Allison, Rachel. Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018. Pp. 220. Appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $27.95 paperback and eBook.
Reviewed by Cat Ariail
Earlier this summer, the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT), earned a fourth star on their shirt, winning the Women’s World Cup. Captained by Megan Rapinoe, the USWNT dominated with personality and panche, sparking agitation or adoration depending on one’s political proclivities. Their notoriety raised a question familiar to women’s sport advocates.
Can this moment of World Cup triumph translate into the sustainability and success of women’s professional soccer in the United States?
Rachel Allison’s Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer provides critical context for considering the possibility of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) entering the cultural center of American sports. In Kicking Center, Allison, a sociologist of sport at Mississippi State University, undertakes an ethnographic examination of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), the women’s professional league which operated from 2007 to 2012. After entering the women’s pro soccer community as an intern-like employee for the pseudonymous Momentum, a WPS franchise located in a suburban market, she is able to offer an insightful examination of “how women’s soccer in the United States has been built and sold,” (21). Throughout four chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion, Allison interrogates the paradox that is women’s professional soccer, highlighting “how inequality is both created and contested within” the sport (21).
In light of the optimism that currently surrounds the possibilities for the USWNT and NWSL, her work somewhat serves as a bucket of cold water, exposing how the perceived promises of 2019 are not all that different from the potentials imagined in 1999, 2011, and 2015. Yet, at the same time, her analysis does encourage optimism, showing how things have changed and how, just maybe, women’s professional soccer finally may achieve that cultural standing it long has sought.
In her introduction, Allison identifies the dominant ideological assumptions on which women’s soccer in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has relied – that “visibility and acceptance” are “predicated on an explicitly white and heterosexual femininity believed to make women athletes more palatable,” (5-6). By doing so, she makes visible the multiple identities that must intersect to make women’s soccer players culturally legible, refusing to normalize, and thus render invisible and irrelevant, the whiteness, middle-classness, and heterosexualness that has been intrinsic to the successes and shortcomings of women’s pro soccer in the contemporary United States. Demonstrating scholarly reflexivity, Allison also shares her similar social positioning with the “(white) ‘girls of summer,’” further noting how her identity likely helped to enable her ethnographic access (3). This opening usefully establishes the terrain for her four analytical chapters.
In Chapter 1, “Women’s Soccer in the United States,” Allison unpacks the cultural meanings ascribed to soccer in the United States in order to begin to analyze women’s professional soccer’s contradictory cultural status. She writes, “The very concept of a women’s and professional soccer league invokes privilege and marginalization, insiderness and outsiderness at once,” (30). Allison examines these axes of privilege and marginalization. She first explains how soccer emerged as “a class-based identity project for white suburbanites,” a process that in turn produced the “domestication” of the sport and made it the sport for young girls, albeit, as Allison notes, young girls who enjoyed “racialized class privilege,” (36, 37). In contrast, professional soccer has been understood as “external to the United States,” the chosen sport of foreign, immigrant men (39). Soccer’s oppositional meanings combine to place women’s professional soccer in a curious cultural position; it “occupies an inherently paradoxical cultural location,” (34). Allison, importantly, provides an understanding of how this “paradoxical cultural location” is not inherent but the product of ideological choices.
In Chapter Two, Allison explores another tension that structured WPS, as well as women’s pro sports leagues more broadly – whether the league, as expressed by the chapter title, is “Business or Cause?” As she clearly explains, WPS aimed to exist in the world of “corporate sport,” a term she borrows from sport sociologist David Andrews. However, individuals working in the league also were ambivalent as to why WPS needed to be included in the world of bigtime sports. Was this goal about pure profit? Was it about the cultural legitimacy that came with such profit? Or, was corporatization understood as necessary to the ultimate goal of empowering girl athletes? These views, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, Allison recognizes that most of the WPS staffers she interacted with fell into one camp or the other. In turn, she unpacks the ideologies of those who favored the “business” or “cause”, noting that awareness of structural inequalities of gender often determined whether one prioritized the league’s “return on investment” or emotional impact on fans as the measure of success. Instructively, she also discusses how the legacy of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the women’s professional soccer league that operated from 2000 to 2003, influenced the approach of WPS. Within the world of women’s pro soccer, it is widely accepted that it was financial mismanagement that doomed the WUSA. WPS aimed to distinguish itself from the financial disaster that was the WUSA. Yet, at the same time, WPS also envisioned itself as reviving the cultural legacy of the WUSA, continuing this inaugural effort to make women’s pro soccer a sustainable reality. WPS’s complicated relationship to its predecessor underscores the contradictory aims that the league had to navigate as it sought to articulate and realize its aims.
Tensions between the ideal and real women’s pro soccer fan base presented additional complications for WPS, which Allison explores in Chapter Three, “We’re Taking Over!” She interrogates “the racial, class, gender, and sexual meanings embedded in the team’s process of fan base cultivation,” interrogating why and how “the Momentum sought to draw predominantly white, class-privileged audience of heterosexual suburban families with soccer-playing children,” (79). Allison highlights the exclusion of lesbian fans, as well as the single, heterosexual male fan, because both were assumed as sexually deviant and, thus, a threat to the construction and communication of the imagined WPS fan. Her ethnographic analysis underscores how very “constructed” this fan base was, as she frequently observed how disinterested young girls who attended Momentum games were in the actual match, instead more enticed by visits to the concession stand. But such realities were discarded because “a stadium of full of smiling white girls sitting with their opposite-sex parents was evidence of the safety, friendliness, and community-mindedness of women’s professional soccer,” (101).
