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Women's World Cup Was Great, But We're Far From a Sea Change For Women's Soccer

The USWNT’s World Cup Final run captivated a mainstream American audience. How much that had to do with said audience being captive is open to interpretation, but it’s reasonable to assume the event was popular. (My unscientific measure: my parents brought it up to me unprovoked.) The question, now, is how much of that enthusiasm will extend beyond the tournament. The probable answer is not much.

World Cups are like the Olympics. It’s more about the pageantry than the product. Americans like hearing the national anthem and rooting for Americans. Fans envelop themselves in Michael Phelps or Lindsey Vonn for a brief period, but they don’t become swimming or skiing fans once the competition ends. I rooted for Michigan’s softball team when they won the national title in 2005 because I’m a Michigan fan. I didn’t become an avid softball follower.

Sports are entertainment. To become popular annually regardless of context, the product must be compelling. The foremost argument for following and covering WPS, the WNBA or, indeed, MLS has to be the product, not a perceived duty to support it.

Dr. Jennifer Doyle writes for Fox Soccer that “getting the coverage once every four years is not even close to enough.” She writes:

Given all the stories out there in the women’s game, it’s high time we all raised our expectations and welcomed women’s soccer into the sports world, with its own glories and its own dramas. And as is the case with any other sport, we expect to see it covered — not only when the national team is in the World Cup final, but also when the national team players go home, change into their club kits and put their shoulders to the tough work of building a league.

Close to enough for whom? Women’s soccer receives the level of coverage of “any other sport,” with a negligible audience. Attendance numbers in the low four figures and even those official numbers might be inflated. The league dumped a team during the season last year and has just two teams surviving with their initial city and brand intact from 2009. Anyone, off the top of their head, wish to guess where magicJack, Sky Blue FC and the Western New York Flash play?

Doyle’s trivial stories about Theo Walcott’s position preference or Carlos Tevez’ salary end up in papers because there is an intense market for it. The EPL is the most popular sports league in the world. Millions on multiple continents care deeply. Hundreds of millions exchange hands. World Cups gives women’s professional soccer exposure, but there must be a weekly audience for coverage to be viable. That will take more than a concerted campaign or playing up Hope Solo and Alex Morgan’s potential marketing appeal.

WPS has two Sisyphean tasks. They are fighting both MLS’ crusade to market domestic soccer to a mainstream audience and the WNBA’s crusade to market a women’s sport to sports fans, who, for the most part, are men. The latter league has been a failure commercially, existing only because David Stern says so. The former has established a beachhead, but only through offsetting losses with substantial profits from a marketing company. The league needs more than a jumpstart.

How will the U.S. success affect the league? Well, history repeats itself and we saw this before in 1999. The USWNT had a dramatic World Cup run that roused national enthusiasm. Players took part in ad campaigns, covered magazines and appeared on talk shows. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain became marginal household names. The Women’s United Soccer Association then started in 2000, lost $100 million and folded. The effect was fleeting, and that team won something. The soccer climate might be more hospitable now, but significantly more?

Women’s soccer is only covered fervently every four years because, like an Olympic sport, it needs national sentiment and a grand stage to generate interest. Men’s soccer is only beginning to pierce the mainstream in the United States (still debatably) and that has taken two decades of dogged effort, billions invested, fifteen years of a stable professional league, a domestic World Cup and legitimate superstars like David Beckham playing here.

We can welcome women’s soccer all we want, but the sport must rouse the energy itself to kick down the door.

[Photo via Getty]

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