Question: How many of you knew that the FIFA Women's World Cup began on Sunday?
I'm going to go out on a limb and say about three of you. And for two of you, it's because you saw the story about the Muslim female soccer players in the Sunday New York Times. If you're not one of those three, you can be excused for not knowing that this event was happening. I didn't know it was going on and I like to think I know a thing or two about women's sports. That said, I'm pretty embarrassed that the World Cup took me totally by surprise.
But why didn't we/I know the tournament — arguably one of the largest in the women's athletic calendar— was happening? During last year's men's World Cup, people were tripping over themselves to watch the games at bars around Burlington and talk about their mutual hatred of the South African vuvuzela. Seemingly everyone had an opinion on Cote d'Ivoirian player Didier Drogba's fearsomeness and Spaniard Carles Puyol's Weird Al-like hair. We collectively crossed our fingers that powerhouse Ghana would become the first African nation to win a World Cup (They didn't. They were routed by Uruguay in the quarterfinals.). And we all grimaced when the slick-rick U.S. team couldn't make it past their bracket. Again.
I frequently found myself taking questionably long lunches to watch the men's games that I really didn't care one wit about, other than the fact that there was some buzz around them and they gave me a chance to get out of doing work. And they looked really cool in HD. I was able to take these hours-long lunches (really, those games last forever), because nearly every bar in Burlington that had a large screen TV was open for the games. Das Bierhaus, Nectar's, 156 Bistro, to name a few. I knew that they were open because they all had placards out front of their businesses trumpeting the fact. During the championship game between the Netherlands and Spain, there wasn't a free inch of floor space to be found in all of Das Bierhaus, so heavy was the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the match.
This year, that's not the case. When I wanted to find a place to take in the U.S. team's first game of the tournament against North Korea (with their Kim Jong-Il-mandated short haircuts) today, I had to search hard. None of the places that opened early for the men's games were doing the same thing for the women's tournament. I get it. The interest isn't there. And business is business. If the early morning national senior citizen tiddly winks tournament was as popular as men's soccer, you can bet the bars would be open for that.
But what I keep coming back to is why isn't women's soccer as interesting to sports fans as the men's game? The answer might seem obvious — the majority of sports fans in this country are men and men aren't interested in watching women play anything but tennis and tonsil hockey. Increasingly, women are holding their own in the world of sports fandom. But they're not interested in watching their fellow ladies either.
That might be the end of the discussion except for the fact that in 1999, the final game of the Women's World Cup between the U.S. and its nemesis China sold out the Rose Bowl and drew more television viewers than the Stanley Cup, the World Series and the NBA Finals. In that nail-biter of a game that ended in a 5-4 overtime victory for the U.S., the American players, including soccer legends Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, were heroes. Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off, exposing her jacked abs and Nike sports bra and promptly landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was a glorious time to be a soccer fan in the U.S.
But the fan zeal for the women's game seems to have petered out, even as the U.S. team continues to be at the top of the heap — they entered this year's World Cup with a number one ranking. The women's game gets more exciting and the competition more fierce as more countries put money into their national programs. Yet the fans don't seem to be there. The last World Cup held in China barely registered as a blip on the country's collective sports radar. Does anyone remember who won the cup that year? I didn't think so. (It was Germany. They bested Brazil 2-0).
The same tired arguments get trotted out every time the question of why women's sports aren't as popular is raised: Yes, the talent pool in women's soccer isn't as deep, so the competition growth is limited. But worldwide, women don't have nearly the opportunities to play soccer, or sports in general, as men do. Yes, the women's game isn't as aggressive and fast as the men's. Fine. Biology. But have you ever seen Abby Wambach chase down a ball? I promise you don't want to meet her in a dark alley, which may be one of the reasons she and her teammates aren't so appealing to the average sports fan.
The accomplishment of consistently being one of the best in the world is nothing to sniff at. And the actual differences in the elite games of men and women seem academic. To its credit, ESPN is broadcasting all 32 of the women's games live and in high def. And the U.S. knocked down North Korea in its tournament opener, 2-0. (Take that, Kim Jong-Il!), so that might spur some interest.
I can't blame the media machine for my ignorance about the tournament. But now that I know it's happening I'll be taking long lunches for the next three weeks.
If you're interested in a wonkier take on the issue of the women's soccer audience, check out Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch's blog post on the subject.
Photo via fifa.com.