If women’s soccer in America—or women’s sports generally—ever had a better day than Sunday, July 5, I can’t recall it. That was the day the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup by beating Japan in the final, 5-2.
Everything went right. The game was high scoring, something we Yanks typically castigate soccer for not being. It had an appealingly animated hero(ine)—Carli Lloyd—who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes, capping a 4-0 spurt that all but secured the victory.
It was played at a U.S.-friendly time (7 p.m. in the East) before a U.S.-friendly crowd in Vancouver during a rare slow day for sports on television. It later was announced that the total U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million people-- 25.4 million on Fox and 1.3 million on Telemundo—was this country’s highest for any soccer game, and exceeded that of any game in the recent NBA finals or the seventh game in last October’s baseball World Series. It was drinks all around for everyone connected with the team, and deservedly so.
We’re a nation of analysts, though, and it wasn’t long before the question was raised of what the victory might mean for women’s sports in this land; more specifically, why they don’t get a bigger share of the pie. Indeed, that was a topic of discussion throughout the two-week fest.
As is customary when male-female issues come up, knees immediately start to jerk and the all-purpose shibboleths that often substitute for thinking about such matters are rolled out. We heard about “glass ceilings” and women’s sports being held back by news-media conspiracies. Bill Rhoden, a usually sensible sports columnist for the New York Times, combined those notions in a single sentence. “A confluence of chauvinism and gender bias have made the ceiling they [women’s sports] are up against a particularly difficult one to shatter,” wrote he.
Well. Conspiracy theorists are hard to dissuade, but if a journalists’ cabal to belittle women’s sports exists it never bothered to try to recruit me during my 46-year newspaper career. And while unacknowledged barriers to women’s advancement certainly obtain in some areas, it’s hard to see how they apply to what boils down to a spending choice in an economy in which, many surveys have shown, women make most of the buying decisions.
Further, the market’s preference for men’s sports over women’s isn’t uniform. The women outdraw the men in activities that reward grace more than strength (figure skating and gymnastics) and do about as well in ones where the playing fields in national and international competitions are shared, albeit separately (tennis, swimming, track and field). Add sustained success to the mix and women can be dominant in many an athletic endeavor; over the last 10 years Serena Williams probably has gotten more ink, and made more money, than all American male tennisers combined.
Two big reasons women’s sports have had a hard time getting traction have to do with the calendar. First, it’s crowded, more crowded than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago. One of sport’s biggest milestones was the creation, in 1979, of ESPN, the all-sports TV network. Before ESPN, sports on television consisted mainly of a few weekend-afternoon hours and the occasional local game. Now it’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling.
Time was when a week’s sports offerings could be listed on a single page of TV Guide. By contrast, on a recent weekday in Phoenix, with the NFL, NBA and NHL idle, one could watch summer-league basketball, Canadian football, cycling (the Tour de France), golf, lacrosse, “motorsports,” rugby, men’s international soccer, swimming and Wimbledon tennis. That was in addition to every Major League Baseball game on the “Extra Innings” package and whatever the half-dozen single-sports channels I receive had on. It takes more than a shoehorn to find room on that schedule.
The numbered year on the calendar works against some women’s sports because they’re relatively young and sports watching, like many other things, is at least partly habitual. Women’s team sports in America hardly existed before the passage of the U.S. Education Act of 1972, whose Title IX went a long way toward correcting the vastly unequal funding of men’s and women’s school sports that prevailed to that point. The two biggest U.S. women’s pro-team circuits, the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League, date from just 1996 and 2012, respectively. Soccer generally still is viewed as an immigrant scrambling for a foothold on these shores, and average attendance at NWSL games last season was only about 3,000 a game. Thus, even a double-figure percentage jump during the current July-August campaign wouldn’t put more than a few hundred more fannies in the seats.
Finally, although it’s not fashionable to say it, men and women have physiological differences that make most men’s sports better. That’s apparent to anyone who looks and is why most of the men’s brands outsell the women’s in a bruisingly competitive marketplace, no matter what the sex of the customer.
Many women are fine athletes who deserve applause. Their games aren’t as commercially warped as are many of the men’s, making their competitions purer, and the fact that no huge pot of gold will reward their success causes female jocks to develop their other abilities. Need I say that’s not a bad thing?