If you take a stroll along Sir Matt Busby Way, heading towards Old Trafford, and take a left down Railway Road, Mary Earps is waiting to greet you.
Not in physical form, obviously, but in her iconic celebratory pose, arms wide and fists clenched, mouth wide open as she roars in joy. Earps is the Nottingham-born Manchester United powerhouse, the Lionesses’ moral compass, and officially the best goalkeeper in the world.
“Welcome to Manchester”, the mural reads, which is a nod to a time, in 2009, when Manchester City unveiled a billboard of Carlos Tevez’s controversial switch from Old Trafford to the Etihad.
The artwork was created in August, initially for a commercial shoot to promote the 2023-24 Women’s Super League (WSL) season getting under way. It was then supposed to come down but, such is Earps’ popularity, it remains on the side of the house.
“We were told it was going to be a small sticker, so we were expecting it to be maybe half the house, but we came back after being away and it was the entire wall,” Sam, the homeowner, says. “We were told we would be paid £150.
“As I was packing my stuff to leave to make arrangements for my dad, who had recently passed away, they called and offered us £500 if we would keep it up for six months. I just remember saying, ‘Yeah, sure’, as I had other things on my mind.
“We got back a few weeks later to see that it was much bigger than we thought. There were rumours everywhere that we were being paid £5,000 for it, but that simply isn’t true!”
Earps’ rise over the past two years has been outstanding: 2022 European Championship winner, 2022 Best FIFA Goalkeeper, 2023 Finalissima winner, 2022 and 2023 Arnold Clark Cup winner, and World Cup runner-up in 2023 (she also won the tournament’s Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets).
Just last week she was named as a finalist alongside Spain’s Cata Coll and Australia’s Mackenzie Arnold to be named the Best FIFA Goalkeeper for a second year running. Earps is also the favourite to be named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.
But this article is not about her on-field success.
Earps has become a commercial force in her own right, a social media star, someone who has brands queuing up to work with her — and she has done all of this by remaining her authentic self.
What started on TikTok as a light-hearted way to shine a light on women’s football has seen her become a cult figure.
Whether it is taking on Nike — and winning — over its failure to stock women’s goalkeeper shirts, or leaving young supporters in tears as they meet their idol, or successfully launching her own clothing range, Earps’ influence has become undeniable.
Mary Earps’ Nike comments were fearless – this is why what she said really matters
“To have a personal brand beyond being an elite athlete, what’s required is a combination of success on the pitch with marketability and appeal off the pitch,” Misha Sher, global head of sport, entertainment and culture at EssenceMediacom, tells The Athletic. “The athlete needs to have broader appeal in popular culture and that’s rare.
“Mary has got the personality, opinions and she stands up for things that people care about when it comes to equality. That bodes well. She also happens to be the highest-profile goalkeeper in the world’s biggest sport.”
Since the Lionesses won the Euros in July 2022, Earps’ social media following has gone up — substantially — across the board. On Instagram, over the past three years, it has climbed from 29,000 to over 700,000. Her growth as a presence on TikTok is equally impressive — she has gained more than one million followers since posting her first video in August 2021.
Her stance against Nike during the Women’s World Cup in Australia was authentic, measured and cut through to a wider audience.
“If you determine an athlete’s commercial value by their ability to endorse brands, sell products, together with on-pitch performance and their personal brand, demographic appeal and social media, then she is an absolute winner,” Lisa Parfitt, co-founder of sports marketing agency The Space Between, says.
“The Nike scenario shows she has a real awareness of social issues and uses her platform to advocate for equality.
“What was most interesting about that for her is that she has shown her influence to sell products. The irony was there wasn’t any product to sell. But Nike has since released goalkeeper jerseys and they sold out not long after being on sale.
“That is incredibly powerful for any athlete to be able to show the impact and influence they have is able to drive commercial sales.”
Earps is represented by The Purpose Agency, which is part of the Aim Sky High Talent Group, led by Christina Taylor. Her current long-term brand deals include Swedish drink NOCCO. More are expected to follow in 2024.
Even though brands are now queuing up to work with the England goalkeeper, there is a conscious decision only to partner with companies that align with her morals and way of thinking.
“In Mary’s future, you would expect her to be working with brands where she can really see there is an opportunity to do something different or make a difference to a cause she cares about,” Parfitt says. “You are unlikely to see her doing deals for the sake of deals.”
In June, the 30-year-old launched ‘MAE27’, her own clothing brand, which stocks T-shirts and hoodies with her slogan ‘be unapologetically yourself’ across the front. Prices range from £26.50 to £55 and when the most recent colours were launched, they sold out in three minutes — and that included the website crashing.
How to turn a Women’s World Cup star into a global brand
Earps takes a hands-on approach to her range, whether it is being in the shop to feel and choose the material of the T-shirts or turning up with the exact font she wants to use for the slogan.
Although money entering professional women’s football continues to grow, it is no secret that players tend to earn more from commercial deals than they do playing contracts. Earps was one of the first female players to utilise TikTok, realising there was an opportunity to showcase women’s football as it was not broadcast to the extent it is now.
Earps’ first post on the social media platform in August 2021 featured her kicking a ball in her Manchester United training kit, asking viewers to guess her position, before changing into a dress with the caption ‘I’m a keeper’. It had over 500,000 views.
