Each year, the United States Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee receives over 30,000 suggestions from the general public about feature subjects for stamps. Each year, a few dozen make it through the process of becoming forever immortalized as official postal items.
On Thursday, in Orlando, Fla., the USPS will officially launch its 2023 women’s soccer stamp at an event outside Exploria Stadium, where later that night the United States women’s national team will play Canada in the SheBelieves Cup.
While the official stamp is not based on any specific player, the red, white and blue color scheme worn by the player on the stamp is an ode to the team’s success – four-time World Cup champions, including the past two tournaments, and four-time Olympic gold-medalists – and popularity.
“The approach that we ended up moving in was one where we could recognize women’s soccer and the incredible growth as a sport,” art director Antonio Alcalá tells The Equalizer. “This was a way to recognize that — I don’t know if I could call it explosion, but sort of hitting that tipping point where it’s really a part of everybody’s life every day, and also acknowledging the accomplishments of the women’s national soccer team.”
The United States women’s team’s popularity reached new heights following its 2019 World Cup triumph. On the field, the squad went on a European wrecking tour, defeating four foes from the continent – including hosts France – in the knockout stage to win the title. Off the field, the team championed equality and – led by winger and Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe – took aim at then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
The American people noticed, and so too did the USPS. Honoring the team, however, came with complications. For starters, living people are rarely featured on stamps. Then there is the issue of licensing and royalties for any official player or team likeness. Featuring any specific player or team would require licensing or royalty fees that the USPS does not have.
Alcalá, working with illustrator Noah MacMillan (1988-2022) took the lead on a more abstract design, one that clearly says Americana at first glance, but also one that is intentionally generic. It just so happens to hit circulation in another Women’s World Cup year. The final product features a player volleying a ball, implicitly toward goal. It is an illustration with clear “energy,” Alcalá says, including the player’s ponytail and hand protruding beyond the rectangle border.
Some might find that representation on a stamp in a frivolous honor — Who uses snail mail in the digital age? — but they would be mistaken. Philately — the study and collection of postage items — is a major hobby, and mail is big business.
The U.S. Postal Service processed 425 million mail items each day in 2021, according to its own data, and no item moves locations without some form of stamp.
In 2023, that will prominently include women’s soccer stamps. Launching alongside them this year are a range of stamp subjects from authors Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison, to the Lunar New Year, piñatas and sailboats. Also among the subjects is the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who appeared on the back of U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn’s jersey at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.
Bader Ginsburg was known as a champion of equality and social justice. That a women’s soccer stamp (again, for all intents and purposes, an honoring of the United States women’s national team) appears alongside such a figure speaks to the level of notoriety the team has reached, and the social influence it collectively holds.
This variety of work is part of what Alcalá, a self-professed soccer fan, loves about the job.
“One of the things I love about doing this job is that on the one hand, I get to do things like this stamp that I have a very close, personal connection to,” he says, “but then I can turn around and be working on a science topic like the total eclipse of the sun, or it could be a historic subject on a little-recognized artist. So, there’s a great variety in terms of what the stamp program honors, so it’s always an education for me, but when it hits so close to home, it’s very exciting.”
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Alcalá has a daughter who played soccer competitively, including for the club team at Penn State. He lives within driving distance of the Washington Spirit, supporting the team and attending games when he can.
Last year, he and his wife bumped into Spirit captain Andi Sullivan and her husband. It was a small thrill for Alcalá the fan, and a serendipitous moment for the professional art director. Even at that point, he still could not divulge that there was a women’s soccer stamp in the works (the process from subject selection to design, Postmaster General approval, and public release, can take two to three years).
Still, he says he is happy to have gotten the assignment as one of four art directors who split duties. It was part luck of the draw, part assigned with some knowledge of his expertise and passion.
“It was a real thrill personally to be assigned this stamp,” Alcalá says.
Come Thursday, the rest of the United States gets to join that, both in the everyday life of mail and as collectors.
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