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How soccer star Ali Riley navigates brand deals

With attendance and viewership of women’s sports on the rise, brands are showing more interest in working with women athletes.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images, @rileythree via Instagram

· 5 min read

When professional soccer player Ali Riley landed her first brand deal—recording herself with a Flip camera to promote espnW in exchange for a few hundred bucks—she couldn’t believe she was being paid at all.

“When you’re not an influencer, by nature, by trade, it’s a little bit scary” to navigate brand partnerships, said Riley, who is captain of both the New Zealand women’s national team and Angel City FC, the LA-based National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team. In fact, Riley said there were times when she felt “taken advantage of” when she had less experience with sponsorships.

Now, Riley has quite a few more brand partnerships under her belt. In addition to espnW, she’s worked with Nike, collaborated with the Swedish brand Malmö Clothing Company, and has struck a long-term partnership with Puma. This year so far, Riley has given a talk at an internal event at Anheuser-Busch and kicked off a partnership with the connected food company Tovala.

Riley’s roster of partners reflects a broader trend in sports marketing. Women’s sports viewership is heating up, with the WNBA and the NWSL both breaking viewership records last year, and brands are increasingly considering women athletes as brand ambassadors and partners.

“Most of us can’t make enough money to make a living, let alone save money, set aside money for retirement, invest money, buy property, so I think getting any type of supplemental income we can is important,” Riley told Marketing Brew.

⚠️ Trade offer ⚠️

Brands’ interest in working with women soccer players in particular—which was already on the rise—has increased substantially in the last six months or so, Hochberg Sports Marketing founder Matt Hochberg, who represents Riley (and other NWSL players like Nikki Stanton and Vanessa DiBernardo) for brand deals, said.

Hochberg’s agency works primarily with athletes in the NWSL, as well as athletes in other “growing and emerging sports that have traditionally been underserved,” like beach volleyball, he told us. His team is on calls with brands discussing women’s soccer almost every day, which “was not the case 12 months ago,” he said.

The way he sees it, growing interest in partnering with women athletes is due to a few factors. Firstly, interest in soccer is growing, between the NWSL’s growing attendance and viewership, as well as interest in last year’s men’s World Cup ahead of the women’s tournament this year.

Plus, while many brands recognize the value of working with high-profile athletes in leagues like the NFL, those deals may not be realistic for most.

“Instead of trying to find this obscure NFL player who may or may not be relevant, who may not have such a passionate following, even if he does have 100,000 Instagram followers…it would be much more effective of a return on your investment to partner with three to five female soccer players,” Hochberg said.

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That’s the case for Tovala, the meal-delivery brand, which doesn’t “necessarily have the big, hefty budget that a lot of legacy brands have to go after some of these bigger-name athletes,” Maggie Condon, Tovala’s director of communications, said. Instead, the company has had success with “micro and mid-tier influencers,” and now Riley, who is the first athlete the brand has officially partnered with.

“Consumers obviously are more savvy than they ever have been before, and are really starting to see through some of these larger brand partnerships that can come off, quite frankly, kind of icky sometimes, or just not feel like that celebrity is actually a true user or representative of the brand,” Condon said.

Drafting the right partner

Still, some women athletes are “willing to promote anything because you need the money,” Riley said.

“I think it is such a difference from the men’s game, and something that brands might not understand,” she said. “They’re not offering us maybe what they would offer a male player.”

For Riley, who has about 87,000 followers on Instagram, Hochberg generally looks for deals in the tens of thousands of dollars. She also carefully considers the brands she chooses to work with, asking why a company has asked to team up with her specifically, if they value women athletes in general, and if a founder’s values line up with her own.

“I think what’s really important is doing a background check, just like I’m sure they’re doing on me,” Riley said.

Tovala, for instance, stood out to Riley because she was already interested in food and wellness, and posts featuring the brand’s home-delivered meals and convection oven feel authentic to her. That’s also important to Tovala, Condon said.

“At the root of our partnerships is sorting out if the folks and the brands that we’re working with have a genuine interest and need for the product,” Condon told us. “That’s one thing that really excited us about Ali. Her career, the life she lives, it resembles a lot of what we see in our average customer.”

It’s not just about authenticity: Brands are also interested in high-performing posts. Riley’s engagement rate tends to be about 4.7%, according to Hochberg. (That’s generally considered above average.) Riley has made one in-feed post and posted a couple of Stories about Tovala so far, but “engagement was great,” Condon said; the deal will include around six Instagram posts total over the course of a few months.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.