Selling Abby Wambach

The U.S. women won fans despite a World Cup loss. To snare big-time sponsors, they’ll need to get the gold at the 2012 Olympics

Was that a nightmare? Did we really lose?” Abby Wambach said to her teammates as she awoke on the flight home from this summer’s World Cup in Germany. Twice the U.S. women’s soccer team had come close to winning the championship match against Japan. Wambach had made what seemed like the decisive goal in overtime, only to see the Japanese even the score and then prevail in a penalty-kick shootout. The American players were gutted. But theirs was an unexpected defeat with surprising consequences.

“We knew our playing resonated,” Wambach says. “But we didn’t know how it would translate into dollars and cents.” Dan Levy, an agent with Wasserman Media Group who represents Wambach, was on the plane, too, doing some translating. His e-mail traffic had already tripled with requests for appearances by Wambach, who’s been a professional soccer player for nine years and is among the privileged few whose sponsorship deals afford them a comfortable living.

Over the next several weeks, Wambach and the team’s goalkeeper, Hope Solo, would become the most recognizable female soccer players since Mia Hamm. They appeared on the Today show, the Late Show with David Letterman, and, in Solo’s case, Dancing With the Stars. Bank of America signed them up as spokespeople for the Chicago Marathon. Yet most others on the team remain anonymous—a reminder that for American soccer players public exposure is usually ephemeral. “It would have been amazing if this team won,” says Hamm, who led the U.S. team to a World Cup championship in 1999. “So many more players would have been included in the celebration.”

Women’s soccer has mass appeal: The U.S.-Japan match was watched by 13.5 million Americans, more than any U.S. men’s match during the 2010 World Cup. Yet it is far from a lucrative profession. The Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) is still struggling to find a broader audience and range of corporate sponsors. None of its six teams is profitable; in the men’s league, as many as half of the 18 teams may be in the black. The average salary for a female player is $25,000.

For Wambach and her teammates, scoring new endorsement money depends almost entirely on how the national team performs on the sport’s two big stages: the World Cup and the Olympics. The 2012 Games will provide the U.S. women with another chance at victory and the spoils that come with it. Coming in second probably won’t be good enough next time.

Wambach is the team’s leading scorer, tallest player (5’11”), and most outsize personality. “There’s a joke—well, it’s true. The girls on the national team gave me a T-shirt that said, ‘Help I’m Talking and I Can’t Shut Up,’” she says. Wambach’s experience makes her more aware than some of her younger teammates about the fleeting nature of success. “We’re getting a really solid taste of what fame is,” Wambach says. “But we didn’t win. There’s humility that goes along with that. It’s almost existential.” It’s also generally calculable: “Losing probably cost Wambach a couple of million dollars’ worth of additional deals,” says Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “She does have the potential to transcend the sport. The Olympics are coming up. That could be the team’s redemption.”

On a mid-September day, the U.S. players visit Portland, Ore., for an exhibition match against the Canadian national team and a goodwill visit to Nike, its main sponsor. Nike’s deal with the U.S. men’s and women’s teams is worth about $15 million a year, according to IEG Sponsorships. A 20-foot-long poster of Wambach hugging two teammates hangs on the outside wall of Nike’s Lance Armstrong gym. Wambach herself emerges from a limo-bus in her sweats, backpack slung over her shoulder, and is taken inside the Tiger Woods building for a lunch of steak, rice, and grilled vegetables. “This is good to see,” says Wambach. “I need to know they care and are putting hard work in. Because so am I.”

Wambach has had a contract with Nike since 2002, when she was drafted out of college to play professionally. The terms of the deal are private, though Wambach allows that “the more goals I score, the more accolades I accrue, the higher my income. That’s good for me.” In 2004 the U.S. team won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics on a Wambach goal in overtime. “Then I was set, financially,” she says. Since then, she’s been concerned about soccer’s income gap. If players have to work to support themselves, they can’t train as frequently. So she passes along opportunities when she can. “That’s just good business and the way women’s sports have to be done,” she says. “We can’t let the quality of the product disintegrate.”

The dramatic World Cup quarterfinal victory against Brazil—again thanks to a late Wambach goal—was crucial to the U.S. team’s earning potential. Looking at Wambach, her agent, Levy, says, “If this one hadn’t headed the ball in the 122nd minute, there would have been all kinds of finger-pointing.” Wambach says one of her first thoughts after the game was its impact on potential sponsors. “That instilled confidence in terms of offering us contracts. If people are buying into our product, we’ve accomplished something.”

Wambach is astute about her marketability off the field and ferociously competitive on it. “A warrior,” says Julie Foudy, who played on the 1999 World Cup team and is now an ESPN analyst. “And she has this incredible ability to rise up at the big moments.” When Wambach joined the women’s league, at age 22, she played on Mia Hamm’s team in Washington, D.C. At the time, Hamm was among the most famous female athletes in the world. “Mia could be really hard on me,” Wambach says. “I could take it. I’ve taken worse my whole life.” (She’s the youngest of seven.) Most of all, Wambach took cues from how carefully Hamm managed her numerous endorsement deals. “That was almost more important,” says Wambach.

She got rid of her first agent and signed on with Levy, Hamm’s agent. “I wanted to be part—not of Mia’s brand, but she couldn’t say ‘yes’ to everything,” says Wambach. “There was a trickle-down effect.” In 2004, shortly before she retired from competitive soccer, Hamm recommended Wambach to Gatorade, which had signed a sponsorship deal with Hamm in 1999 and had been backing the national team since 1998. Hamm accompanied Wambach to a Gatorade event at the Masters Golf Tournament, introducing her to the company’s executives. “It was my tryout,” says Wambach. Gatorade signed Wambach, and the relationship continues today (as does Gatorade’s relationship with Hamm). “We’ve gotten more involved with Abby over the years,” says John Shea, Gatorade’s senior director of sports marketing, declining to give financial details. Gatorade completed its first deal with Solo during the World Cup.

Stars like Wambach and Solo have payback deals, too. Wambach recently shot a low-budget commercial for magicJack Plus, a broadband telephone device; the company that makes it was founded by Dan Borislow, who owns the professional club Wambach plays for, the magicJack, in Boca Raton, Fla. “I’m looking forward to selling as many of them as I can,” she says. On Sept. 20 she tweeted: “Everyone check out the new magicJack Plus!! Seriously it’s worth your time. Simple, easy, free phone service.”

Wambach, who’s 31, wants to stay in the game until the next World Cup, but it’s possible the London Olympics will be her last chance to cash in. “If you’re a female athlete today, you should hope the generation after you will make more money than you can,” she says. Of the U.S.’s prospects in 2012, she says: “We have unfinished business. What better marketing can you get? I think that will be attractive to sponsors.”

The fans, as much as the players themselves, seem to know what’s at stake. Back at Nike, under a bright afternoon sun, Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker introduces Wambach by saying, “The team didn’t take away the big W, but there were some amazing moments.” After they practice, Wambach and the others sign autographs. One of the girls standing in line wears a Nike shirt that reads “No one trains to come in second.” Photographs by Justin Steele

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