As we approach the Women’s World Cup, it’s beyond clear that despite having the best squad in the country, the women’s national team is up against a wall of incredible sexism.
A major part of it from within its own organization.
Some of it is blatant.
And some of it is subtle.
But all of it seeks to put the country’s best team — the only team with an actual shot bringing home the World Cup — on a second tier.
Cases in point.
1. Uneven playing fields. For the first time ever, World Cup games will be played on artificial turf. Men’s sides flatly refuse to play main international competitions on the surface and won’t have to for at least the next two Cups. The women’s side actually had to sue Canada, the host country this year, and FIFA to play on grass. They even offered, in the end, to play just the semi-finals and the final on grass. No dice. Today, the women athletes abandoned the suit, so artificial turf it is. Canada is preparing a bid to host the men’s side of the World Cup in the future. The bid won’t be out until after this year, but despite saying turf is the only way to go because of weather and whatever, let’s not be surprised when it calls for all-grass fields for the men. I think we can all see that coming. FIFA will lay grass for a one-game international PR match between men’s teams (Man U-Real Madrid at UofM) but will not support the same service for the biggest competition in the game, not even just the final, so long as women are playing.
2. The subtle language that soccer is for boys. So this one has been bothering me for a long time, and it’s not a huge deal. But it is emblematic of a subtle bias against women’s soccer, and girls in particular. And while I’m at it already, I might as well keep going. Here’s the deal. So if you go to the official U.S. Soccer store and look for an official kit — the jersey, shorts, and socks players wear — you can find them for kids. But even in the girl’s section, they’re labeled as the “boys kit.” (Photo above.) Despite the men’s team and the women’s team wearing the same uniforms, you can only buy a kit labeled for boys from the official store. Again, it’s a small thing. But these subtle things begin to add up and tell a story that despite the fact women and girls make up half the population and girls make up roughly half of the 3 million youth players, the sport is still, well, for boys.
3. Organization bias. This next one I think really illustrates a division between the two teams — the men’s and the women’s — within the US Soccer organization itself. Go the US Soccer site (which I really like, by the way — lots of good info and stories) and you’ll notice right away that majority of the stories are about the men’s side or the men’s youth side. Of the roughly 25 stories on the main site, only 5 are about the women’s side. Now, it’s an interesting time. The men’s youth side has a big tournament right now, so it may make sense that there is more coverage of them. But when the women’s side — I’m talking the women’s senior team, the national team, not their youth squad — had a tournament in Brazil earlier this month, the stats were roughly the same. In fact, on the very day of the final between US and Brazil — a potential foreshadowing of yet another historic World Cup matchup — the US Soccer main Facebook page asked fans to remember men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s pretty cool letter telling bosses to excuse their workers for the day so they can see the men’s team play. The page didn’t even mention the women’s final. I know because I’ve been keeping watch since late last year when I really began to notice. There are usually 24-25 stories on the main US Soccer page, and usually only 4 or 5 are dedicated to the women’s side. The women are in their World Cup year for god’s sake and barely register a fifth of the coverage from their own organization. How can we expect national media to give women’s soccer more coverage when even its own organization doesn’t?
Well, if women’s sports were more popular or more people watched them, etc. etc. etc., then they’d get the coverage they’d deserve.
To be blunt, bullshit.
One of my favorite soccer writers, Kate Fagan at ESPNW, dug up some interesting facts about women’s soccer for this article about, you guessed it, sexism in soccer:
“A couple of quick facts: The final of the 2011 Women’s World Cup between the United States and Japan drew a then-record 7,196 tweets per second, a pace faster than the royal wedding or the death of Osama bin Laden. The TV broadcast on ESPN, with 13.5 million viewers, was at the time the network’s most-watched and highest-rated soccer match ever, for men’s or women’s games.”
(We don’t know what the ratings for a US men’s team final would be because they’re a bunch of hammer-footed first touchers who dream of making the semis someday.)
So people watch women’s soccer. Big time.
When it’s on, that is.
Fagan points to a study that shows women’s sports earn only 4 percent of coverage in American media. Judging from just how much coverage women’s soccer gets from its own organization, I don’t doubt it. (When the women’s side was playing its warm-up tournament in Brazil last month, I could find streaming coverage online from Brazil, Spain, and Germany, but not on any American station — not even a YouTube stream from US Soccer.)
So what do we do?
It’s pretty easy to gripe. But what does it get us?
First, admit there are biases — subtle or otherwise — that seek to keep women and girls on the sideline. When half of your playing population actually receives higher ratings but then only receives 20 percent of the coverage (5 of 25 home page stories) from its own organization and unequal playing surfaces from its international body, there’s a problem.
So US Soccer, cover your own women’s team more. Get it up to 50 percent. National media: Do the same. Four percent coverage is a horrific number and leaves us with a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma that will never let us see the true power of women in sports if this continues.
Here’s Fagan again:
“So do people not watch women’s sports because there is precious little media coverage, or does most media not cover women’s sports because nobody watches? And what might happen to people’s interest in women’s sports if one year all media outlets gave 96 percent of their column inches and airtime to female athletes?”
This is a World Cup year just absolutely rife with stories — key player injuries, turf issues, a glut of crazy-good forwards, Hope Solo’s endless dramas, the stories are endless. And US Soccer, fix your store while you’re at it. Label the kits like you label individual jerseys: for youth. It’s a small change, sure, but these small things add up. Tell a different story — one that makes it perfectly clear that soccer is for everyone.
As for national coverage, women’s sports in general may receive 4 percent of coverage, but there’s hope.
Fox Sports networks have made a commitment to broadcast more Women’s World Cup games this year than ever before. In fact, with 16 matches broadcast on the main network, it’s the most for either the women’s or the men’s side. Fox has read those same stats above about viewership and tweets and probably knows what it’s doing: women’s soccer sells.
I just wish the players’ own organization realized it as well. Because when you connect the dots — when you add up all the subtle biases against women on everything from simple kits to coverage on a site that should be the team’s biggest booster — it’s no wonder women athletes need to actually sue for a playing field men take as a given.