies in print and digital news.
“Men’s sports — particularly the ‘Big Three’ basketball, football and baseball — still get the lion’s share of coverage, whether in-season or off-season,” says the USC-Purdue study. “When a women’s sports story comes out, it’s usually a case of ‘one and done’, a single women’s sports story obscured by a collection of men’s stories.”
Female athletes have yet to match the social media reach of Cristiano Ronaldo with 455 million Instagram followers or LeBron James with 124 million, but Serena Williams has amassed a following of 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 had to get more creative,” says Cheryl Cooky, professor of American Studies at Purdue University. “When social media emerged and there was a shift in the media landscape where content can be produced by anyone, it gave them more power.”
In the spring of 2021, a Stanford performance coach posted Instagram photos of the differences between men’s and women’s weight rooms during March Madness. Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince followed with a TikTok video that went viral.
“If you’re not upset about this issue, then you’re part of it,” Prince told her 3.1 million followers.
The NCAA responded with an apology and a speedy upgrade.
The incident drew attention to a trend that had been nascent for years – female athletes were adept at marketing themselves and their sport through imagery that ranged from the carefully planned to the informal and personal.
Williams shares photos of hanging out with Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner at an Oscars after-party. Biles posts snaps of her walking to a Houston Astros game with her Houston Texans security guard fiancé Jonathan Owens. Soccer player Ali Krieger, a teammate of Morgan’s on the national team, shares pictures with her daughter Sloane.
Tracking likes and talking to fans helped Krieger, who plays for Gotham FC in the NWSL, figure out what types of posts resonated the most.
“People want you to share something more because that’s how they connect,” she says. “They don’t just connect through football; You actually connect through your personal life and stories.”
Social media plays a slightly different role for Liz Cambage, who has carved herself a place in the fashion world by starring in an ad campaign for French designer Thierry Mugler. The 6ft 9 Sparks Center calls posting and tagging photos of yourself in stylish outfits “a second business to me.”
“It’s part of the sporting life now,” she says. “Some people don’t like that.”
Openness is crucial for women, who may not get as many commercial opportunities as their male counterparts. Even Williams, a well-known TV face, fills her account with posts for a migraine drug and a video of herself in the kitchen, cooking with a sponsor’s plant-based eggs.
As one of the most famous soccer players in the US – male or female – Morgan singles out a mattress company and sports drink she endorses, saying, “For a lot of sponsors, it’s a numbers game. You look at followers, analytics, and reactions to sponsored posts.”
But self-marketing can raise difficult questions. Hanna and Haley Cavinder, twins who play college basketball in Miami, have attracted 4 million followers and a string of lucrative NIL deals with a TikTok account where they dance in bikinis and tight dresses.
“There’s still this expectation of conforming to a certain image or creating a certain brand,” says Cooky. “It could fall into a trap, the conventional notions of femininity or beauty or heteronormative roles.”
Research shows that in the 1980s and 1990s, the media tended to trivialize female athletes by portraying them in sexy outfits or writing about them as wives and girlfriends. The situation has improved but remains a cause for concern. Cambage talks about the archetypal “Instagram girl, pretty girl, lashes all the time, wearing cute clothes.”
“It’s sad that I embarked on this to further my marketability,” she says. “I think that’s more reflective of the world we live in.”
Some athletes insist on sticking to everyday content. Family life, lunch dates, vacations. That approach was valuable to Krieger, who has been publicly silent about her relationship with teammate Ashlyn Harris for years. As members on the US list, they worried about pushback.
“We weren’t sure how our sponsors or our team would react,” she says. “You have to understand that if you take that risk, you may lose your job.”
The couple decided to document their 2019 wedding on Instagram. Predictably nasty comments were overshadowed by thousands of congratulations and an enthusiastic response from sponsors.
“The support we received was incredible,” says Krieger. “I’ve never thought in a million years.”
The presence of female athletes on social media has helped fuel broader efforts such as the sports leagues of Athletes Unlimited and Just Women’s Sports, a website that reports continued audience growth. Cooky sees the continuation of an alternative path to success.
“You have to cultivate an audience,” says the professor. “You have to build a market.”
Not that legacy media is completely out of the picture.
A 2018 Nielsen poll found that 66% of the population and 84% of fans in the US, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand expressed an interest in at least one women’s sport. A recent report by Deloitte, the accounting and consulting giant, predicted that more TV and print attention could spark a breakthrough for women.
But female athletes don’t wait around.
“Building a brand is very difficult,” says Krieger. “You have to be strategic.”
For women who have learned to use social media, that means staying diligent and resourceful. This means that they will continue to do the work themselves.
Times contributor Myah Taylor contributed to this report.