By Colleen English
Without World Cup or Olympic tournaments, many might not consider 2017 to be a significant year for women’s soccer (a sentence I write with full awareness that these kinds of things are rarely said about major men’s sports). Germany’s Olympic victory at the 2016 Games and the US women’s national team’s (USWNT) success in the 2015 World Cup are solidly in the background in our shared sport consciousness. The next major international soccer tournament, the 2019 Women’s World Cup, is still relatively distant on the horizon, with World Cup qualifying matches not starting until mid-2018 (aside from some tournament qualifiers played in 2017). However, 2017 was a year of success for women’s soccer, not only in attendance and viewership, but also in the fight for equal compensation and facilities. As former USWNT captain Julie Foudy wrote for ESPNW, 2017 was “the year of the awoken dragon, and women are breathing fire. On a global scale, national women’s soccer teams and players came together to say enough. To say, we deserve better. To say, we too deserve to be supported, we too deserve to be paid more, we too deserve better facilities, we too deserve respect.”
The exciting final match-up of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, where the US and China squared off in front of 90,185 spectators in a sold-out Rose Bowl as 40 million television viewers tuned into the game, was supposed to usher in a new era of women’s soccer. Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, and the rest of the USWNT became icons and inspirations, not just for young soccer-playing girls (like myself), but for a nation. They were featured on morning news programs, late night talk shows, and the cover of Sports Illustrated. But, their success was short lived. A new professional league, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), which featured not only American players, but also international stars from China, Germany, and other nations, folded in 2003 after just three seasons. Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) kicked off in 2009 but lasted just two seasons. As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote in 2012: “women’s professional soccer (the concept, not the league) just isn’t viable in America.”
Looking back on 2017, it seems like America (and the world), might just be ready for successful women’s soccer. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), formed shortly after the WPS folded, has lasted longer than its predecessors. Though the league still struggles through natural growing pains, cities, like Portland and Orlando draw large crowds and report financial stability. The Portland Thorns, current NWSL champions, sustained an average of 17,653 fans per game in 2017, outdrawing 15 NBA squads, 13 NHL teams, and 1 MLB club. Though the Thorn’s support is still anomalous in the league, players like Portland’s Tobin Heath think that replicating their success in other cities isn’t far away. And she may be right—this year an international friendly between the US and New Zealand captivated over 30,000 spectators in Cincinnati (a town vying for MLS expansion and status as a soccer city).
The caliber of international play has also risen over the last year. In the Tournament of Nations—a round robin event featuring the national teams of the US, Australia, Brazil, and Japan—Australia defeated the US, delivering the American team’s first-ever loss to the Matildas. Perennially dominant Germany lost a quarterfinal match-up in the UEFA EURO tournament to Denmark, ending their 22-year reign as European champions. This opened the field for the home team Netherlands 4-2 victory over Denmark in the finals.
With success on the field, women soccer players around the world are fighting for support from their international federations. Nigerian, Ghanaian, Irish, Argentinian, Swedish, and Danish teams have spoken out about unequal playing conditions, protested their national federations, threatened strikes, and in the case of Denmark, even sat out World Cup qualifying matches. In the US, the national team reached a new collective bargaining agreement with US Soccer that reportedly secures better pay, travel provisions, and bonuses but does not necessarily solve the 2016 unequal pay complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn. Perhaps the most heartening move toward equality came in December, when Norway’s women’s and men’s captains, representatives from Norway’s players association, and the Norwegian Football Federation signed a first-of-its-kind equal pay agreement.
Despite the progress of women’s soccer, hurdles still remain. While more and more spectators are attending games and television viewership is up, it can still be difficult to watch matches. In the United States, the EURO Cup was broadcast only on ESPN3, the sport broadcasting company’s exclusively online platform (as opposed to the 2016 men’s European Championships, which were broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes). NWSL matches are televised live—on Saturday afternoons and evenings in the summer on the Lifetime Network (a female-friendly, but not sport-centric station). International matches, from US friendlies, to the European Championships, reach more television and live audiences than ever before (for example, the 2017 EURO was watched by 240,045 in-stadium spectators and 50 million on TV), but most NWSL regular season games still draw relatively small crowds, with average attendance across clubs at 5,083 per game. And, though they have reached some parity with men’s teams, around the world, women’s soccer players still fight for equal pay, adequate travel provisions, acceptable equipment and field conditions, and equitable recognition from their national federations.
In 2018, I look forward to more stories about equal pay and movement toward equality for women’s soccer players. I am hopeful that more federations will follow Norway’s lead and begin to offer sustainable and equitable contracts for both women’s and men’s national teams. I also look forward to watching World Cup qualifying matches from around the world, a new season of the NWSL, and the She Believes Cup (and even hope to attend a few matches in person). I know I’ll be watching—I hope the world will be too.
Colleen English is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State Berks. Her research primarily looks at gender in sport, both from philosophic and historic perspectives. She watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup final on a TV hooked up to a satellite and generator at a soccer tournament and has never forgotten that iconic moment. You can reach her at email@example.com or @colleen_english on Twitter.