Other videos on her profile have surpassed six million views. What may come as a surprise, especially in an era when professional athletes have agencies managing their social media profile, is that Earps creates all of her own content, even down to idea generation and the editing process.
“Social media has become a filtered environment and Mary is absolutely unfiltered, and that is what people love about her,” Parfitt adds. “That is what brands are looking for. They want to work with people who are unfiltered and willing to give everything.
“You have to look at the rawness of what a commercial partnership is. Yes, you want to support each other and have shared values, but ultimately it is about commercial value and selling products.”
Turning Earps into a commercial powerhouse will not happen overnight, Sher says, pointing to the fact she will have to “build” something over several years.
“What is Mary Earps doing five years from now? Does she own her own brand? Does she have a production company? Is she a co-founder of a tech business?” Sher asks. “You then start to work out about the types of things you could be doing now that allows that to happen in five years.
“Creating a powerful personal brand that means something to people is different to launching a logo. Mary has an amazing opportunity to build on her personality, authenticity and relatability, but it needs to have a vision and you have to work towards that vision.”
For Earps, success on the pitch domestically and internationally is her sole focus. Her contract at United expires next summer and she is yet to sign a new deal. There has been continued speculation that she will join Arsenal, linking up with Alessia Russo, her former United team-mate, who made the switch to north London in July.
She is a popular member of the dressing room at Carrington and, along with Ella Toone, attracts more media requests than any other player.
It is relevant to ponder whether being aligned with United, one of the most recognisable football clubs and brands in the world, will help grow her commercial profile. Russo’s transfer to Arsenal suggests it is not the be-all or end-all.
“Mary’s greatest value is currently as a Lioness,” Parfitt explains. “The Lionesses have cut through to a mass UK and global audience and are associated with success.
“The England platform is probably more influential for Mary than Manchester United Women at the moment but that’s simply because of the growth trajectory of the domestic game, which is playing catch-up to England at the moment.”
Earps recently went viral, again, after United’s 4-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur on December 10. A video emerged online of a young girl, Betsy, being embraced by Earps.
Never meet your heroes they say, well my little girl just met hers and she will never forget it.
Thanks so much Mary Earps ❤️ pic.twitter.com/DpU1ku0rK9
— Rob Boulton (@boulton1977_rob) December 10, 2023
“It is a really beautiful human moment and it was such a natural thing,” Rob Boulton, Betsy’s father, tells The Athletic. “She was so comforting to Betsy, who in that moment became a bit overwhelmed.
“Mary hung around for about 40 minutes after the game. The only way I can describe it is Beckhamesque. It was incredible to see the aura around her in a really positive way.
“All of the children went to the barriers and were desperate to get an autograph or photo. Mary was just amazing with all of them. She has a magnetic personality and it is really difficult not to like her. She appeals on two different levels.
“For the children, they buy into a particular player and she is brilliant from that aspect. From an adult point of view, the argument she had with Nike showed she stands up for what she believes in and her morals are in the right place. I look at her and think she is exactly the type of role model I want for my daughters.”
From a branding and marketing perspective, the fact Earps has captured the attention of so many young supporters bodes well for the future.
“In her own words, she is unapologetically herself,” Parfitt says. “And if a brand wants to engage with women and young women, this idea of being yourself and standing for something is what cuts through. Women want to see themselves represented in these people.”
For Sher, the path Earps should look to follow from a commercial point of view is the same one travelled by Ian Wright, the former Arsenal and England forward.
“If you look at how Ian has carefully built a powerful personal brand with his authentic personality at its heart, there is so much to admire,” Sher says. “When I look at Mary, she has the chance to do something global, but it is very difficult to do that.
“Five years from now, I can see Mary doing the types of things Ian is doing because she has got that personality. Ian is everywhere, but only in places where it makes sense for him to be. One day he is filming a documentary, the next day he is launching his own line for Adidas and then he’s on a catwalk at London Fashion Week.
“There is something about Ian, his personality and how he goes about things that is not dissimilar to the way Mary is.
“Of course, everyone has their unique traits and circumstances but I do think Mary could learn a lot from the way Ian has navigated his career to leverage all the authenticity of his personality to build a very successful career after retiring.”
Earps’ focus, for as long as she is playing professional football, will be fixed on changing women’s football for the better and adding to her already impressive trophy haul. The work to turn her ever-growing popularity into a commercially-viable entity is ongoing, and will continue to gather pace behind the scenes.
“It takes years to craft and reinforce,” Sher says. “If you take a step back, most companies we engage with, be that Nike or Apple, weren’t overnight successes. They first had a vision, a story and were able to craft a narrative and that story has been reinforced in the eyes of consumers for many years.”
Many athletes lose sight of who they really are on their way to the top. Media advisors train them to be boring, to avoid talking about myriad topics, and turn them into a polished version of who they used to be.
But Earps is different, and it is no coincidence her popularity has grown due to the nature of her personality. In a world where footballers are encouraged to sit on the fence, she is authentic, no matter the topic.
“She is at the start of her journey and now there is a recognition she is a powerful brand and there are huge amounts of opportunities for brands to work with her,” Parfitt adds.
“‘Be unapologetically yourself’ may be a slogan to some, but to Earps it is who she is — and her prowess on the pitch, and as a commercial entity off it, is going to benefit from it.”
(Top photo: Dan Sheldon/The Athletic)