Opinion: Michelob Ultra gets serious about promoting women's sports with $100 million commitment

·5 min read

The phrase “You have to see it to be it” is often used when women talk about breaking down barriers and inspiring the next generation.

The 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team paved the way for Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd. Nancy Lieberman, Cheryl Miller and Sheryl Swoopes led to Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and the WNBA. Jen Welter and Becky Hammon opened the doors for all the women now on coaching staffs in the NFL and NBA. Without Billie Jean King, there is no Venus and Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka.

Now imagine if, rather than relying on this organic generation of role models, there was a concerted effort to amplify women and what they do. Michelob Ultra is betting it would be a game-changer – and it’s putting up a significant amount of cash to make it happen.

To coincide with Women’s Equality Day on Thursday, Michelob Ultra announced a $100 million commitment over the next five years to increase the visibility of female athletes and women’s sports.

The U.S. women's basketball team celebrates winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
The U.S. women's basketball team celebrates winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

“This goes back to the challenge we’re trying to address, which is bringing more attention, more visibility, more audience and eyeballs to women’s sports,” Ricardo Marques, Michelob Ultra's vice president of marketing, told USA TODAY Sports.

“We believe that’s where the root of the problem is.”

What does this mean, exactly? Male and female athletes will have equal representation in Michelob Ultra's ads going forward. Same for the athletes Michelob Ultra sponsors.

The brand also will feature and promote female athletes and women’s sports in 50 percent of its lifestyle media inventory – think the ads and campaigns that show you how wonderful life will be if you drink its beer – which Marques said will be a 40 percent increase over what Michelob Ultra currently does.

“Of course it won't solve all of the challenges that we're trying to address,” Marques said. “But we believe it will be a meaningful contribution and, hopefully, other brands will follow suit, and we can definitely make an impact going forward.”

The past two years have been a watershed for women’s sports. The U.S. women once again crushed the medal count at the Tokyo Olympics, displaying such dominance that only the countries of China and Russia fared better. Ratings for women’s sports, both collegiate and professionally, have skyrocketed.

And the NWSL and WNBA are thriving, attracting new sponsors and new investors.

But the naysayers will point to smaller attendance averages, along with the lack of monster TV deals, as evidence that interest in women’s sports “just isn’t there.” Which, in turn, depresses the market for salaries and endorsements.

Never mind that the WNBA is all of 25 years old and the NWSL eight, while Major League Baseball and the NFL have been around for more than 100 years and the NBA more than 70.

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Budweiser, another Anheuser-Busch brand, was already heavily involved in women’s sports as a sponsor. But Marques said Michelob Ultra felt more was needed to build on the progress that’s been made.

It started changing its media campaigns 18 months ago, Marques said, with its Super Bowl ad featuring Morgan and Williams as well Peyton Manning, Brooks Koepka and Anthony Davis. In addition to announcing its financial commitment Thursday, Michelob Ultra launched a campaign encouraging people to save social media posts that feature highlights of women’s sports and female athletes. Because of how algorithms that power what shows up on someone’s feed work, this alone could increase visibility.

“Traditionally, after a big World Cup or after the (Olympic) Games, visibility tends to slow down,” Marques said. “So we believe it’s incredible timing to come after a big sports moment, where we have naturally more eyeballs behind sports in general and behind women's sports, to keep the attention behind women's sports going.”

It’s ironic that a beermaker, and an Anheuser-Busch brand in particular, is leading the fight for gender equity. Remember the Budweiser girls? Or the Bud Light slogan that was scrapped after critics said it encouraged rape?

But the beer industry eventually recognized that alienating or ignoring a significant portion of its market wasn’t good business. Since Michelob Ultra appeals more to women than the average beer, this kind of commitment to equity is a smart business move.

It’s more than that, though, Marques said.

"This is one of those things that is definitely the right thing to do," he said.

“How can we increase the number of people consuming women's sports every single day? How can we make women's sports more part of the day-to-day lives of people? Because if we address that part of the challenge, then we can get to more airtime on TV. With that audience, you can unlock more sponsorship deals. You can then support women's sports with better salaries and better facilities and then everything turns into this cycle that will definitely propel women's sports to another level,” Marques said.

“We've seen tremendous progress over the last few years,” he added, “but there's so much more that can and should be done.”

Just as millions of little girls and young women have followed the trailblazers in women's sport, let's hope we see other companies follow Michelob Ultra's lead.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michelob ULTRA spending $100 million to level playing field for women