On Sunday, we cheered as the U.S. team won the World Cup for the first time since 1999. Until we discovered that they’re awarded as much money as male players are for just showing up.
I think I cried three different times on Sunday, watching the World Cup final. The first was during the pre-game broadcast, when World Cup legend Abby Wambach, holder of the world record for most international goals in soccer history (yes, that includes the men) sat in front of a camera and talked about her career, what it means to be staring in the face of retirement, that one last huge victory still, at that time, elusive.
The third time was when, of course, the clock ticked down and the U.S. women threw themselves together to celebrate the win, the first World Cup victory since the team in 1999, for whom the term “legendary” was seemingly invented.
The second time, though, was I think when I realized what this team means to me. My partner, a guy and a sports fan, commented that after the rush of early goals (including Carli Lloyd’s hat trick, the fastest in World Cup history) the game had gotten boring. I think I still owe him an apology for how quickly I snapped at him to never say that again in front of me. For him, it was a game in which one team was so dominant that the outcome was assured. For me, it was a rare chance to bask in the glory of women’s excellence on a playing field and share it with millions of people, and I enjoyed every last second of it.
Jaclyn Friedman tweeted, and Deanna Zandt quickly memed, “After this game, everyone better start calling it ‘soccer’ and ‘men’s soccer.’” It would be nice if this were true, in the U.S. at least, but we still have so far to go. There is still so much to fight for.
We can, and should, start with the fact that the U.S. women will make four times less money for winning the tournament than the U.S. men made for being eliminated in the first round. The U.S. women won $2 million—collectively, not each—for their win; each of the 32 teams in the men’s cup got $1.5 million for showing up. The winner of the men’s Cup got $35 million. With that kind of a disparity, 77 cents on the dollar sounds good.
I retweeted these facts last night and was treated to a flow of men telling me that women make less because economics, because of “what the market will bear.” Markets, however, are not natural phenomena; this is as true of sports as of anything else. Markets are political. Their rules are created by humans. And the humans in charge of FIFA, though there have been massive shifts this year, are still men and still largely uninterested in creating a market for the world’s women to see ourselves excel.
For instance. I couldn’t watch the early games because they were on Fox Sports 1, a channel I couldn’t get without doubling my cable bill; I no longer live in New York City, where bars playing every single game are plentiful. How many more people would have watched every game if they had been on network TV?
Even then, the World Cup final on Sunday had the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the U.S. on a single network. Yes, once again, that includes the men. Over 20 million people watched the game; the highest ratings were in Kansas City, St. Louis, San Diego, Denver and Austin, only one of which has a National Women’s Soccer League team.
What would those numbers have looked like if more games had been played on more broadly available channels? What would they look like if the NWSL were broadly televised? With only nine teams spread broadly around the country, there’s a lot of space uncovered, yet Fox Sports 1 will only air three regular-season games, plus the playoffs.
The U.S. women have long been dominant in a sport where the men, as Friedman noted, have just been average. Yet, even though Sunday night was the third time the U.S. women have won the Cup, when the White House sent out a release announcing the presidential delegation to the final, Mia Hamm—two-time World Cup champion, Gold medal winner, hero to a generation of young girls—was listed only as “Former U.S. Women’s National Team Player.” Which might have just been an oversight, except Cobi Jones was listed as “Three-Time U.S. Men’s World Cup Player.” It felt like yet another reminder that the men’s mediocrity was more important than women’s excellence.
And of course, there was the turf. The most blatant example of the disrespect with which FIFA treated the women’s game, the turf even led to a lawsuit. As Dave Zirin noted, the biggest reason to go with artificial turf—which is hotter, rougher, harder, and leads to more injuries—was to save money. Money that FIFA apparently needed to pour into a $27 million biopic about its leader, Sepp Blatter, who is now caught up in scandal and supposedly stepping down. (Blatter didn’t show up at the final, citing the fear that he could be arrested.)
Even with all of this, the U.S. women were transcendent; when Wambach and Christie Rampone raised that cup, it felt historic. For the women at the top of the sport, there will be endorsement deals and a solid living, if not untold riches.
A meme also went around that the best women’s soccer countries were ones where women were treated equally; I’m not going to comment on that, but it is most certainly true that they are also rich and powerful countries. It is not the women at the top that suffer the most. It is the women who never get a chance to play at all.
If professional leagues in the U.S. pay women $15,000 a year, who can afford to do that? Someone who doesn’t need the money. Like any other job in which people are expected to do it for the love, this creates inequalities. And women more often are expected to work for love; either in fields where women predominate because they are thought to have a natural disposition to the labor, like teaching or nursing, or in fields, like sports, where they are told they should be grateful to have a gig at all.
But you cannot eat love, or even the admiration of your country. Most people cannot choose a job simply because they love it and are good at it. They have to take the job that pays the bills. The U.S. World Cup team was very, very White; this reflects a certain level of privilege that still hovers around women’s sports (see also: why the tennis world remains uncomfortable with the dominance of the Williams sisters and particularly Serena).
And speaking of the Williams sisters, who faced each other in the round of 16 on Monday morning at Wimbledon (and hadn’t played each other in a Grand Slam tournament since the 2009 final), providing yet another example of the beauty and power of women athletes, it’s worth remembering that even in tennis, where women have had a foothold for much longer, Venus Williams had to fight for equal pay for equal work.
The World Cup showed us women at their best, playing despite lesser fields, lesser pay, less respect, and playing through pain, with blood still freshly dripping from wounds. We can help, it’s true, by showing up to watch them play, by tuning in when possible. But it’s going to have to take a real commitment from the people who run professional soccer to supporting its women, to creating opportunities for more young girls to play, and to dream of a career where they won’t have to choose poverty just to play the game we love.
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