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.