U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team: World Champions, Second-Class Citizens

The numbers are in, and the U.S.’s victorious match against Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final was one of the most watched sports event of the year, attracting more viewers stateside than any other soccer game in American history, and coming just sort of eclipsing last month’s NBA championship game between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Brookings scholar Andrew Zimbalist.

Photo from TheAtlantic.com

Photo from TheAtlantic.com

The winners, including Abby Wambach, the world record holder for goals scored by both male and female players, celebrated their successful rematch with Japan after having lost to that team in the final game of the 2011 World Cup. Clinching the title 5-2, the U.S. women reclaimed the world championship title for the first time in 15 years.

Despite huge ratings and ticket sales for the women’s world cup, Zimbalist makes note of the huge difference in prize money between the men’s and women’s world soccer tournaments, with the men’s bounty proving 38.5 times higher than the women’s. According to economics reporter for Business Insider Shane Ferro, the total prize pool for the last men’s World Cup was $576 million, compared to a paltry $15 million for the women.

This vast gulf in earnings between the two leagues is due to its being raised entirely from advertising revenue and sponsorship. Simply put, corporations—especially multinational ones—are less eager to tie their brand to a sport that, in most countries outside the U.S., is understood to be an overwhelmingly masculine endeavor. For example in Brazil, women were banned from playing soccer between 1941 and 1979, RPI reports. In France, despite the fact that most boys grow up playing soccer for either recreation or sport, girls are virtually absent from both casual pickup-games and competitive teams.

Lest we forget how the international community has resisted embracing the validity of women’s soccer, let us recall former FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s 2004 suggestion on how the women’s league might increase their prominence on the global stage.

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” Blatter said. “Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

In post-World-Cup-winning America, the refrain has taken on a much different tone than the sexist remarks Blatter made over 10 years ago.

In addition to driving sky-high ratings, the world champions will be welcomed home with parade through the streets of New York City, complete with ticker-tape festooning.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio used the win to address the issue of pay equity. Regarding the $560 million more dollars in prize money paid out during the Men’s World Cup De Blasio said, “If we’re going to have a more equal society, this victory sends a powerful message about it. If we’re going to have pay equity, this victory sends a message about it.”

Like so many advances in women’s equality, we have Title IX to thank for the U.S. women’s team’s dominance in the global soccer arena. The federal law, which went into full effect in 1978, banned sex-based discrimination in schools that receive public funds, leading to increased funding for women’s sports in institutions of secondary and higher education.

The Washington Post reported that while only 12 percent of youth soccer players worldwide are female, the U.S. “makes up more than half of that total.” And, citing a recent analysis by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser of Public Radio International, the Washington Post notes how the top 23 teams in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup come from countries with comparatively high measures of gender equality.   

But, is there more to America’s female-footie dominance than Title IX and the enduring effects of women’s liberation? Could it be that, in the exact opposite way the rest of the world understands the sport as masculinized, we understand it as feminized? Is there something about our cultural perception of soccer itself that leads us as a society to enshrine it as one of the few women’s team sports with any foothold in the American sports media?

Perhaps what has allowed women’s soccer in the U.S. to eclipse men’s in terms of popularity is the lack of machismo the sport evokes in the minds of Americans. In contrast to countries in Europe and Central and South America, where soccer is fiercely competitive and the most gifted players are fast-tracked into the professional league as young as 13 years of age, soccer here connotes suburban parents with sandwich baggies and juice boxes, foldable chairs and volunteer coaches—and of course, that cultural demographic so highly coveted by advertisers and politicians alike, the Soccer Mom.

Americans tend to dislike the theatrics of professional soccer, and scoff at players’ propensity to flop, or fake an injury to trick the referee into thinking they’ve been fouled. When players fall to the ground, overzealously wincing and grabbing the leg we’re all pretty sure wasn’t even kicked, many American viewers see weakness—not strategy, as many soccer (EDIT: futball) fans would contend—playing out before their eyes.

