Soccer….Family Style


Can Women’s Soccer Survive is the Wrong Question

Twitter: the fastest way to get me from sleeping to blogging at 2 AM. @FromaLeftWing responded to Sport’s Illustrated writer Grant Wahl‘s tweet about @NoahEDavis‘ article “Can Women’s Soccer Survive in America?” (which by the way, was published by @Awl). Davis writes a decent article comparing the 1999 Chastain sports bra flash moment and this year’s Donovan miracle last minute goal and the impact those moments had on US Soccer for the men’s and women’s games. He talks about how the 1999 women’s team was a standout team, and that while the men’s game has improved over the years in between those moments, the women’s game hasn’t, and that’s why the women’s game is faltering in the US.

The tweet spree that went back and forth about Wahl’s and mass media’s reporting of women’s soccer and WPS viability was just getting interesting when I realized I had more to say on the subject than 140 characters at a time. I was in the stadium, tackling the guy next to me, at both moments, and I as the representative old school US Soccer fan, here’s my response, Twitterverse, if you have the attention span for paragraphs.

Davis talks about the popularity of the 1999 USWNT, and calls out Mia Hamm as the Greatest Player of All Time, and quotes Scott French saying “There was a perception in 1999 and 2000 that women’s soccer was more popular than men’s soccer, but it was never true” when actually, it was true, for a moment in time. American sports fans like to win. And anyone who was with us in France in 1998 knows, it wasn’t the USMNT that was making it happen. Americans were fascinated by the USWNT that summer because they were winning, and they made it really exciting to watch. It was captivating, and you could see ordinary Americans really enjoying coming to soccer games. It wasn’t just the ultra fans, it was the soccer moms and their minivans. For that one summer, Women’s Soccer was more popular because the games were fun, we were winning, and it was better marketed.

Yes, marketed. And Davis proves it. Because Hamm may have had better marketing, but wasn’t the best player ever, Kristine Lilly was, is, and will always be (at least until my 8 year old daughter turns pro). Lilly has more goals, more caps, but not as successful marketing. But I’ll tell you this: I am a passionate soccer fan. My cat was named Mia, but my daughter’s middle name in Lilly. Marketing can’t buy that.

Davis is correct, the USMNT has shown dramatic, if not linear, improvement over the past decade, while the international women’s game has caught the US women. We knew this would happen, because you couldn’t help but sit in the stadiums in 1999 and watch USWNT dominate and think, in 10 years, the rest of the world will catch up with us and then we’ll see what women’s soccer is made of in the country. And here we are, competitive to a fault. Now Americans assume that USWNT will qualify for the World Cup, and we’re shocked when they don’t with ease.

I think the lack of this team’s popularity has more to do with a lack of marketing and a misdirection in the management of the WPS league. Hopefully the marketing will pick up with next summer’s Women’s World Cup (Nike? Wheaties? Who wants to be a hero?) but the WPS needs to take a serious look at where they’re putting their teams, because if they were thinking, they’d skip Dallas and LA and stick one right here in Des Moines.

Have you finished laughing yet? Ready to hear my point? Go get a drink of water….I’ll wait.

Here’s why: the East Coast and West Coast are full. They have NFL, NBA, MLS, NHL, and a million other things to do. Where’s the best attendance in the PDL? What’s that? Omigosh! It’s Des Moines?! I had no idea! Iowa also has a proud history of supporting women’s athletics, and (at least until a few years ago) it has the highest percentage of per capita youth soccer participation in the US. But most importantly, you’re not competing for sporting dollars against every other sports team in the country. Build WPS where it has the best chance to grow; and putting it on the coasts is like trying to grow your full sun flower garden under a rain forest canopy. Give these women a little sunlight and breathing room.

Finally, I’d like to respond to Davis’ snarky parting shot, where he ends with the sad little send off, reflecting, if there was another Brandi Chastain moment, “who would be watching?” The American Outlaws Des Moines chapter sent more members to watch the USWNT do or die qualifier in Chicago than we did to the USMNT game a few months prior, and the only female there was my daughter. American soccer ultra fans are ready to support the women’s team, probably not at the level of USMNT yet, but I think we should be prepared for an outpouring of support from those of us young fans who are now raising daughters. But do not mistake us for the mass media favorite “soccer mom.”

