The sports industry really doesn’t like mothers. They are bad for business.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith’s tweets about her recent experience with being pregnant and a mother as a professional athlete:
Still don’t believe me?
Consider how Nike recently treated Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix. The multi-billion dollar brand dropped the World Champion after learning of her pregnancy because apparently a woman who is with child is bad for business. And it was just this year, after the world’s best tennis player made her postpartum return to the court, that the WTA stopped treating pregnant tennis players the same way they treated women who had been penalized and suspended for the use of banned substances.
See, it’s true. Organizations in the sports world treat pregnant women like they have the plague. They treat them like they are something to be avoided and unsupported. They penalize and handle female athletes for being mothers in a way that they have never and would never penalize male athletes who are fathers.
While it may be frustrating and disappointing to see the way the sports industry responds to pregnant athletes and athletes who have children; it’s unfortunately unsurprising. Society, especially in the United States, says that pregnancy and motherhood are bad for business. The United States is the developed country that fails to mandate paid maternity leave. What’s more, the longer a woman is out on maternity leave, the less likely she is to be promoted and the more likely she is to be demoted or fired. So sports organizations are just perpetuating the societal norms that dissuade women from simultaneously being professionals and mothers.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sports offers the opportunity to celebrate and highlight womanhood and athleticism. In an industry built on celebrating strength, organizations can and should look to develop policies and strategies that capitalize on, highlight and support the strength it takes female athletes to bear and raise children, rehabilitate their postpartum bodies and minds, and juggle performing as elite athletes while being present mothers. But they shouldn’t celebrate motherhood and pregnancy just because they are miracles and expressions of strength and love. Pregnancy and motherhood can actually be good for business.
Pregnant athletes and athlete moms open the doors for marketers to capitalize on the intersection of sports and motherhood. The maternity clothing industry is a $2 billion industry. The women’s sports apparel market is valued at $26.8 billion in an industry that is valued at over $167 billion. Can you imagine how much money Nike could make if they created a maternity line? There’s also space for female athletes to partner with brands in the $73.86 billion industry that provides goods for mothers and their babies. Think diapers, stretch mark creams, strollers and the like. Brands can and should make it commonplace to see familiar faces from the sports industry selling us OshKosh B’gosh and Pampers because there’s money to be made.
Pregnancy and motherhood don’t have to stop an organization from thriving. After all, female athletes have certainly shown that pregnancy and motherhood don’t stop their shine. Serena Williams won the Australian Open while pregnant, Diggins-Smith was a league leader while pregnant and Alysia Montaño ran in the USATF Championships twice while pregnant. What’s more, women have proven that they can return to elite athlete status following pregnancy. Felix broke Usain Bolt’s record for the most world titles after giving birth, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won her fourth World Championship gold after becoming a mother, and Serena has made multiple Grand Slam finals appearances after the birth of her daughter.
Since female athletes can win while pregnant and as mothers and there are opportunities for financial gains in the sports and maternity industries, organizations can and should invest in their athletes when they are pregnant and become mothers. Supporting athletes as they transition to motherhood looks like providing adequate physical and mental health care, creatively re-branding athletes during and following pregnancy and celebrating with athletes when they become mothers. It’s really not an expensive investment but it has the potential for great returns. If childless female athletes have created million dollar brands for themselves and their organizations, imagine the markets that they can tap into as the strong mothers they become.