World-class players take soccer beyond prove-it-to-me territory
Let’s start with some numbers.
The entire women’s World Cup attracted an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide. That includes the 14.3 million who tuned into the final between the U.S. and the Netherlands on Fox.
In Brazil, more than 35 million watched their home country play France in the round of 16. That set a record for the biggest single audience for a women’s soccer contest. Again, that happened in Brazil, where women’s soccer is too often an afterthought.
So, can we finally move past the prove-it-to-me storylines? Women’s soccer shouldn’t have to prove its value to FIFA, national federations, broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers. It shouldn’t have to prove its ability to entertain and engage fans. From June 7 through July 7, it did that. Over and over and over again. On a global scale.
Or, as U.S. star Megan Rapinoe said after the final: “I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step. I think we’re done with: ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay?’” She’s right. While we’re at it, we should be done with any notion that sports exist separate from politics. They don’t. When you try building a wall between the two, you rob women’s sports and female athletes of their most significant power: their capacity not only to push for change, but to make change happen.
After the U.S. defeated the Netherlands 2-0, chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” echoed through the stadium in Lyon. Meanwhile, the hashtag #EqualPay spiked on Twitter moments after the final whistle. The call for equality became inextricably part of the World Cup’s narrative. The chants and the hashtag worked perfectly as a rallying cry and as a reminder that being the world’s best doesn’t shield you from sexism. The U.S. team provides the highest profile example of that.
You can argue that no national federation has supported its women’s program more than the U.S. Soccer Federation. Even Rapinoe took time to praise the way the federation has advanced the women’s game nationally and internationally. “I think they do deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that,” she said during a press conference prior to the final. Then she added, “And we’ll continue to nudge them forward.”
No matter how many viewers watched or how many records the tournament set or how many jerseys the U.S. women sold (the team’s home jersey became Nike’s top-selling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s), the players need to keep pushing everyone forward. It’s nice, even gratifying, to hear a stadium chant “Equal pay! Equal pay!” But Rapinoe and the rest of the national team know they’re playing a longer game.
If you followed the U.S. women during their title run, here’s the message you got from the players: No one will bet on us the way we will bet on ourselves. No one will expect more of us than we expect of ourselves. That’s who you want taking charge, shaping agendas and advocating change with nudges big and small.
Why should the U.S. Soccer Federation or FIFA keep defining what respect for the women’s game looks like? They had their chance. For decades. That led to the U.S. women filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF in March. Now, they’re celebrating a fourth World Cup title with a ticker-tape parade and mediation.
When it comes to FIFA, where do you begin? How about here: Days after FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced plans to grow the women’s game, he was booed at the World Cup trophy ceremony. Infantino wants to expand the World Cup field from 24 to 32 teams, create more high-profile international competitions for women’s soccer, double women’s World Cup prize money for the 2023 tournament and double pledged investment in the women’s game to $1 billion over the next four years. “We have more than $2.7 billion reserves,” Infantino said. “We don’t need all this money in the Swiss banks. The Swiss banks have enough money.”
All that sounds good until you do the math.
In four years, the prize money gap between the men’s and women’s tournaments will actually widen from $370 million (that’s $400 million for the men in 2018 compared to $30 million for the women in 2019) to $380 million (that’s $440 million for the men in 2022 compared to $60 million for the women in 2023).
That didn’t go unnoticed by Rapinoe. Speaking at a press conference before the final, she said, “That’s what I mean when I talk about ‘Do we feel respected?’ If you really care about each game in the same way, are you letting the gap grow?” Consider that a nudge.
Going forward, there’s no shortage of nudge opportunities in women’s soccer. FIFA, national federations, sponsors, advertisers, broadcasters and pro leagues all need one. Or several.
It’s OK to cheer Budweiser’s recent multiyear sponsorship deal with the National Women’s Soccer League and ESPN’s recent 14-game broadcast deal with the league. You hope they signal bigger, better things to come because the NWSL, and all 23 members of the U.S. team who compete in the league, should reach bigger audiences and be better funded. But it’s also OK to always expect more and go after it full speed, whether it’s more sponsors, more nationally broadcast games (on ESPN, not only ESPN2 and ESPNews), more prize money or more pay.
Be aggressive. Be outspoken. File lawsuits. Nudge — hard. The U.S. women’s team has proven that works pretty well.
Shira Springer (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.