Megan Rapinoe has participated in her share of campaigns to market the National Women's Soccer League. Over the years, she's been asked repeatedly to look into a camera and talk about being a role model to little girls and, frankly, she's a bit tired of it.
“I never want to be featured in a marketing product where the very first thing said about me is that I am a role model because I should already be that. I already am that,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports last month. “Kids should already be looking up to us because we play for national team.
"You never see LeBron James purely positioned as inspiring young boys. No s--- he’s inspiring young boys. He’s f---ing LeBron James. It’s like, of course! So why are we limiting ourselves that way?”
That has been the identity crisis in which the NWSL has found itself over its seven years of existence.
On one hand, clubs like the Portland Thorns have proven that beer-drinking, heckle-slinging adults can provide a fervent fan base and buzzing atmosphere to make a women's team successful. The Thorns have an average attendance higher than many MLS, NBA and NHL teams, largely because adults are crazy about them.
Those fans tend to be more work to find than the little girls who play soccer, though. For immediate results, clubs can target local youth teams and know that they will sell at least some tickets. That can be enticing for clubs that operate under a sense of urgency and constantly sit on the precipice of losing money, unlike the Thorns, who have been profitable since the team's debut in Portland.
But as the NWSL looks to shift from surviving to thriving — from NWSL 1.0 to NWSL 2.0 — the target fan base will need to change. That ideal target fan will perhaps need to look a bit more like Rapinoe.
“I want a marketing campaign that sells me the product,” Rapinoe said. “Am I going to buy the product? I’m 34, I have my own money, I don’t have kids, I love sports, I’m into fashion and culture. I’m not buying a product that’s like, ‘Little girls, blah blah blah.’
“Not that being a role model is not important — we do that work every day and we take it seriously. But we have to think about, as teams and as the league, what are we marketing this product as? Is it just ‘Wow, this is super inspiring for little girls?’ Well, no s---, this is the highest level they can get to — we don’t need to market it to them.”
There may be a shift on the horizon, thanks in part to Budweiser, the beer that is synonymous with America's most popular sports. With help from U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, who helped broker the deal, Budweiser signed a multi-year sponsorship with the NWSL as the league's biggest sponsor to date.
Beer, of course, is for adults. But Budweiser's campaign is less of the soft and fuzzy approach the NWSL has seen in the past. Budweiser's current campaign is a well-executed call-out, telling brands who claim they care about female empowerment to put their money where their corporate mouths are.
The tongue-in-cheek campaign features Rapinoe enjoying products from “future official sponsors” of the NWSL – eating generic hamburger that could be a fast food chain sponsor or sporting a generic watch that could become the “official timepiece of the NWSL.” Fans are invited to pre-pledge their support for any NWSL sponsors that come in.
Rapinoe, who has been one of the most marketable athletes in the country after the World Cup and in high demand, gravitated toward the Budweiser initiative because it’s not just another run-of-the-mill fluff campaign. It demands action, which is very on-brand for the outspoken Rapinoe.
“It’s a gentle, or not-so-gentle, call-out and a nudge — but it's also a way forward, which I think is the most important thing,” Rapinoe said. “Calling someone out and not doing anything about it is not a workable model going forward.”
Rapinoe added: “I'm a big fan of a public call-out.”
Budweiser insists the campaign isn't a hollow ploy for extra earned media on top of the advertisements. The beer company's partnership with the NWSL will ramp up further in 2020, and Budweiser is actually hearing from potential sponsors who have heeded Rapinoe's call to action.
“Yes, it is authentic and we are literally right now, as we speak, working through sponsorship deals on behalf of the league,” Budweiser's vice president of marketing, Monica Rustgi, said last month. “It”s absolutely real. Those deals take time to work through but, for us, success here is raising awareness of the league and its amazing players.”
What Budweiser is doing with the NWSL is part of a larger trend in advertising where it's not enough for brands to sell consumers on a product. Brands now are connecting with people's values — often referred to as “cause marketing” or “purpose-led advertising” — in a way that is sometimes a calculated risk.
When Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in a controversial campaign last year, the company faced backlash but it went down as a big win when the company's stock rose. Similarly, Gillette's campaign earlier this year to challenge toxic masculinity went viral, drawing both praise and criticism.
For Budweiser, partnering with the NWSL is an extension of what the beer brand has been doing for decades; Budweiser is one of the USWNT's longest-standing sponsors, and the brand has attached itself to American sports across the board. But this call-out and gentle public shaming to tell other brands to get on board is a step in a more conscientious direction.
“Consumers and people resonate more with brands that they feel genuinely believe stand for something,” Rustgi said. “That's why you're seeing this happening across the board. Just advertising alone doesn't cut it — they can see right through that. That's why when you share your values, you transcend advertising and there's a genuine connection.
“We wanted to flip the way people think of sponsorships,” she added. “Instead of being a sponsor where you're going to see ‘sponsored by’ slapped in the stadium, we wanted to show up as a supporter, just like a fan.”
But Budweiser's campaign doesn't position the NWSL as a charity. Rather, the league is touted as an opportunity.
The NWSL has seen record attendances, growing TV ratings, interest from an increasing number of ownership groups and other metrics in line with what other women's soccer leagues have seen. Women's soccer around the globe is growing, and the NWSL is no different.
Budweiser, which asked fans to pledge to keep watching the NWSL outside of World Cup years in the first phase of its campaign, has seen an overwhelming response, Rustgi said. Fans have taken to sharing photos of themselves with Budweiser beers, and even the players have gone out of their way to cheers to the beer company.
But it’s one step, which should be the first of many, according to Rapinoe.
“I hope other brands see that the potential is there from the league perspective,” Rapinoe said. “This gives me the opportunity to say: Hey brands, you say you want to be socially conscious, you want to invest with impact, you want to make money, you want to be part of the sports culture landscape — here you go. A lot of these brands were sponsoring us personally but not from a league standpoint. I hope it is a new way forward for companies.”
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
More from Yahoo Sports: