Last year, the U.S. men’s national soccer team was eliminated from the World Cup in the first knockout round of the international tournament. The disqualifying match, played against the very good Belgian national team, was watched by twenty-two million people, making it the second-highest-viewed soccer match ever aired on American television. Belgium, to the dismay of these 22 million people, beat the U.S. 2 to 1. America, as a result, folded up its interest in soccer as a national rallying sport and put it back in the closet for another four years. Maybe in 2018, we’d have a chance to right our past wrongs, and to prove to the world that we could be a dominant soccer nation, too.
The 2014 World Cup was a thing of great anthropological beauty. With the rapid growth of new Major League Soccer teams in several American cities, it appeared that the sport would maybe, hopefully, finally gain a significant stronghold in the States. More Americans than ever seemed to care if the Stars & Stripes did well in the big soccer showdown—fans flooded bars to watch matches with fervor usually reserved for more important American sports. After our loss to Belgium, we looked to 2018—surely then we would advance to the quarter-finals. And at the Qatar World Cup of 2022, perhaps we would have the chance to secure a first World Cup win for the United States. What a spectacle that would be for us all.
Except, wait—hadn’t we already won the World Cup twice? In 1991 and 1999? Didn’t we also have the significant chance of winning the World Cup again this year, in 2015? Wasn’t our national team one of the best soccer teams in the world and wasn’t that something to be proud of? If we were really looking to become a soccer nation—one on par with all the other soccer nations of the world—why weren’t we looking to our women’s national squad to be the torch-bearers for this newfound love and interest? Why did all of our soccer-ball-shaped-eggs have to end up in one men’s regulation-net-shaped basket?
The U.S. women’s national team has always had stars: Brandi Chastain, Sydney Leroux, Mia Hamm, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach, the last of whom is the all-time goal-scoring leader in international competitions (for both male and female soccer players) and who will never play in another World Cup. As a squad we’ve not only qualified to play in every single tournament, we’ve also won two of them and made it to the final of a third (2011’s tense match against Japan). This year, our team is jacked with star power, determination, and skill. The rules of the game are the same as the men’s tournament (though studies have shown female players fake far less injuries than male soccer players), and more women’s teams get added to the tournament every go-around, doubled from 12 to 24 teams in as many years. While all of this would surely preclude an equivalent if not greater interest in the women’s World Cup this year as we showed during last year’s men’s matches, that isn’t the case. But why?
The 2015 Women’s World Cup began this past Saturday, but you probably didn’t know that. The USWNT has already won their first game (3-1 against Australia), but maybe that wasn’t on your radar. While it’s no secret that sports were designed by men for men, the absence of excitement around women’s soccer, which on paper in America is arguably better and more competitive than men’s, is alarming.
During the 2014 men’s World Cup—excuse me, feel free to preemptively remove the “men’s” qualifier—the interface of Twitter completely changed so that anyone who wanted to follow the month-long event would be able to do so in real time. Suddenly you could feel close to the games without even watching; you could curate Twitter’s homepage to better connect with your favorite soccer reporters, players, and teams; everything about the live feeds felt seamless and clean and well organized. On their blog after the tournament ended, Twitter reported that 672 million tweets were sent related to the 2014 World Cup. Their social campaign to show the enormity of the World Cup was a success.
If you log onto Twitter.com or Facebook or now, the same attention is difficult to find even if you go looking for it. While it’s only a few days into the Women’s World Cup, there is a sense that only niche fans—like those of polo or darts—are watching, rather than the great swath of humanity that would normally indulge a major international tournament of the world’s most beloved sport. The Columbia Journalism Review lauded FOX Sports’ commitment to rigorous coverage while also pointing out that the simplest technology—online brackets for fans to fill out—are surprisingly absent and forgotten.
If certain publications weren’t determined to cover the Women’s World Cup just as breathlessly as they had the men’s matches only a year before, one may truly have little idea the former was even happening. Add all of this to the fact that less than two weeks prior to the start of the tournament, the U.S. Department of Justice moved to arrest fourteen FIFA-connected officials on charges of bribery and corruption and you’ve got a classic story of misplaced coverage: the women’s World Cup gets buried underneath the “more exciting” news about men behaving badly.
There are the same old excuses that men and sports fans make about women’s soccer to justify a collective lack of interest. The athletics aren’t as tight; the running isn’t as fast; the tactical decisions aren’t as sharp. The games are sloppier, the scoring higher (and thus not as thrilling), the overall spectacle somehow less exciting or captivating than the men’s games. There aren’t as many star players to recognize, there are fewer stories to be told, the interest just simply isn’t there. Maybe if we had a good story to rally around, or if we had women’s players whose names we knew, that’d make all the difference. These women are new to soccer, therefore they’re not as good. But why are they new to soccer? For the same reason women were given a late start in every other field—men barred their entry. Of course there will be a learning curve, but women have been cresting that curve with fearless determination for years. It’s time to start leveling the playing field between genders.
But how can we have a storyline to rally around or a narrative to care about if the media doesn’t invest in covering the tournament in an equivalent way to how it enthusiastically covers the men’s tournament? In a piece for The Atlantic titled “Women’s Soccer is a Feminist Issue,” writer Maggie Mertens explores the misconceptions about women’s soccer:
The problem is, sports media isn’t covering women’s sports either. In 2014, ESPN’s SportsCenter dedicated 2 percent of its on-air time to covering women’s sports, according to a study published this week in the journal Communication & Sport. The study found that three local Los Angeles news networks did slightly better, devoting 3.2 percent of their sports coverage to women athletes.
Cheryl Cooky, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of women’s studies at Purdue, says these numbers are actually lower than they were when this study began 25 years ago. But even this clearly unequal treatment is difficult for people to understand as sexist.
But as Cooky points out, a lot of our perceptions of how interesting women’s sports are come from the media itself. “Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting,” she says. “They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary ... When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.”
Mertens’ headline alone says a lot. As women are given a seat at the table in more and more industries, it’s incredible that we accept the fact that female athletes are somehow less qualified for national attention, or that they should be seen only as athletic entities relative to men. Marta, a female Brazilian soccer star who is largely regarded as the best women’s soccer player on earth, was given the nickname “Pele with a skirt” by Pele himself.
Deadspin.com—or Gawker with a fedora—has some great coverage of the Women’s World Cup, both in previews and match day recaps and updates. FiveThirtyEight—Gawker with a calculator—has also done a nice job putting together predictions. The games are being broadcast on FOX Sports, can be streamed here, and a handy schedule of all the matches is available through Google Calendar. This, like any other international sports tournament, will be an exciting month-long event where you can watch some of the greatest athletes in the world go up against each other. Whether those athletes are male or female should make no difference at all.