The United States may have won a fourth World Cup, but what does it mean for the future of women’s soccer and what does it say about American fandom?
In the days following the U.S.’s fourth Women’s World Cup title, talk has turned to this team’s legacy. What does it mean for pay equity, the viability of a women’s pro soccer league and what is it about this team that could generate so many fans?
Those fans were front and center Wednesday morning along the streets of New York City. As the team was paraded on floats, fans (many of them jumping on the bandwagon over the past few weeks) feted Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and the team with cheers and adulation.
What this championship means for these players, pay equity and the long-term future of the women’s game are all intertwined with Wednesday’s festivities in New York City and what it says about American fandom. The millions of Americans who tuned into the World Cup and the tens of thousands who came out for the ticker-tape parade aren’t so much in love with soccer or this team as they are with winners.
This very same phenomenon has played itself out in recent decades at the Olympics. The 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team that captured the gold medal at the height of the Cold War (known as the “Miracle on Ice”) remains forever etched in our collective sports memories and grainy YouTube clips. It didn’t necessarily make hockey this country’s No. 1 sport, but served as a political win against the Soviet Union.
What it did do was create future American hockey stars. Like this World Cup, the Olympics can make for instant heroes who are often just that quickly forgotten. Americans like winners and winners draw fans. The same happens with figure skating, swimming and gymnastics. We can name the best American practitioners of those sports, but the staying power of said sports remains another thing.
If that template holds, it doesn’t bode well for the legacy of this USWNT. Yes, they have, and will, influence the current generation of girls to someday play for the United States. And that’s great.
The victory parade took place on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. team winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup in what remains another of those indelible sports images. Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty kick, followed by the stripping off of her jersey, is the stuff of legend.
The legacy of that team is alive in this current team, but it didn’t do anything to make fair weather soccer fans into everyday ones.
Women’s soccer, outside of the popularity generated by the World Cup, has struggled in this country. The NWSL, a third attempt at a professional league since 1999, drew an average of 6,000 fans last season and is currently drawing about the same this year. Those are hardly the kinds of numbers advertisers want to see. Few eyeballs means few advertisers. Few advertisers means little money. Little money doesn’t help in the fight for pay equity.
Don’t get me wrong this is AMAZING – but where was the support when Kansas City had an @NWSL team with USWNT players on it?! Learn from this and BE 👏🏼 BETTER 👏🏼 NEXT 👏🏼 TIME 👏🏼 https://t.co/ccNJrHj0eU
— Haley Hanson (@hay_hanson) July 8, 2019
The U.S. men’s team has seen a dip in popularity since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The program is now in the process of rebuilding. It will take some time to get to where the Americans were at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Should they qualify for the 2022 World Cup and reach the knockout stage, expect fans to come back and TV ratings to shoot up.
Football, basketball and baseball continue to dominate as American sports, largely because they have been around so long. For many of the little girls who lined the parade route to catch a glimpse of these superstars, the love affair with soccer will be fleeting. Only a very small percentage will continue to play and watch past their middle and high school years. Even fewer beyond that.
How many of these same young women will someday want to regularly cheer for a team competing in a domestic league remains the big unknown. This U.S. team that broke records in France now has the responsibility of being ambassadors for their sport like Mia Hamm and the ’99ers before them. Their legacy hinges on it. What they face now is a fickle American sports public who have lots of viewing options.
That ’99 team never got a parade. It was different time when women’s team sports was valued a lot less than now. Seeing so many children (especially girls) celebrate this team (some too young to remember that first historic New York parade following the 2015 World Cup) and the excitement generated was special.
This goes to the larger point. Americans have embraced soccer over the past two decades like they never have before. That’s in large part due to the past successes of the U.S. men’s and women’s teams. Now is the time for fans to step up and not just support the U.S. at a major tournament every four years, but local pro and amateur teams each week.
Long after the confetti and streamers are swept up and the U.S. team is no longer playing for a world championship is when Americans fans can make the difference. Those who came out to celebrate this team need to keep support women’s soccer.
Making soccer an everyday thing, not just an every four-year event, will go a long way in cementing the legacy of these players. Anything short of this will reduce the images produced today into the grainy YouTube clips of tomorrow.