The 2019 World Cup is over and the United States are again the champions. As in 2015, the tournament shattered viewership records and raised awareness for women’s soccer around the globe. And as in 2015, the festivities ended in New York City, where the world champions were feted in a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
Now come the questions about the long-term future of the game. Domestically, the National Women’s Soccer League is now the first pro league to survive through two World Cups, and things are already better off than they were following Canada. While the world’s attention was focused on France, the NWSL signed a television agreement with ESPN that they “hope” will be the start of a long-term arrangement. And the morning of the final brought news that Budweiser was on board as a major, long-term sponsor of the league.
Let’s contrast those two bits of news with 2015. The television deal, announces less than two hours before the semifinal, shifted the final to a Thursday night. Later that year, commissioner Jeff Plush found himself on a testy conference call defending the lack of sponsorship acquired after the World Cup. Framed against that, the current mood is quite rosy. Meanwhile, Netherlands is among the countries falling in love with their women’s team after a home-soil win a EURO 2017 and a run to the final in this World Cup.
In question is just how long the honeymoon will last this time. Are we finally at a tipping point where women’s soccer will carve out a place in the soul of the collective sports fan, to the point they will wake up every day invested in some outcome, player transfer, or other minutiae? Or is women’s soccer destined to be like so many Olympic sports – the talk of the town every four years and an underground society for the intervening 47 months?
More people attended Wednesday’s parade than have been to Sky Blue FC matches, just a stone’s throw away, since the team resurfaced at the launch of the NWSL in 2013. The reasons for that are numerous and including a sub-par venue and gross mismanagement at all levels of the club. But that gap should not be as great as it stands today. Anyone who loved Carli Lloyd when she scored a hat trick in the World Cup final four years ago can certainly love Carli Lloyd when she suits up for Sky Blue. To this point, the latter has been fleeting at best, non-existent at worst.
Think about the most famous athletes and most popular sports of the Olympic Games. Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps have made swimming must-watch TV in households around America during the Games, but few who were captivated by their Olympic achievements have kept tabs on them in the three years since. The same goes for Usain Bolt and track; John Shuster and the U.S. curling team from the 2018 Winter Games.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking one of two things — maybe both. The first is that you likely already support an NWSL club, maybe from many hundreds of miles away, so why would women’s soccer take on an Olympic arc of public relevance? The simple answer there is that not enough of those who were all-in on the U.S. are even taking a seat at the table for the NWSL. The second is that comparing team sports to individual sports is a fool’s errand.
The comparison angle may be true, but so far there just has not been enough evidence to support women’s soccer being close to puncturing the sports fan’s daily bubble.
One of the misconceptions about building out the women’s soccer fan base, at least in my opinion, is the belief that leagues and clubs need to be creating die-hard fans every day. I would suggest that there is a solid base of die-hard NWSL fans and that the missing element is actually the casual fan. It’s the person who knows enough to keep up but does not necessarily live and die with every cross or errant offside flag.
This is also an issue that has still eluded the explosion of men’s soccer culture in the United States. Leaving aside for a moment the clash between supporting Major League Soccer or a favorite European league, MLS teams have not yet become culturally iconic in many cities. Take Toronto for example (not the United States I know, but work with me). Toronto FC is extraordinarily popular at home, draw well, and recently put together one of the best seasons any MLS team has ever had. Yet it was the recent NBA title won by the Toronto Raptors that brought mass hysteria to the streets and media coverage of the city’s first major sports champion since the 1993 Blue Jays. (The Raptors by the way, have only existed a dozen years more than Toronto FC.)
The long-term answer of course, lies on myriad levels. In many ways, sports habits are dictated by mainstream media, and the mainstream media coverage of the World Cup was laser-focused on all the wrong things. It’s a start perhaps, but until it makes news that Amandine Henry is coming to Portland or that Alex Morgan is going on loan to Lyon, the average sports fan is just not going to be exposed to enough women’s soccer content to have a chance at even realizing that Sam Kerr is probably one of the 10 best athletes currently based in the U.S.
There have been baby steps all along the way. The 1999 team let us know that yes, women too played soccer. The 2011 World Cup woke up the sleeping fan base on the wings of a miraculous quarterfinal win. In 2015, the championship bubble exploded after 16 years. This year’s World Cup may find newer and farther reaches thanks to Megan Rapinoe and her teammates having found the right time and the right tone to combine their achievements with being social justice warriors.
But baby steps are just that: baby steps. And I’m afraid the current wave will be more of an Olympic-style arc than a launching point to deeper relevance.
I would love to be wrong.
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