Do not DARE call me a soccer mom, because while I do parent a soccer player, I am a mother who is obsessed with soccer. I do not drive a minivan, and my daughter missed her last game of the season because we were in South Africa watching the World Cup. Do not expect to be successful marketing to the soccer moms, who lovingly support their children but could not explain the offside rule. Market to us, the families who love soccer, and want our daughters growing up with the same athletic dreams as their brothers. Market to the women who can tell you where they were when Chastain whipped off her jersey, and Donovan scored. I can tell you what it feels like to have you five month pregnant belly flip a full 360 when hit with the wall of sound created by a stadium full of Koreans chanting in unison, and what it feels like to have morning sickness at the PDL Referee fitness test, and I await the day when people mean me when they say “soccer mom.”  I am not alone. There are women (and men) in this country that are watching US Women’s Soccer, as long as there’s someone savvy enough there to sell it to them.

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6 Comments so far
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Another great post, Tanya! I think WPS’s partnership with Puma has turned out some great ads and marketing campaigns, the way some teams have embraced social media has been great. But we still need mainstream sports media to do their part and cover the WNT/WPS on a more regular basis – how else will people know about it? I remember in ’99 everyone and their mom knew who Mia Hamm was! Where is that marketing push now? There are so many great players and personalities in women’s soccer that could be used, yet the only stories that are covered are doom and gloom – FC Gold Pride folding, USWNT losing to Mexico.

Comment by Shana

I can’t really speak for the marketing that WPS is doing presently, since we’re not in or near a market. It does seem like there’s not much being done to reach out to the greater soccer community of fans. I was shocked at how little many American Outlaws knew about the women’s game, and how little women’s soccer fans knew about American Outlaws. There’s a missed opportunity there.

My parents and sister live in Boston, family in New Jersey and DC. I think the Breakers, Sky Blue FC, Independence, and Freedom should be wooing me to come to their games and blog about them. (Hint, hint!)

Comment by soccerfamilystyle

Unfortunately the WPS teams have no money to woo anyone. The Breakers played a game in CT this year and did no marketing. They then wondered why attendance was so poor. If there isn’t even an article in the local paper (online or print editions)in this case the Hartford Courant, how on earth are people going to know about the games? It really is up to the die hard fans to lure the casual fans into the games. And don’t get me started on US Soccer’s lack of marketing for the women’s games, I would love to wring someone’s neck on that one.

Comment by random

Hey Tanya,
Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with some of your points. I’d love to see women’s soccer succeed in Des Moines (and beyond). I hope it does. As far as the last line, no snark intended; I’m genuinely interested to see if the World Cup can draw an audience this summer. It’s going to be tough with the games in the middle of the day, but hopefully it does.

Comment by noah

Enjoyed the blog post. But you’re wrong. Michelle Akers was the best player in 1999 and of all time. Ask Lilly or Mia. They’ll tell you 😉

The marketing piece is massive and the negative media feedback loop makes me mad. The teams that folded always get mentioned but not the expansion sides. Being a “cause” is ridiculed but MLS was a cause for quite a while. Any niche sport team/league is a cause.

I like your “smaller market” idea. All you need to do is find a group w/ sufficient $$. There’s a couple of folks on bigsoccer (ok, I’m one of them) talking about how possible it may be for a WPS team to be owned by a non-profit or community group. Think Greenbay Packers or (as we discovered) the Memphis AAA baseball team. Perhaps a smaller market like Des Moines is a better option for that sort of venture than Chicago. Come join the discussion there (if you’re not already) 🙂

Comment by kool-aide

I like the post. I agree that there needs to be a focus on women’s soccer and it is certainly not an indictment against the USWNT that the rest of the world has caught up, it HAD to happen at some point (though, it’s notable that the powerhouses back in 99/00 were US/NOR/CHN and now it’s more like US/BRA/GER). And yes, while throwing WPS in markets like Des Moines might lessen the competition they have with other sports events (an argument for the new WNY team even), it doesn’t put it in a spot where it is likely to pick up anything beyond minor niche coverage. If it’s in the big markets and does begin to really grow, is it more likely to draw crossover fans in Des Moines or in big markets with passionate and rich sporting histories like Boston and LA?

Also, as a side note, Lilly does have more caps than Hamm but certainly not more goals. Lilly has 130 goals at the end of 2010 while Hamm had 158 when she retired in ’04. Hamm is the leading international goal scorer of all time men and women (though I wouldn’t put it past Wambach to catch her).

Comment by Allison




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