Why US Women’s Soccer Star Alex Morgan Won’t Settle for Anything Less Than Equality

She spoke with Adweek before Team USA's World Cup win about knowing her worth

‘Being part of a group of women who are so strong, so opinionated, so confident—it’s really empowering,’ Morgan says. Photographs by Mary Beth Koeth for Adweek; Styled by Mila Gonzalez Kastari; Glam by Christina Cherbonner and Karla Serrano
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Is there a point at which a preternaturally gifted, finely tuned sports star should step off the gas, like when her team is annihilating an opponent and charging toward a record-toppling win?

Alex Morgan, Olympic gold medalist and 2018’s U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, doesn’t think so.

“Every goal matters,” she told Fox moments after Team USA logged a historic 13-0 rout over Thailand in its first game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 in early June. (The team would go on to win the World Cup on July 7 in a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands.) “We came here to showcase ourselves. This is what we’ve been preparing for.”

For Morgan, a native Southern Californian who’s currently the most bankable personality in women’s soccer—not to mention famous for a workout routine featuring four-minute planks—that meant five goals, tying the tournament record.

But the numbers don’t just show her prowess on the pitch. They tell a story of who she is on and off the field.

Morgan, co-captain of the defending world champion U.S. Women’s National Team and a forward for the Orlando Pride, has dreamed of playing professional soccer since she was in grade school. The thought of not going full throttle on the game’s biggest stage? Blasphemy.

And the notion that the decorated women’s team would settle for inferior perks and lower pay than their far less successful male counterparts? Nonsense.

Morgan falls squarely in the camp that will not shut up and dribble. In fact, her name appears first on a groundbreaking lawsuit filed this year on International Women’s Day against the United States Soccer Federation, the sport’s national governing body.

The federal claim, citing “years of ongoing institutionalized gender discrimination,” points out salary and other systemic inequities, including subpar travel, training, medical treatment and playing conditions. Morgan tweeted at the time: “All we ask for is what we rightfully deserve.”

The suit—which was due to go into mediation after the World Cup—is a follow-up to an earlier complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and, since then, the Time’s Up movement has made the pay gap a topic of national conversation. This environment created what Morgan calls “a perfect storm” for the footballers to press their case, aiming to affect women far beyond the sports arena. (Fans of women’s soccer, meanwhile, have made it clear whose side they’re on; after Team USA won the World Cup, the stadium was filled with chants of “Equal pay!”)

Morgan, on the cusp of 30 and even brighter superstardom, spoke to Adweek just before leaving for France about suing the boss, sizing up sponsors and knowing her worth.

Adweek: Was there any hesitation about filing the lawsuit and getting into a public battle with U.S. Soccer?
Alex Morgan: It was absolutely a risk because we were filing a claim against our employers. That’s scary initially, no matter what field you’re in. We wondered how the media and the fans would react. But we knew it was the right thing to do. We’d started in 2016 with the EEOC complaint, and we learned a lot over those three years. The team is closer for it, and we were ready for the next step.

Morgan (l.) with fellow players Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press (r.) when Luna announced its bonuses for the World Cup women’s team

What do you think about the outspokenness of brands like Secret (a 2019 sponsor of women’s soccer, the deodorant brand debuted its “Equal work, equal sweat, equal pay” tagline last year) and Luna Bar (hundreds of thousands of dollars pledged for women’s World Cup team bonuses)?
Five years ago, I don’t feel like brands were doing this at all. When I first heard of Luna’s donation and their willingness to be alongside us in this fight, it was pretty incredible. A lot of things that are ingrained in our society need to change, and they want to be at the forefront of it. Both Luna and Secret are defining themselves in the marketplace and showing how passionate they are about gender equality. They’re not afraid to put their campaigns out there publicly. It’s exactly what we’re fighting for, and I feel great aligning with those brands. And I’m on calls all the time with brands asking how they can continue to support us, what they can do to make people aware of the situation and how they can magnify our voices to be heard on a greater scale.

Tell us the significance of a certain yellow Post-it Note that said, “Hi, Mommy! My name is Alex and I am going to be a professional athlete for soccer.”
I was 7 years old—the youngest sibling [of three girls]—and I wanted to be like my older sister, who wrote a sticky note saying she wanted to be a model when she grew up. I wrote my mom a note, too, in exactly the same format. I played all kinds of sports when I was young like softball, cross-country running, volleyball, but I wrote that I wanted to be a professional soccer player. There wasn’t really a pro league to follow at the time, and the women’s national team wasn’t even on television. So I’m not sure how I figured I could be a pro footballer, but that was my ambition. My mom kept that note in her office until I started with the national team at 21 years old. She probably still has it.

Could you just as easily have ended up being a professional triathlete?
I can’t say why, but soccer always drew me in more than the other sports. It could’ve been the community of the team. My friends played, and it was a way to spend more time with them. As I grew up, I started to realize how much it’s a connector. It brings so many people together, and it’s a universal language around the world. My teammates, they’re the ones who lift me up when I need it, and there are so many things I’ve been able to learn through a team sport. It’s helped build my character. And now, being part of a group of women who are so strong, so opinionated, so confident—it’s really empowering. It gave me the confidence to embrace who I am.

How have you built your own brand, and how do you assess potential endorsements from the likes of Nike, P&G, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola?
When I was younger, I watched the older players like Abby Wambach to see how they were establishing their brands, and I learned so much from them. It’s been a calculated approach to my personal brand, with a lot of help from my agent. For sponsorships, the first thing is product, and I ask if it’s something that I would use and support. I want to know who they’ve aligned with and in what ways do they give back. I look at their overall success and what they’ve done specifically in sports marketing. And the financial part, I want to know if my value is being recognized. For me now, there has to be more control in defining the partnership. Are they willing to give me the freedom to write the script a little more? And longevity definitely plays a part. I want to make sure it’s a relationship I can stand by year after year.

Morgan in action against Thailand in June
Getty Images

Talk about flexing your entrepreneurial muscles.
There are plenty of ideas I think about, and ideas that are presented to me, and I weigh whether the time is right, what impact it can have, whether it’s right for me to be in that space. I’ve taken advantage of opportunities like the Nickelodeon movie [2018’s Alex & Me] and kids’ books [Morgan’s best-selling series, The Kicks, spawned an Amazon Prime show]. I think there’s not enough content for young girls, especially in the athletic space. They need someone to look up to, and sharing stories of female athletes, the sacrifices they make, the dedication they have, is definitely important. It’s a good time for me to branch out and do different things.

And speaking of flexing muscles, what’s your training routine like these days, and is it different from previous years?
I’ve gotten more diligent with my recovery, making sure that my body feels recovered and ready for every training session. An hour before, I’m rolling out my legs and getting the treatment I need. As we get closer to the World Cup, it’s more about fine-tuning than heavy lifting and making sure I feel 100% healthy.

What about that famous four-minute plank?
If I really want to make myself suffer. … But that’s not real most of the time. I cap it at about a minute.

Check out Adweek’s 30 Most Powerful Women in Sports here.

This story first appeared in the July 8, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
Publish date: July 7, 2019 https://stage.adweek.com/agencies/u-s-womens-soccer-star-alex-morgan-on-choosing-brand-partners-and-conquering-inequality/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT
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