This arguable “sissification” of soccer is maybe what has allowed it to become one of the most popular team sports for women. The top three highest grossing sports leagues in America, the NFL, MLB and NBA, are unsurprisingly male. Generally, sports that draw any sort of regional or national attention—to the degree they are lucrative for advertisers and athletes alike—are uniformly played by men.

Even though Brookings found the Women’s World Cup final drew three times as many American viewers than the Stanley Cup Final, the average salary of a professional woman soccer player is between $6,000-30,000 per year, compared to the NHL’s average salary of $2.4 million.

Not only are professional women athletes earning less, their teams receive less coverage by the sports media. A study done by researchers from the University of Southern California and Purdue found that ESPN’s nationally-syndicated SportsCenter devoted only 1.4 percent of its coverage to women’s sports in 2009, down from 2.2 percent in 1999. In other words, the prominence of women’s sports in the media is not only abysmally low, it is actually decreasing.

Granted, women’s individual athletes, namely tennis players, do receive more media attention and corporate sponsorships. Maria Sharapova, for example, came in 26th on Forbes’ 2015 list of the 50 highest paid athletes in the world, earning $29.7 million. The only other woman to make the list? Fellow tennis pro Serena Williams, who ranked 47th with her yearly earnings of $24.6 million. But unlike individual sports like tennis and golf, team sports are firmly grounded in the American psyche as national pastimes. Around team sports we gather for tailgates, cookouts, and even riots.

Somewhat paradoxically, we Americans prefer team sports. For a society as individualistic as the Unites States, where the “self made man” remains deeply embedded within our cultural mythology, and the great American Cowboy continues to symbolize a very particular sort of American renegadism, perhaps we revere team sports because they provide a reprieve, a relief from the depressing (however fallacious) notion that we are meant to “go it alone”, mix elbow-grease with business-savvy and make it by virtue of our own individual, even unique, merits.

Perhaps our culture so reveres team sports because they are one of the few domains (with the exception of the military) in which it remains dignified to trust the group and rely on others for your own success.

Yet the question remains, why do we watch our men compete in packs and our women compete alone? This trend acquires a poignant significance when you consider the cultural myths of female collectivism and male individualism.

Much more than women, men in the West are told to seek their destiny, leave the nest in search of wealth and understanding. From Cowboys to Kerouac, we know this man. But women, women remain homebound in the American consciousness. Though women have won the right to pursue our own educations and careers, to aspire to more than just motherhood, stereotypically, we perceive women as more group-oriented and attuned to needs of others. Women over men are socialized for empathy, a trait that research has shown promotes prosocial and cooperative behavior.

Given our gendered understanding of women as biologically hardwired team players, pack actors, and collaborators, America’s—and frankly, the world’s—hesitancy to embrace women’s team sports is imbued with a cruel tinge of suppressive irony.

Women’s team sports force us to confront women’s agency to an uncomfortable degree. They force us to see the power of women working in concert, and most significantly, they provide a visual counter-narrative to the modern culture of male domination. Women’s team sports provide a space for women to use their bodies in something other than a scantily-clad advertising campaign. Women’s team sports falsify the patriarchal perception of the female body as fundamentally aesthetic and reproductive.

If anything else, this week’s world championship win by the U.S. Women’s National team has reignited the call for more coverage of professional women’s sports. As writers and commentators continue to discuss the massive discrepancy in prize winnings between the men’s and women’s tournaments, it has become another important moment in the ongoing fight for gender equality. As the ratings for the Women’s World Cup prove, Americans want to see more professional women’s sports, and as more and more people tune in to watch world-class players like Wambach and Lloyd, advertising revenue will skyrocket, and athletes’ pay will spike in turn. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: AMANDA BURKE

Currently a journalism student at Boston University, formerly a line cook with a side gig selling vintage jewelry. I am interested in the way our narrative species communicates and consumes information and images, and the power of storytelling to connect us all. I am passionate about social politics and policy, and hope one day work for an organization that shares my dedication for feminism, culture, and the arts.

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