This fan analysis highlights how much social change has occurred since Allison completed her ethnographic research. Today, Pride Nights dot the schedules of NWSL teams. Budweiser’s recent decision to sponsor the NWSL also has sparked excitement in women’s soccer circles, the long-awaited recognition that women’s pro soccer has adult fans and, in turn, games do not have to be kiddie carnivals. Today’s teams also have cultivated more racially-diverse fan bases. Nevertheless, this diversification has not displaced the young, white suburban girl, ever-ready to be inspired and empowered, as the ideal fan. Furthermore, it is worth considering the degree to which lesbian fans must model homonormativity and racial minorities must adhere to white bourgeois norms in order to be recognized as fans.
Chapter Four, “Image Politics and Media Invisibility” also highlights the changes and continuities in the marketing of women’s pro soccer. Here again, contradiction predominated. Allison examines the “mixed message” communicated by WPS, as the league “moved between soccer prowess and femininity in its publicity released media,” (105). She explains the specific, circumscribed femininity that the league deemed appropriate, as teams resisted “heterosexiness,” believing it undermining of the players’ athleticism, yet emphasizing “marriage, motherhood, and physical attractiveness” in order to underscore the players’ appropriate heterosexuality (110). Allison identifies “glamour” and “professionalism” as the dominant traits that players were expected to demonstrate. Yet, such careful image expectations could not combat the structural media invisibility that has contributed to women’s pro sports’ struggle for cultural relevance.
Today, of course, Megan Rapinoe, an out lesbian, is the most famous face of the USWNT and NWSL. During the World Cup, she proudly proclaimed, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team … that’s science right there,” with this expression of gay players’ integrality also understood as signaling their uncontested acceptance of women’s athletic icons. However, it is important to recognize the degree to which Rapinoe has been exceptionalized, promoted in popular media as a gay women’s athletic icon in a way that distances her from the larger population of both open and closeted lesbian soccer players. Rapinoe also communicates a contemporary brand of “glamour” and “professionalism,” with her now-signature pink hair, fashionable fits, and progressive politics making her a widely-palatable women’s soccer figurehead for the social environment of 2019.
Nonetheless, the corporate sponsors of the USWNT often elected to feature younger, more conventionally feminine players in their marketing campaigns. For instance, while Coca-Cola’s ad included a multiracial and multiethnic spectrum of women’s soccer stars, the blonde, attractive, and heterosexual Abby Dahlkemper was the American representative, thereby aligning American women’s athleticism with the image she presents. Adidas’s ad celebrating the United States’ World Cup victory starred two blonde players in Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan. Furthermore, in anticipation of the World Cup, FOX Soccer also introduced the USWNT to the nation through its “Hometown Heroes” web series, with the short profiles situating members of the USWNT in their hometowns, thus invoking ideas of family and daughterhood in order to emphasize their appeal and appropriateness. So while Rapinoe has earned significant cultural recognition, the corporate infrastructure that supports women’s soccer in the United States remains committed to the more conventional, girl-next-door imagery that long has defined American women’s soccer.
In her conclusion, Allison shared strategies for increasing interest and investment in women’s pro soccer, identifying the importance of “call[ing] out essentialist ideology,” recognizing “the relationship between resource investment and audience interest” by “emphasizing that interest grows with increased awareness and opportunity,” and “forgo[ing] the long-standing politics of image,” (141). From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that the NWSL has attempted to implement these types of strategies. Yet, as some of the above examples from 2019 illustrate, the residues of the old ways in which women’s pro soccer has operated remain.
Allison also includes two appendices. Appendix A lists demographic information about those she interviewed, while she elaborates on her methods in Appendix B. This elaboration enhances her work. In particular, Allison reflexively discusses her status as a “feminist ethnographer” embedded as “participant-obsever” within a women’s soccer community that, while comfortable with the empowerment of women and girls, was resistant to feminism, or at least stereotyped notions of feminism. In order to navigate this potential conundrum, Allison adopted a “go along to get along” attitude with other Momentum employers, resisting the urge to repudiate heterosexist or essentialist ideas about women in sport even as she knew her silence would permit the perpetuation of such ideas. Her honesty alerts the reader to the ways in which Allison effectively, yet subtly, signaled such moments of discomfort or ambivalence throughout her text. Based on her descriptions, one can her imagine her internally squirming as her coworkers express casual homophobia when they criticize the shorter hairstyle that Abby Wambach debuted at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Allison may have negotiated these challenges imperfectly, but her careful, conscientious effort is appreciated. Kicking Center substantially contributes to the sociocultural literature on women and sport in the United States.
Cat Ariail is a historian of women’s sport, studying issues of gender, race, and nationalism in the twentieth century United States and Caribbean. She also is an instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.