Why isn’t women’s professional soccer more successful in the U.S.?

Last Sunday, while the rest of my coworkers were cheering – and then dying – over the Tampa Bay Bucs game against the New York Giants, I was equally immersed in a sporting event, albeit a different one.  NBC was showing the U.S. women’s national team in a friendly match against the Australian women’s national team (which is charmingly nicknamed the “Matildas”) and I was watching the match with one eye while working with the other eye (and then summoning my mythical third eye to monitor the #USAvsAUS tag on Twitter).

It was the second time in a month that I’d gotten to watch a women’s soccer match on television, and I can’t deny – I was tremendously excited.  The play was not perfect – far from it, as the U.S. had a sloppy first half against the Matildas – and at times I felt a bit restless for some action, but that was all overwhelmed by the simple fact that I was getting to watch women’s soccer on television!  And it wasn’t even the World Cup or the Olympics!

While watching the match, I kept coming back to a question that I’ve been thinking about since the 2011 World Cup, which is why women’s professional soccer can’t seem to get a foothold in the United States.  I mean, the national team has a whole roster of bona fide stars whose names are known even to casual sports fans.  And during the World Cup and the Olympics, so many people were really into watching the matches, sometimes exhibiting the kind of intensity I’d only ever seen among fans at playoff games.

And yet every attempt to capitalize on this excitement has failed.  The most recent example is the Women’s Professional Soccer league, which folded just a couple of months before the London Olympics.  Before that, the Women’s United Soccer Association closed up after three seasons.  So we have this weird paradox, where we have this stable of female soccer stars without a professional league to call home.  As someone who both enjoys watching women’s soccer and who considers herself an advocate for women in sports, I find this really perplexing and not a little bit sad.

The reality is that it is expensive to operate a sports league – even a small one – and that it requires time and investment from people with resources to spare.  People often point out that the WNBA would have folded a long time ago without the continued support of the NBA, and in an article on ESPNW, NBA commissioner David Stern even says that women’s tennis – which is far and away the most popular women’s sport, spectator-wise, in the U.S., was “painful. For 75 years, they went nowhere until Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in a stunt.”

This is the thing: I don’t think the problems are necessarily related to the fact that we are talking about female athletes here.  I think there are bigger business issues at play, issues that I don’t know if I fully understand even though I’ve read every f’ing article about this topic that has passed my computer for the past two years.  I know that sports leagues are expensive to maintain.  I know that investors have to be willing to take sustained losses.  I know that few people with money are interested in that (unless their names are “Sheldon Adelson” and they are investing in Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential campaign).  I know that people in the U.S. have a weird, almost antagonistic relationship toward soccer, almost like another manifestation of American exceptionalism.  I know that lots of men’s professional teams have trouble, too, and that the established leagues did not start out that way, but rather went through fits and starts as they built themselves into the fabric of American society.

But as far as the answer?  I have no idea.  I just know that I’m not the only one who would love to see women’s professional soccer flourish in this country.  I know I’m not the only one who gets breathlessly excited over women’s soccer matches.  I just wish we had more opportunities to do so than once every two or three years.

8 responses to “Why isn’t women’s professional soccer more successful in the U.S.?

  1. The reason why women’s professional sports leagues have trouble getting off the ground begins and ends with ONE PROBLEM: the media is overwhelmingly focussed on men’s professional sports. The media offers a slew of free promotion & hooks viewers into excitement/stories/personalities. Until the mainstream media deems women’s sports worth covering (ie. there’s a paltry coverage of golf & tennis), women’s sports will have trouble gaining traction professionally. We can call out the male-dominated sports media all we want, but where are women’s magazines/newspapers in all of this? Why are they more focussed on selling beauty products than accomplishments/struggles of women? Consumerism is doing women no favours. It shapes our choices and so far it would seem most women are more interested in fashion than soccer, even if they spend their wkd running 10k races.

    • NO….

      *WHY* is the media focused on mens professionals sports? It is profitable.

      It is not commercial television’s role to take a loss promoting marginal women’s (or men’s) sports. If I was a shareholder in a commercial operation that lost me my money “doing the right thing” I would be pissed off.
      However, even the most chauvinistic TV executive will force women’s sport onto air time if it will make money.

      To be profitable there has to be buy in. I would argue that men watch a lot more sport than women so their viewing patterns are pretty much established but could ultimately be swayed if their partners identify alternative sport coverage. I would suggest that more women need to take an interest in women’s sport (televised and live) to show that it garners enough public interest to warrant commercial investment (or you could go the public funding route as I have described below).

      If the issue were purely sexism and cronyism there would be nothing on TV but yacht races, polo and other crap that fat white rich males are into (except golf – I cannot figure out how the f*** people watch golf. I know it takes infinite talent but….). What TV demands is spectacular. If it is amazing to see then people will buy in.

      Make women’s sport truly spectacular.

  2. If you compare women’s pro soccer in the US with its closest analogues–women’s soccer in Europe, the WNBA, and MLS–one key difference emerges: WPS (and WUSA) were expected to be profitable. After turning this issue over and over in my mind over the past year or so, I really believe this is the sticking point. None of those other leagues make money, either. The difference is that the entities which run them have investors who either don’t expect a profit, or are content to wait indefinitely for one.

    I think Fake Sigi did the best analysis of this that I’ve seen, and the only plan that I think would lead to the kind of pro soccer league we’ve been dreaming of: https://soccer.fakesigi.com/building_a_better_womens_soccer_league.html

  3. I think the problem is the level of play. Many years ago Mia Hamm was asked if her team could compete with the men. The reporter sincerely believed Mia and her team were awesome. Mia answered that her team couldn’t beat a good high school men’s team and they weren’t even close. They were bigger, stronger and faster. I think the answer has more to do with this than gender bias. AA baseball teams have very low turnout. MLS in the US isn’t popular, why would WMLS be? WNBA players can’t dunk. Just a thought. I love your blog!

    • Yes, I’m sure that’s part of it (although I would like to think that the USWNT has improved enough over the past decade to at least be able to compete with a men’s college team 🙂 ). However, I also think that as long as you have well-trained/practiced teams that are equally matched in skill, the resulting games are generally pretty enjoyable no matter what the level of play. I’ve watched games involving both collegiate teams and high school teams that were just as absorbing and gripping as anything I’ve seen in the pros. (And sometimes more so, because let’s be frank, sometimes professional sports can really stink, too.) I know it’s complicated though.

    • actually, some wnba players CAN dunk! which to me seems to be a much better achievement then men dunking since the rim is 12′, the average nba player is about 6’7 where the woman is 5’11 and naturally built with less muscle mass…just a thought-

      • Oh, I didn’t know that Casey! Thanks for the info. That is an accomplishment. I’m 6’2″ and I probably can’t come within 2 feet of the rim 🙂

  4. Liz Cambage dunked for the Opals at the olympics. Great player.
    In regards to women’s soccer on TV, in Australia it is broadcast on government funded free to air whereas the mens is solely on pay TV. I think it is best to scrap the idea of profitable tv broadcasts until you build a strong culture in the league (impossible if they are stopping and starting trying to get going commercially).

    The trick is to promote womens sports to government health bodies and draw funding for government funded television. Use it as a way of promoting health as an alternative to obesity and a generally sedentary lifestyle. It doesn’t take many squeaky wheels to get government funding for this type of promotional work. Getting people involved in sport reduces the load on medicare (which is why it works here).

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