It may have slipped under your radar over the weekend, but Spurs added one of the game’s biggest stars over the weekend: Alex Morgan.
The back-to-back World Cup champion with United States Women’s national team signed with Spurs on a short-term deal so that she could best prepare for this year’s World Cup.
The top level of the women’s game is in the middle of a spending spree. Morgan has become the fifth member of the world champions’ squad to sign for a Women’s Super League club this summer — the highest level of the English game. Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press have already sealed moves to the English top-flight — Mewis and Lavelle at Man City; Press and Heath at Manchester United.
The coronavirus has altered the schedule of the US domestic game, as well as impacting a ton of leagues around the world, and so a number of stars have become available to clubs in England.
From a branding/marketing perspective, Morgan is the biggest of biggest gets. Like Venus Williams or Tiger Woods, she is both a part of the sport and apart from it; a singular star who has been the key part of a championship team while also being among the most commercially visible athletes in America.
Morgan is a mega-star. There is no other way to put it.
It’s an Instagram world, and we’re just living in it. And Morgan’s solo Instagram following is bigger than Spurs’ official club account; it’s bigger than the Royal families, Steven Gerrard’s, and almost three times the size of Jordan Henderson’s. Sitting in her pocket is the ability to talk to 9.1 million people; a rare and powerful tool.
Obviously, Instagram isn’t the only reason Spurs added Morgan — she remains an exception player. But her celebrity status certainly helped. She is able to place Tottenham into the homes and phones of a cross-section of the US audience that the club would be unlikely to attract by any other means.
As a three-time cover star of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit magazine and a children’s book author, she has transcended beyond being a sports star into an entertainment brand unto herself, earning individuals deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s.
Liverpool should have been in on the sweepstakes. But the club has allowed the women’s team to atrophy over the past few seasons, with the side slipping into the second-tier of the women’s game after a disastrous 2019 — a season that was beset by embarrassing episodes with the team’s pitch and accusations that the club was treating the women’s side as “second-class” citizens.
“They are where they are now because of decisions the club has made over time”, a source told The Athletic in a report into the state of the women’s side. Prior to the cancellation of the 2019/20 season, Liverpool were sat at the bottom of a 12-team table after 14 games with one win, three draws, and 10 defeats. It was ugly.
Things look a little rosier this campaign, but a drop to the second-tier crushed any chances the club had of landing some of the USWNT stars.
Leaving the women’s team to rot is unbecoming of Liverpool the institution. But it’s also a massive marketing error. (And in that order, by the way)
Throughout FSG’s tenure as owners of the club, the mens side has been linked to a succession of American stars. Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and on and on. The thought being, obviously, that the US owners would want an American cover star in order to break into the vaunted American market.
No doubt that would have helped, but the club has never sought to put an American marketing star above the wishes of the decision-makers on the sports side. The club’s bid to become more of an everpresent force stateside has been more nuanced than that.
Still: There have been overt marketing ploys: the preseason friendlies; the push of Trent Alexander-Arnold as an international face of Under Armour (though that is led as much by camp Alexander-Arnold).
The real push was set to come this year with the club moving to Nike. Already we’ve seen the impact of part-owner LeBron James wearing Liverpool’s kit on a way to an NBA game, Virgil van Dijk cut into an ad featuring all of the stars of the Nike universe, and other subtle signs of Liverpool shifting its focus back towards the US market. (It most be noted that by targeting America the ultimate hope is to break into China and the South East market, LeBron et al. being as big in Asia as they are at home.)
Which makes missing out on Morgan an unfortunate error. LeBron walking to a game in Liverpool’s kit helps but Morgan would tap into a whole other market.
And Morgan is a Nike athlete. She featured in the Nike advert alongside Van Dijk, albeit in her national team colours. Outside of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and, still, David Beckham, the US women’s national team are the football stars of the country.
The women’s national team has started to outdraw the men’s national team, both on TV and in-person. Research by ESPN shows that in 2019, both for overall average (28,002 for the women versus 21,776 for the men) and for games in the U.S. (25,122 versus 23,305) there were more fans in physical attendance for the women’s national team matches. In terms of television ratings, although the women outdrew the men during World Cup years of 2011 and 2015.
The head honchos of the US soccer federation didn’t provide ESPN with data for 2019, a year in which the American women won their fourth World Cup, but according to FIFA, the 2019 tournament was the most-watched tournament in its history, with more than one billion people tuning in across the globe. The final between the USWNT and the Netherlands was the most-watched Women’s World Cup match ever, with an average live audience of 82.18 million — up by 56% on the 2015 final audience of 52.56 million. The men’s national team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
It is a lost marketing opportunity for FSG at an important time in an important market. The coronavirus has ravaged finances throughout the football world. Liverpool’s new merchandising deal with Nike is, in essence, a gamble — albeit a calculated one.
Liverpool’s contract with Nike is worth around £30 million-a-year, guaranteed, which is £15 million less than the bottom line earned from New Balance. The Nike deal, however, guarantees Liverpool 20% royalties on all sales, which could push the income numbers into the bonkers range. The club anticipates that the eventual income will dwarf the number they were making with New Balance given Nike’s infrastructure and global reach.
But that was before the coronavirus and before the impending global recession. Some certainty would have been nice in this market — with the royalties approach, Liverpool invited risk.
In the most cynical terms: Morgan would have helped the club more of their product at a time they’re specifically targeting her market. Which, in turn, would or should have freed up more money to invest back into the women’s side of the club.
What has happened to Liverpool’s women’s team over the past couple of years sits somewhere between a shame and shameful. It should not be considered an afterthought; it is a part of the club and should be treated as such.
The recent negligence has cost the team a chance at landing a brilliant footballer and a marketing superstar, someone who could have helped FSG and the club break into that oh-so tantalizing U.S market. For that, ownership only has themselves to blame.