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Decoding Distaff Indifference Toward Women’s Professional Sport

Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.

Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues.

And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the success of the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”

Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”. I don’t have a breakdown on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy sports organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would be women, of course. But women have responded with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey.

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The Most Productive Response to World Cup Failure? Choose and Support an MLS Club

Who is best equipped to cope with U.S. Soccer’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup? Seattle Sounders fans…

Instead of asking where U.S. Soccer goes from here, let’s take a bit of time to first understand where we are, and why.

Dropping the Oct. 10 match to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the Russian World Cup this summer do not change America’s standing in the soccer world.

In the grand scheme of things, we are still operating in the “modern” era of American soccer, thanks to a generation of now-50something players who, almost exactly 28 years earlier (on the same Caribbean island), qualified their country (one that had operated for 40 years as an irrelevant footballing nation) for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. From that moment forward, the U.S. graduated into the company of proper footballing nations, i.e. those that qualify for World Cup finals with regularity and harbor reasonable expectations of advancing out of the group stage. Here’s the proof of this evolution: 1990 marked the first of seven straight World Cup appearances for the U.S., four of which ended in the knockout stage.

To argue that missing the 2018 World Cup “shows everything is wrong with the United States doesn’t follow,” Stephan Szymanski told The New York Times this week. Symanski, co-author of the wondrous book, Soccernomics, is among the keenest soccer observers on the planet. “This doesn’t prove that. Stuff happens. It’s the nature of the game and not necessarily surprising to see the U.S. knocked out. This is what being a soccer fan is like. You’re prone to the extreme event all the time. There’s no royal road, unless you’re Brazil or Germany.”

We’ll unpack this more thoroughly below, but this understanding of world football viability is really important for U.S. fans to get their heads around in wake of this week’s admittedly gut-wrenching events. Not going to Russia truly sucks, on multiple levels, and while it may well prove a “teachable moment” for the U.S. soccer establishment, we are obliged to remain clear-eyed about how international football works and exactly why this failure to qualify (for the first time since 1986) truly IS such a pivotal moment. Because it’s not what you may think.

As I’ve written before, international football is hard. Failures like Tuesday’s happen each and every World Cup (and European Championship) cycle, to perfectly capable footballing nations. England missed the WC in 1974 (just 8 years after winning the whole ball of wax), then again in 1978 and 1994. The Netherlands just crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifying — the second straight major-tournament qualification failure for one of the planet’s traditional powers. Chile, runners-up at last summer’s Confederations Cup and one of the game’s most entertaining sides, failed to qualify for Russia, too. So did mighty Italy, qualifiers for every WC finals since 1958.

Every four years, at least one really good European team and one strong South American side don’t qualify for the World Cup. In England, Holland and now Chile & Italy, these failures either have led to or will lead to real soul-searching re. team coaching, talent identification/development, and national team administration. This is the introspective process American soccer is wrestling with now.

But if history is any guide, this introspection will come to nothing.

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