Politics & Governance, Sponsorship, North America

Sport for change: Stephanie McMahon the equality champion

In his latest column looking at the positive impact of the world’s biggest sports and entertainment brands, Laureus Sport for Good’s Adam Fraser talks to Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer of WWE, about fan demand for gender equality and how her business has responded.

by Adam Fraser
Sport for change: Stephanie McMahon the equality champion

Like all good 'chicken or egg?' arguments, it has almost been done to death.

The Economist tried to sum it up back in 2014 with an article headlined, simply: ‘Why professional women's sport is less popular than men’s’. The article set out the situation in the most basic terms: 'If there were more sponsorship and media coverage, some say, then women's sport would be more popular. Media outlets and sponsors retort that if women's sport attracted more interest in the first place then they would invest more time and money in it.’

The proverbial vicious circle is not unfamiliar to anyone in this industry.

The only important question with any vicious circle, though, is where to insert the disruptive influence. The Fifa Women's World Cup this summer saw a number of sponsors try one route: Visa, for example, stole early headlines with the announcement that its marketing spend for the tournament would match that of the men's World Cup in Russia in 2018.

In an age where brands are increasingly keen to demonstrate their commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, investing in women's sport brings something of an added value; alongside the traditional sponsorship measures comes the ethical play of doing the right thing. It is little surprise, then, that some sponsors are taking that route. But they are not the only ones with the power to make a change. That drive can also come from the fans themselves – as seen over the past four years in what is arguably the industry's number one testing lab for ongoing audience feedback.

It was never believed that women were the reason why audiences would buy a pay-per-view. We have been proving that theory wrong

"Our women," says Stephanie McMahon, the chief brand officer of WWE, "were treated as secondary, if not tertiary, characters. They were not the draw; it was never believed that they were the reason why audiences tuned in or why they would pay to buy a ticket or see a pay-per-view. We have been proving that theory wrong."

McMahon and her business – a family business, since her father, Vince, remains the long-time chairman and chief executive of WWE's ever-growing empire – have been providing the supply in response to very clearly stated demand. "In 2015, in what was then our Divas Division, there was a match that lasted all of 30 seconds on a three-hour show – and unfortunately that was the norm," remembers McMahon. "And our fans had had enough. They started a hashtag that trended worldwide for three days: #GiveDivasAChance. They were calling for better character development, better storylines, more athleticism in matches, longer matches. Their voices were so clear and so loud."

Typically, WWE responded almost immediately. In front of 101,000 fans in a sold-out AT&T Stadium for Wrestlemania, the company’s flagship annual event, WWE announced that the Divas Division would be rebranded as the Women's Division, and their female talent would go from being known as 'Divas' to being branded as 'Superstars' – the designation previously reserved for the men. The response was immediate.

“From that time, our women have been more regularly headlining and main-eventing our television and pay-per-view programming,” says McMahon. “We signed Ronda Rousey, who is one of the world’s greatest athletes, male or female, and we had our first-ever all-women’s pay per view: ‘Evolution’.

“It was available on WWE Network, which is a small audience by comparison to broadcast, but it trended number one worldwide for over two-and-a-half hours during the last game of Major League Baseball’s World Series and the NFL’s Monday Night Football. Our women were being given the same opportunities as the men and ultimately they started stealing the show.”

Former UFC Women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey joined WWE full-time in 2018

At this year’s Wrestlemania, held at a packed MetLife Stadium in New York, the women’s championship was the main event. Some change in four years.

But it should come as no surprise that WWE listened to its fans and adjusted its business accordingly. With more than 500 events per year, the organisation hears the voice of its consumers almost constantly.

“We have the ability to feel our audience on a nightly basis – you can really get to know them,” says McMahon (right). “I think it’s important for any brand, whether you’re a sports property or you’re an entertainment property, to not only listen to your fans but also to empower them. Our fans know that their voice matters. They really are the ones who have made it happen.”

Yet WWE’s commitment to girls and young women goes well beyond the arena and the demands of its audience. In October, the organisation partnered with the UN Foundation on its Girl Up programme, supporting a sports-based initiative focused on developing girls' leadership skills, confidence and self-esteem.

It joins a variety of charitable initiatives and focus areas – ranging from paediatric cancer to Special Olympics – in which WWE invests time and resource, but is clearly an area of real passion for McMahon.

“As a woman myself, the mother of three daughters and an executive in my family’s business, seeing the possibilities is empowering to me,” she insists. “It’s so crucial in our world and it’s amazing in 2019 that there is still the gap that we see.

“We are a part of a nascent organisation called ‘She Is’, and that’s what it’s all about – a number of commissioners from various sports leagues coming together to help drive ticket sales and ratings. Do you know when the WNBA playoffs are? Do you know when their season is? Because most people don’t. In media coverage – plays of the week, highlights of the week – do you see a lot of female sports covered? Because I don’t. So I think there is a huge opportunity.

“I’m not going to look at it as a negative, I’m going to look at it as a positive: there is a huge opportunity to promote and drive interest in female sports. It just hasn’t been taken advantage of yet.”

When she was growing up, Stephanie McMahan saw her mother Linda lead the WWE

Neither, to be frank, has the opportunity to engage more women in key leadership positions in the male-dominated sport industry itself. “The statistics are shifting, but not nearly fast enough,” agrees McMahon. “From a business perspective, I heard Warren Buffett say a few years ago: ‘I think there’s nothing but upside because half the world’s population hasn’t been at work.’ It’s just all upside.

“But it needs to shift faster. In order to truly see opportunity, girls have to be able to see women in these roles – whether it’s female CEOs or female athletes or female journalists or female doctors – so that they know it’s a real possibility. My mum was the CEO of WWE when I was growing up, so I never saw gender as a barrier. I always aspired to be a leader – I thought that’s what you should be.”

McMahon is adamant that role models are vital to driving change. Still, she understands that this is yet another onerous requirement placed on female executives that their male counterparts never have to think about.

“So many female leaders I have met with are trying to make a difference, but they don’t want to be in the spotlight,” she says. “They just want to do the best job they possibly can. I understand that perspective. But I’m quite visible, and I think you have to be in the spotlight to drive change, or at least to get it going, because people have to know it’s possible.”

And then, as McMahon says, it’s all upside.

Adam Fraser is the global development director of Laureus Sport for Good, which uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage around the world and funds more than 160 sport for development programmes in 40 countries.