Kelley O'Hara is in her 14th season as a member of the U.S. women's national team, and there is still plenty to cherish. There is the pride of representing her country, the camaraderie with teammates and the thrill of competition, but another aspect that brings O'Hara joy is just seeing a fan wearing a jersey with her name on the back.
"Every time I see someone with my jersey on, it is very special and very cool. I don't take it for granted at all," she told ESPN by phone recently. "I'm like, 'Wow, this is incredible that someone would go out and buy my jersey and pick me,' you know? It's a very special thing to see fans wearing your jersey."
With the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup just three months away, there is another reason O'Hara could enjoy that kind of validation: money. With the USWNT riding two consecutive World Cup titles, the team -- through its players' union, the USWNT Players Association, or USWNTPA -- is flexing its commercial muscle in terms of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, and that's putting more money into players' pockets.
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According to the USWNTPA and government filings for the 2019 fiscal year -- the most recent year that included a World Cup -- the union received royalty payments of just under $1 million. But that figure looks set to increase. USWNTPA executive director Becca Roux is hoping to double that amount in 2023, but some of that will be down to how the team performs. Everyone loves a winner, and even as reigning two-time World Cup champions, a third consecutive win this summer in Australia and New Zealand would drive interest in licensing further.
"The name recognition of many of our players, and not just the popularity of them as a team, is at a high level, and we want to build on that success with our partners to ensure that there is product easily available for all the fans that want to represent," Roux told ESPN. "In addition, we want to utilize marketing and merchandise to tell the stories of the up-and-coming players, converting casual fans to loyalists and ensure stronger representation of all our membership in the market."
Ricky Medina, the senior vice president of business development and licensing at OneTeam Partners, which manages the group licensing business for the USWNTPA, is even more optimistic. He expects that for 2023, the royalty payments will be three to four times the amount awarded in 2019. That's based on the sales growth the USWNTPA has seen in the past year, with Medina now expecting royalties from jersey sales in 2023 to be five times what they were in 2022.
The amount that players earn from this program, in the mid-to-low five figures, is still far less than they are routinely paid from call-up fees and the $400,000 or so that each USWNT player is hoping to make in World Cup bonuses -- including what the men's team chipped in during its round-of-16 run in Qatar under the new agreement to share FIFA prize money. However, it's a healthy chunk of change, and still just the beginning -- the long-term vision is that the program will become a significant source of passive income for players.
"What we're going to be able to bring to market [in 2023] in terms of depth and breadth and quality of license products, it'll look a lot different than what we saw in 2019," Medina said. "There's a real upside that exists."
Building the USWNT's business from scratch
To get a deeper sense of how far the USWNTPA has come in terms of growing commercial revenue, one only needs to look back to 2017. It was then, during contentious negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement (or CBA) that the USWNTPA took back group player licensing rights from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
At the time, there was a single licensee -- only one -- paying a fee to produce an officially licensed product featuring USWNT players. That was Electronic Arts, makers of the FIFA video game. There were no officially licensed T-shirts, bobbleheads or yard dominoes. (Those actually exist now.) Any items on the market were unauthorized and unlicensed, meaning the players didn't see a dime from that merchandise being sold.
What the USWNTPA learned was that the U.S. Soccer Federation simply didn't see the value in making a deliberate effort to sign licensing deals for the USWNT. At one point during the CBA negotiations, the federation's representatives told players that any money derived from such deals was already included in the players' salaries.
After negotiating for control of its players' NIL rights, the USWNTPA entered into a joint venture with the NFL Players Association and the Women's National Basketball Players Association to increase licensing opportunities, which later became OneTeam Partners. That succeeded in opening doors for the USWNT to potential new deals. Where there had previously been little motivation on the part of U.S. Soccer to maximize the players' value in terms of NIL, the USWNTPA now had control to push the envelope with the help of people with expertise in the licensing world.
"[OneTeam Partners] said, 'We believe in the players. We will invest alongside of you in helping grow and build this business with staff that has expertise in this and know-how and will help you have a floor space at Licensing Expo,' which is one of the biggest trade shows in the world," Roux said. "They helped me get on panels. So that is what it took. You had to have people that said, 'Oh yeah, we believe in this. We know how to help you make money out of it.' And that was the turning point."
