It’s no secret that women’s sports leagues and athletes are constantly seeking new ways to market themselves, earn income and grow their brands. The issues of financing and marketability are ever-present in conversations about improving the place of women in sports. Well, Rachael Rapinoe, a former athlete with a world-famous twin, thinks that she may have one of the keys to improving athletes’ health, building new partnerships and growing revenue for women in sports: CBD. Her new company, Mendi, is on a mission to use it to help athletes better recover and manage pain, support women and diversity and make some money.
Rapinoe, who cofounded Mendi with Kendra Freeman and Brett Schwager, explains: “We started Mendi based on a need. I played soccer and have a ton of friends (and obviously my sister [Megan Rapinoe]) who are still playing at the highest level. We’ve seen for years that athletes are given harmful drugs, pills and tools to mitigate pain management and recovery. Recovery is such a huge part of performance. So Mendi came out of a need to offer athletes a healthier way to manage their pain and to recover. Our mission is to improve athletes’ lives using nature’s best tools.”
Rapinoe and other cannabis advocates might be on to something. According to the Harvard Medical School, CBD, which stands for cannabidiol, is the second-most prevalent of the active ingredients of cannabis (marijuana). While CBD is one of hundreds of components of marijuana, it alone does not cause a “high.” According to a report from the World Health Organization, “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential.” CBD has been touted to alleviate a variety of health issues, including childhood epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia and, of particular importance for many athletes, chronic pain and inflammation, although more research is needed across the board. There are also known side effects to using CBD like nausea, fatigue, irritability and the ability to raise levels of medication in the bloodstream.
Not everyone is a supporter of the use of CBD and other cannabis ingredients for performance, pain or other treatments. The federal government, for one, is not convinced that CBD should be used for medicinal purposes and has refused to decriminalize it. That means that there is no official arm to regulate or test the claims of those who produce and sell CBD. An unregulated, untested market could be dangerous—especially because there are a number of manufactures that have made wildly unproven or supported claims about the benefits of cannabis.
Despite the uncertainty and the lack of official support, Mendi—with the endorsement of two of the biggest athletes in the world, Megan Rapinoe and her girlfriend, Sue Bird—is setting out to convince the masses that CBD could offer athletes a break from addictive pain pills and excruciating recoveries. While there have been reports of professional male athletes who use cannabis, it seems that women in the industry may be a little further behind in their support.
“It’s been known for some time that a some NBA, NFL and the MLB players have used cannabis for their rehabilitation and performance. The trick for us is getting to the female athletes and getting them to use it because our research shows that more male athletes historically used cannabis than female athletes.”
But while many athletes and leagues may remain slow to accept cannabis supplements, at least one women’s league, the National Women’s Soccer League, is taking a more progressive approach. The NWSL policy allows its players to use cannabinoids like CBD for pain and recovery, has accepted sponsorship within the cannabis industry and has multiple teams that have partnerships with cannabis companies. In fact, Rachael Rapinoe’s Mendi has partnerships with the Utah Royals and NC Courage.
To be clear, the NWSL does not officially endorse CBD or cannabis as a treatment method. In fact, its acceptance of the cannabis industry seems to be more in line with supporting women and (what the league believes is) smart business. A NWSL spokesperson had this to say: “The NWSL is very grateful and appreciative of all companies that sponsor our teams and athletes, and are always happy to welcome women-lead companies in the health and fitness categories to the league.”
But Rapinoe still sings the league’s praises. “The NWSL is very progressive, and that’s shown in their partnership with a CBD brand. They’re one of the few leagues that allows their players to use healthier products. That’s really worth noting, especially here in the U.S. I really hope that other leagues follow suit. I think that it’s like a very progressive decision.”
Beyond potentially improving the health of athletes, CBD offers the opportunity to infuse a great deal of much-needed money into women’s sports. According to projections made in the “State of Legal Cannabis Markets” report, cannabis sales are expected to exceed $40 billion worldwide by 2024. And in 2020 in the U.S. alone, recreational and medicinal cannabis sales were projected to surpass the NFL’s $15 billion in revenue, the MJ Business Daily reported last year, before the coronavirus crisis. That’s a lot of money that could potentially go toward sponsoring women’s team, leagues and athletes. Picture it: CBD company logos on jerseys and ads with world-class athletes promoting their favorite CBD ointment. That opportunity has not been lost on Rapinoe.
“It’s really important to us to use our resources to back women’s sports. We came to market being a brand of inclusivity, equality and equity. So we had to put our money where our mouths are by putting our dollars in women’s sports. Despite the lack of necessary regulations and federal acceptance, cannabis is big business. Conversely, women’s teams and leagues have nowhere near any of the resources that they should have. So it’s a great opportunity to put some of that money into what and who we believe in.
“The NWSL has very marketable players, and the sport itself is one of the fastest-growing in the United States. They should have more sponsors and resources. Given the size and the acceleration of the cannabis market, we believe we can really grow with the NWSL and be good partners with them and their players. We believe that as we grow together, we can simultaneously bring legitimacy to the cannabis market (through things like professional athlete endorsements) and women’s sports.”
As alluded to above, Rapinoe’s master plan for infusing money into women’s sports with big cannabis dollars has been hindered by the lack of federal support. Although more than 30 states have legalized the use of cannabis in some way, under federal law, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance. That means that most banks and major creditors like Visa and Mastercard won’t do business with cannabis companies. The passage of pending legislation like the SAFE Banking Act could give the cannabis industry some legitimacy and in turn support Rapinoe’s goals of putting money into women’s sports. But until federal entities distinguish Mendi from the Sinaloa Cartel, Rapinoe and others like her will have to work a little harder to get consumers and financial institutions to support them.
“I think that education is going to be key for this market to mature. Educating the consumers and government on the true benefits and even limitations of CBD will help us gain the legitimacy that we need,” says Rapinoe. “We are very much committed to supporting women in sports, so we look forward to increased education on cannabis, which will allow us to support world-class athletes on an even greater scale.”