Exclusive: The huge crowds watching the U.S. women’s soccer team win the World Cup marked a moment of hope for Americans who lament the gross disparity between the support for men’s and women’s sports, but it’s still an uphill struggle for anything close to parity, as Chelsea Gilmour explains.
By Chelsea Gilmour
This year’s Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Japan, which the U.S. team won 5-2, drew a record-breaking American audience for soccer, with an average total viewership of 25.4 million on Fox. And that wasn’t just record-breaking for women’s soccer.
More U.S. viewers tuned into the game than any other men’s or women’s soccer event, including last year’s celebrated men’s match between the U.S. and Portugal during the World Cup in Brazil, broadcast on ESPN, which drew 18.7 million.
Potential reasons why this year’s women’s cup matches may have attracted so many viewers include the location in Canada (which has similar time zones to the U.S.), the fact that the match aired on Sunday evening for Americans on the East Coast (a popular time to watch sports), and the likelihood that the game will be star-player Abby Wambach’s last World Cup appearance (she has scored more international goals than any player, male or female, in soccer history).
But, perhaps most importantly, the enthusiasm of Americans for a women’s team playing a game that is not considered a major U.S. sports suggests a growing respect for women in sports (as well as a greater appreciation for the game of soccer). The World Cup victory was followed by the team receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York City on Friday with crowds estimated in the tens of thousands and drawing significant coverage on U.S. cable news channels. Commentators noted the large number of young women and girls in the crowd.
On Saturday, the attention of the sports world again focused on an American female athlete, tennis star Serena Williams, who won the Wimbledon championship, marking her fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, known popularly as the “Serena Slam,” named in her honor after she accomplished this historic feat 12 years ago.
Yet, despite this growing respect, female athletes are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make, both in salaries and advertising fees. For instance, the U.S. women’s team will split $2 million for winning the Cup, while last year the U.S. men’s team split $8 million for losing it. Typically, the explanation is that women’s soccer attracts fewer viewers then men’s soccer. But, clearly that wasn’t the case for last Sunday’s final.
Another explanation for the pay discrepancy is that, in the world of corporate sponsorship, women’s sports simply don’t translate into the name recognition of men’s sports and thus companies are less willing to pay large amounts to advertise with female athletes. The Women’s World Cup brought in $17 million in sponsors this year, compared to $529 million in sponsors for last year’s men’s World Cup, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On an individual level, the same holds true. According to an ad industry survey of the 75 highest-paid athlete endorsers in 2014, the first woman on the list at number 11 with $22 million was Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova. By contrast, golfer Tiger Woods, at number 1, earned $55 million. The next woman on the list was Li Na, a former Chinese tennis player, at number 15 with $18 million, followed by Serena Williams at 22 with $11 million.
While the list of the top sports endorsers is dotted with a number of male soccer stars, the list has no women soccer players. So, with a lack of both team and individual sponsorships, professional women’s soccer teams in the U.S. struggle to survive year after year. Two women’s soccer leagues have failed and the current one is beset by low attendance, only about 4,400 fans a game, according to CBS News.
An Inviting Market
Yet, as Shane Ferro of Business Insider wrote, based on last Sunday’s viewership, there is clearly a market for women’s soccer, but sponsors and fans alike have not sufficiently bought in. And the only way to fix that is to pay more attention to female sports year-round. Ferro pointed out, “you, dear reader, can do only one thing and it’s not complaining about prize money on social media. If you want to fix the income disparity in women’s sports, go buy a jersey or tickets for a game.”
Which brings us to the curious reality of female sports coverage in general. As the Washington Post noted, “About 40 percent of American athletes are female, yet only 4 percent of media coverage goes to female sports, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.”
And the trend isn’t getting better: “A 2010 study of ESPN’s SportsCenter and three network affiliates in Los Angeles found that only 1.5 percent of national and local airtime was devoted to covering women’s sports, the lowest in two decades of research.”
So, what do female soccer players need to get recognition? First, they should NOT follow the advice of outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who once suggested they might wear shorter shorts. The female soccer teams could, however, build on the excitement from the World Cup by marketing some of the stars from the U.S. team. Some of that marketing could target “alternative” audiences, rather than the traditional male-dominated viewership of sports shows.
First, let’s look at the fan base for women’s soccer in the U.S. and the time needed to gain traction. The Boston Globe pointed out, “female preteens and teenagers [are] often the default fan for women’s professional teams.” Many of these fans are likely soccer players themselves, who see the professional players as role models. This is a good start, but not enough to bring in the revenue or team loyalty needed for the teams to survive.
For real money to come in, there should be a much broader base of support and an increase in the sale of team paraphernalia. Besides marketing to different audiences, this can be achieved over the long run by those same preteen and teenage fans who will share their team loyalties with their eventual children, just as parents have done for generations with established male sports teams.
As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told fans during Friday’s ticker-tape parade, “Young women who watched that game will grow up to tell their daughters and tell their sons.”
One reason that men’s teams have such a strong foothold is team tradition and loyalty. The Boston Globe explained, “Fans forget how long men’s leagues struggled before they broke through and became billion-dollar enterprises with worldwide followings. [Former NBA commissioner David] Stern points out that the NBA was founded in 1946, played to half-empty arenas for more than a decade, and, until the early 1980s, saw the Finals broadcast on tape delay.”
