The Women’s World Cup Final on Sunday was the most watched soccer game, men or women, in US history. 25.4 million viewers tuned in to see us capture our record third star, more than watched the USMNT draw Portugal last summer in Brazil. The summer of 1999 ignited America’s passion for the women’s game. And that final was watched by a solid 18 million, the previous record for a women’s soccer game.
And yet… the women’s game is still on life support in this country. Most of the women America watched on Sunday are returning to the National Women’s Soccer League to play in front of marginal crowds on YouTube streams. I could talk about how important these numbers and this game was to inspiring another generation of young women, but that won’t save the NWSL. 1999 was the Big Bang as young girls’ saw for the first time they could aspire to be legitimate world-class footballers. Some of the biggest names on our roster were high-school-age athletes that summer:
Wambach – 19
Krieger – 15
Sauerbrunn – 14
All those young women were inspired by Hamm, Akers, Chastain, Foudy, Scurry and all. And yet not even ‘99 could save the WUSA or WPS, two previously folded women’s professional soccer leagues.
I think we marginalize the women’s game when we only talk about the progress, legacy and inspiration. Yes. All of that is important; it is the grassroots passion that truly grows the game. And yet we don’t need to mention it when we discuss the USMNT or the NFL. We assume young boys everywhere want to be professional football players and soccer stars. We take a boy’s passion for sports for granted. We know a whole world of opportunity exists for the lucky guy with the genes of the next Ronaldo. But does that opportunity exist for a young girl?
Sunday we saw a dominant team of athletes. This was no different than watching Germany last summer or Steph Curry and company last month. A peerless group of athletes went out and dominated the field. And yet they happen to be women. Women who now have to return to playing on turf fields in college stadiums or high school stadiums with minimum capacity and non-soccer specific amenities.
Our best male athletes are treated like fat kings. Our women like interns. The NWSL has a very tight salary cap of only $265,000 (not including the few big stars). The minimum salary is $6,842 and the maximum (non-star) is $37,800. These are barely living wages. Clearly there is an interest in women’s soccer. If we want to make sure the game doesn’t stay marginalized under the dominant gender dynamic of this country, we need to support these athletes. We need to watch the NWSL. Not because it is politically correct, but because we are privileged to see such world-class athletes in action. And because the next Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are sophomores or seniors at a high school somewhere near you.