Yet even after getting into the same room as the NFLPA and the WNBPA, the USWNT union was confronted with a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. Some potential licensees were reluctant to come on board until there was enough data proving that demand was there. Yet the data wouldn't be there until more manufacturers took the plunge, despite what appeared to be a sizable market beyond young girls.
"That's been one of the biggest growing pains: getting folks to understand the market size, the opportunity, and the actual demand that exists, and how that demand hasn't been addressed in previous years," Roux said. "That's not true for all licensing partners, as there are many partners who understood this from the beginning. But it does require finding the right partners who understand the incredible marketing power and influence of the USWNT players."
Timing was an issue as well. When the rights were reacquired, it didn't leave a lot of ramp-up time ahead of the 2019 World Cup given that it can take as much as 18 months to get licensed products to market. There were also stumbles in terms of meeting demand. Some partners sold out of merchandise, though that's not quite the win you'd think it was: rather, it showed that demand had been underestimated and potential sales were lost.
With the 2023 World Cup close, business booms
The pain points of launching this new commercial business from scratch have been significantly lessened during this World Cup cycle. The USWNTPA's licensing business is now comprised of 38 licensees, which includes 16 new partners brought on since the start of 2022 as anticipation builds for the 2023 tournament in Australia and New Zealand.
"Now we have a much better handle in that market versus what it was in 2019," Roux said.
That isn't the extent of the momentum in terms of commercial revenue for the players, either. Starting this past July on the heels of agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement, the USWNTPA launched the players' e-commerce store, which sells only officially licensed USWNTPA player product and merchandise. Proceeds from every single sale in the new store goes back to the players, but more than that, the store yields much-coveted data that can bring in even more licensees, which should help the commercial enterprise grow.
The store also immediately benefits more players, because it's not only a handful of stars who are featured.
"From a consumer standpoint, it gives fans one place to purchase player-focused merchandise in a wide array," said Roux. "The retailers that do carry player merchandise often only do so for three or five players. The store ensures there is something for any supporter's favorite player to purchase."
These efforts have not only increased the number of licensees, but also the kind of products being offered. There are licensees producing jerseys, trading cards, fashion apparel, street apparel, toys and collectibles: everything from bobbleheads to USB chargers to cornhole sets with bags featuring the names of USWNT players are available.
The types of partners working with the USWNT keeps growing, too. BreakingT, a seller of T-shirts, has been a supportive partner since the beginning and one of the success stories for the licensing program. Medina added that Fanatics, Dick's Sporting Goods, Legends and Soccer.com have all significantly boosted the sales and availability of jerseys. The deals have gotten even more ambitious -- Medina highlighted Icarus brand for its contributions toward the USWNT players' custom Equal Play Equal Pay Stella Nova jerseys. Additionally, Panini and Parkside Collectibles are investing in ensuring that the USWNTPA is involved in the surge of popularity and growth in the trading card category.
Having a better relationship with U.S. Soccer ever since the equal pay dispute was resolved has helped too, Roux said. Some companies are what are called dual licensees, meaning they have a relationship with both the players union and the federation. While it means a company has to make two royalty payments, having the official U.S. Soccer and USWNT branding can make for a more authentic product, and both organizations end up winning.
"People are focused on working and collaborating together," said Roux. "So, what we all set out to do in the CBA -- which is align interests and goals such that we're collaborating and optimizing and working well together -- so far that is proving true."
There was a time where the players were doing a lot of the NIL work themselves in terms of evaluating deals with the likes of Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis and O'Hara doing plenty of heavy lifting early on. But O'Hara notes that such demands have decreased over the years as the player union has added more staff, which has been made possible by more deals coming in.
"There's just so much time and effort that's been put in by so many different players and people. It didn't come out of thin air," said O'Hara. "But the goal was always to get it to a place where [the players' association] runs itself. Players, we can play and we don't have to be giving as much time. And I think we're getting to that place and it is very gratifying to see that we've taken something very small and created this functioning robust players' association with revenue driving it as well."
For O'Hara, such developments contain a mix of frustration and joy. In her view, ramping up the commercial revenues took far too long. But there is momentum now that looks set to continue beyond the World Cup. The 2024 Summer Olympics in France are less than 18 months away. And the USWNTPA doesn't plan on stopping there.
"I lean towards the look-at-the-glass-half-full type of viewpoint of most things," O'Hara said. "Obviously it's frustrating. We could have been doing this a while ago or right from the beginning. At the end of the day, I'm just happy that we banded together."