Men’s teams have therefore had the opportunity to grow their fan base over the years through family tradition. Parents take their children to a sports game for their hometown team and those children, after they grow up, take their children to see the same team (or, if they’ve moved, they may at least follow the team from a distance). In so doing, a family establishes a relationship with that team, almost like a second family. Following the team is a way for the family, across generations, to relate to one another.
So, just as loyalty to men’s teams is handed down, women’s teams need time to build the same momentum. In “passing the mantle,” the family will have forged an emotional connection to the team, akin to maintaining a family tradition, rather than just watching a game or team as a passing sports spectacle. The team is then solidified as part of a fan’s personal/familial identity, thereby ensuring the teams survival through that commitment.
Unfortunately, building that sort of connection to a team takes a long time (generations even), so for the immediate future, women’s soccer teams may have to look to marketing to so-called “alternative” audiences, especially the twenty- and thirty-something crowd.
As the Boston Globe explained, citing Joanna Lohman, former midfielder for the Boston Breakers women’s soccer league (and currently playing for the Washington Spirit), “She understands that the [default fan base of preteen and teenage] girls and their parents lead busy lives filled with millions of distractions and other sports. So, she adds, that’s all the more reason to recruit twenty- and thirtysomethings, who grew up with soccer and might have a more developed understanding of the game[.]”
Many of these twenty- and thirty-somethings are also having children, making at least a start on that generational team loyalty building.
Meanwhile, some of the major male sports are expanding their marketing to women. The National Football League, for instance, began in 2009 to endorse National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by decorating stadiums in pink, selling pink NFL gear, and encouraging players to accessorize their uniforms in pink. Pink, of course, is the color associated with breast cancer, as popularized by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the pink ribbon.
Today, women are the fastest growing base of support (and income) for the NFL, making up an estimated 45 percent of the more than 150 million American football fans, according to the Washington Post. “Women, and the companies who depend on them, helped NFL revenue top a record $9.5 billion [in 2013], and Nielsen data shows women have grown to represent more than a third of the league’s average viewership.”
While it may be an easier transition to acquire female fans for male sports than male fans for female sports, it isn’t impossible. A frequently heard assessment of why female sports don’t have as large a following as their male counterparts is that, as the Boston Globe puts it, “fans [get] stuck on the fact that female athletes aren’t as fast, strong, or physical as their male counterparts.” This may be true for sports like football and, to a lesser extent, basketball, but for women’s soccer, these factors are less important and may even favor the women.
For instance, female soccer players are more likely to play through injury and are less likely to fake being hurt, whereas male soccer players are notorious for flopping and whining about their opponents not getting a yellow or a red card.
According to a study done by a team headed by Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports medicine physician who works with the U.S. Soccer Federation and the soccer program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after analyzing videos of male and female soccer tournaments, his “research indicates that apparent injury incidents for women are much less frequent than for men, occurring at a rate of 5.74 per match as compared to 11.26 per men’s match. The proportion of apparent injuries that were classified as ‘definite’ was nearly twice as high for women, 13.7 percent, as compared to 7.2 percent for men.”
Which means men are twice as likely to fake an injury during play, thereby slowing the pace of the game with their pleas for the referees to punish opponents.
“Look how often women pop right back up when they run into someone,” Rosenbaum said. “They continue through contact, and we found they are more likely to just keep playing.”
A More Appealing Game
Another reason physical disparities between the sexes may work to women’s advantage in soccer is the quality of play. Because women are generally smaller and therefore have a smaller lung capacity, they cannot run as quickly for as long as men can. This leads to less “explosive” play and a more methodical game, which is easier for fans to follow.
As Emily Sohn explained for Discovery, “Even better for reluctant American viewers, women’s soccer games have the potential to be higher scoring than men’s matches. Because of their smaller size, there is more space on the field for women to work with, giving them more options to attack. And with smaller athletes trying to defend a goal designed for men, women strikers have that much more room to shoot for.”
This was evident during last Sunday’s Final high-scoring game. For sports fans in the United States, the opportunity to see a higher scoring soccer game could be a real draw.
Despite the currently precarious position of the National Women’s Soccer League, Friday’s ticker-tape parade in New York City in honor of the Women’s World Cup champions provided the national women’s team a chance to celebrate their victory and a chance for fans young and old to celebrate their role models.
Amy Stainton, a former Monmouth teammate of U.S. team captain Christie Rampone, brought her husband and two daughters to the event. “‘There were a lot of times in the parade today when I actually wasn’t watching the parade, and I was watching them,’ [Stainton] said, motioning to her daughters, who wore matching team apparel. ‘To have role models, people to aspire to, that’s something as a parent you always want to give your children,’” according to The New York Times.
Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, asked the City Hall crowd at Friday’s parade to extend its enthusiasm to domestic leagues: “Go out and be a fan. Watch those games on television,” he said.
Mayor de Blasio noted that the Friday celebration was the first time a women’s sports team received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, saying “It’s about time, isn’t it?”
The Washington Post reported, “More than 19 million girls played basketball, soccer and volleyball [in 2013], according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and girls’ participation in sports has grown an average of 50 percent a year over the last half-decade.”
The trend is heading in the right direction for women’s inclusion in the mainstream athletic world, if only the women’s sports leagues in America can survive long enough to benefit from the changing attitudes.