Female Athletes Are Under Covered. These Olympians Want to Change That.

It has been a packed few years for Alex Morgan. She became a World Cup champion (again), a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against her employer alleging pay inequities and, in the middle of a pandemic, the mother to a little girl, Charlie. Soon she will add additional titles: Media mogul and business owner.

Morgan, along with Sue Bird, Simone Manuel and Chloe Kim, have teamed up to found TOGETHXR, which they describe as a media and commerce company designed to elevate women’s voices, around but not exclusively within sports. It is their entry into the fast-growing world of athlete-founded media companies, joining the likes of The Players’ Tribune (Derek Jeter), UNINTERRUPTED (LeBron James) and Thirty Five Ventures (Kevin Durant), among others.

“This is going to be something that really breaks barriers,” Morgan said last month, the day after she played just her second international soccer match in nearly 20 months at the SheBelieves Cup. “Something that creates a community and a platform from female athletes for female athletes that has never been done before.”

Morgan teamed up with a diverse set of athletes who have found mainstream adoration for their winning performances across sports. Bird has four W.N.B.A. championship titles and four Olympic gold medals. Manuel made history at the 2016 Rio Games, taking home four medals and becoming the first Black woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming. And at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Kim became the youngest snowboard halfpipe gold medalist. (Many believed Kim could have been in contention for the same prize in 2014, but at age 13, she was too young to qualify.)

The founders believe, or certainly hope, that they have started TOGETHXR at a tipping point for women’s sports. Women’s soccer leagues are growing across Europe, W.N.B.A. players’ social justice demands have given the league a platform like never before and organizations with new models, like Athletes Unlimited’s volleyball and softball leagues, are launching.

“There is more conscious investment and viewership, engagement is growing, cultural rhetoric is there and the significance of these women using their platforms to literally affect political and cultural change is at a fever pitch,” said Jessica Robertson, TOGETHXR’s chief content officer. “And this brand is coming alongside or maybe just behind that movement.”

The founders also understand the power and influence they wield, and are eager to pass the mic. The company “is less about me, it’s less about Alex, it’s less about Chloe, it’s less about Simone,” Bird said. “The media coverage for the four of us can always get better because obviously here we are talking about the lack of media coverage that exists for female athletes. But it wasn’t about us — it’s about the next generation.”

One of TOGETHXR’s first projects is a video series on 17-year-old national boxing champion Chantel “Chicanita” Navarro on YouTube. It’s the kind of feature that excites Bird. “I don’t know much about boxing, I don’t know much about Chantel, and so even for someone like me, it’s exciting that there’s going to be a way for that story to get told,” she said.

TOGETHXR is backed financially with a “mid-seven figure investment” by Magnet Companies, a private equity holding company founded by media veterans. Robertson said the company expects to create original content for and strike partnerships with social media platforms, form licensing deals and sell merchandise. The core audience is girls and young women who are interested in sports, as well as topics like activism, culture, wellness and beauty.

Heightened access to athletes is no guarantee of success, which few understand better than Robertson, who worked for five years at The Players’ Tribune. Some of the site’s stories, like Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love’s on mental health, broke through and were read and commented upon by tens or hundreds of thousands. But the vast majority did not.

The Players’ Tribune raised $58 million from investors, according to Crunchbase, and burned through $80 million, according to the New York Post, before it was sold to Minute Media in 2019.

To Robertson, The Players’ Tribune failure was a business failure. It was founded upon a hypothesis that making athletes feel comfortable sharing their personal stories would drive impactful conversations in sports. Whether or not it succeeded at that, it certainly was not enough to drive a business based mostly upon readership and display advertising.

“Brands like The Players’ Tribune have built themselves as great brands, but they are not always great businesses,” she said. Instead, TOGETHXR will go to where the audience is: social media. Robertson’s point of comparison was not a media brand but Glossier, a wildly popular online beauty brand that inspires deep loyalty from its buyers.

A potentially big advantage is the obvious difference between TOGETHXR and most other athlete-founded media companies: This one was founded by women.

Male athletes, whether they decided to create their own media companies or not, are covered relentlessly by a third-party press. But top female athletes are if anything under covered, especially those like Kim and Manuel, who find themselves the subjects of an Olympics media frenzy for two weeks and then mostly recede from view for the next four years.

“Growing up I didn’t have posters of female athletes, which wasn’t because I didn’t watch sports,” Morgan said. “I just didn’t know enough about female athletes to put them on my wall and idolize them.”

Female athletes can also be more interesting subjects than male athletes, in part because they have to be. Million dollar salaries, commonplace in men’s sports, are all but absent from women’s sports unless your name is Serena Williams. They have to fight for scraps of attention from the media.

“We don’t have $40 million saved up in the bank to live on for however long,” Morgan said. “We don’t have sponsorships for millions of dollars with one footwear company. As a female athlete, you have to be more than a female athlete.”

Robertson says TOGETHXR will be an “identity” brand, which she says will speak to the idea of young women as “multi-hyphenates.” “Alex is not just incredible soccer player but a mom, activist, business person and scholar,” she says.

Women’s sports, through no fault of the athletes, are also inherently political and politicized, much like women’s bodies. To Manuel, who spent much of the pandemic training for the upcoming Olympics in a backyard pool, all of the complicated ways in which women must navigate through sports and the world means they are “bursting at the seams to tell these stories.”

It might also mean they have more interesting stories to tell — Manuel wants to tell stories about Black hair, mental health, minorities in swimming and perhaps cooking — than male athletes who might begin focusing on a multimillion dollar career when they are 14 and begin media training at 16.

“Being a woman, you are told you are too much or not enough of any one thing, all the time, especially in sports,” Manuel said. “It is a consciousness that isn’t even ingrained, it is a byproduct. If we are talking literal financial opportunities, you have to dimensionalize yourself because there isn’t enough respect for women athletes and their athletic performance.”

Success for TOGETHXR could look like many different things, but for the founders, it’s rooted in changing that paradigm.

“We won’t know until we are looking back on this time and ask ourselves if we were right,” Robertson said. “Did coverage grow? Did pay change? Whose stories are we centering and how often are we centering them?”

Bird has the visual already.

“I always joke that I want to be that older disgruntled athlete, because all the players who are 20, 30 or 40 years younger than me are getting paid millions and are on TV all the time because that means that I helped,” she said. “That means that I did my part when I was playing and I helped move the game and move female athletes forward in some way.”