More than a decade ago, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain led the U.S. team to victory. But they failed to make professional soccer successful afterward.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), talk about the Women's World Cup soccer tournament, which has its quarterfinals this weekend.
I can identify a single period in my life in which knowing every player on a roster and every relevant statistic truly made a difference in my social life. For me, nothing in sports has matched it since. It was during the summer of '99, which, you might recall, culminated in the U.S. national team winning the Women's World Cup after a penalty kick shoot-out at the Rose Bowl. As far as I was concerned, not a single other relevant thing took place between late June and mid-July of that year. I was a member of club soccer America: an ever-expanding army of pony-tailed, shin-guarded adolescent and teenage girls who all swore they would grow up to be The Next Mia Hamm—or, if they were slightly rebellious, The Next Brandi Chastain.
I'll assume that this sentiment is, for the most part, specific to the distaff side, and I'm frankly surprised that both U.S. Soccer and FIFA haven't explicitly catered to that nostalgia in marketing this year's Cup: Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Briana Scurry are all on board for ESPN's coverage, and Hamm is doing some writing for espnW. But what would be more effective in attracting that formerly soccer-obsessed population to the games than, say, a 30-second Miracle-esque spot featuring the '99 team? Disney & Co. certainly has the relevant footage.
I ask because I'm not sure who exactly is watching this year's Cup, and unless I missed it, I didn't see a great effort at attracting sentimental saps like myself. I'll watch anyway, because it's great soccer and because yes, I am a cornball, but I still wonder: Did FIFA and U.S. Soccer both miss a great opportunity to market its sport and its team? Do they expect the interest to be implicit, or to just segue into the next generation of club soccer America? And (as I don't believe you're currently of that subset, Patrick) if you plan on watching the U.S. play Sweden this week and/or in its quarterfinal this weekend, what will be the draw for you?
I'll start with Emma's first question: Is women's soccer missing a sepia-tinged marketing opportunity, a chance to bask in the retro glory of the sport's Greatest (American) Generation? Probably so. But maybe that's the right move. Times change. Not always for the better. Reveling in the world-beating, top-doffing, Letterman Top 10 list-reading summer o' feel-good exploits of Chastain and Co. would be more than a celebration of hearts and minds once won.
It would be a reminder of everything lost since.
The '99 Cup kick-started the launch of a major women's professional league, the WUSA, which subsequently folded due to financial woes and a general lack of fan interest—despite the presence of Hamm and other national team heroes. (Unlike the WNBA, the WUSA did not have a wealthy patron—read: the NBA—willing to subsidize operating costs as part of a forward-looking, loss-leading, gender equity marketing push). The WPS, a smaller, less-ambitious reboot, currently struggles to stay afloat. And while the Title IX-powered American squad once rode roughshod over international competition—a global hegemon to match, well, the United States as a whole—countries like Germany, Brazil and even England have caught and surpassed the red, white and blue.
Speaking of which: In the summer of '99, as Emma enlisted in Hamm's army, I was a young reporter covering my first major assignment, following the U.S. squad all the way to the title match at the Rose Bowl. Looking back, it was the perfect coda to the American Century: our Cold War enemies vanquished, the tech bubble booming, housing prices forever going up, our politicians squabbling over a budget surplus, all of us believing that this really was the End of History, and that the good guys had won. Time to kick back under a perfectly California blue sky—President Clinton was in attendance, and really, where else did he need to be? In the Situation Room hunting Osama what's-his-name and Evil Bert?—and watch our pig-tailed champions pass a tough, yet never-in-doubt test against ... China. The helpful country (not our rival!) making all of our cheap consumer stuff.
So yes: I'll be watching this year's tournament. With melancholy. Am I the only one who feels this way?
I'm watching wistfully too, but my melancholy has nothing to do with the precipitous decline of American hegemony. I'll be mourning the missed opportunity that was the '99 World Cup.
That event was lightning in a bottle for those who wanted to expand women's soccer in the U.S. An American squad on its home soil featuring the most famous women's soccer player of all time (Mia Hamm) went undefeated, punctuated by an dramatic final against China that ended in the must-see-TV of a shootout which had an iconic moment (Brianna Scurry's save) and a once-in-a-lifetime iconic moment (Chastain's winning kick + sports bra-bearing celebration). A recent ESPN video piece said that by some measures girls' participation in soccer quadrupled after the World Cup.
But the expected commercial success was never borne out, as Patrick notes. The WUSA and WPS have been financial failures even though they had the same celebrities whom we went gaga over in '99. To this day the most successful marketing campaign featuring a women's soccer player is Hamm's "anything you can do I can do better" commercials with Michael Jordan.
It's not like the U.S. women haven't duplicated their World Cup success—they won gold at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. And there's a generation full of people like Emma that idolized the '99 squad and want to see women's pro soccer succeed here. So Hampton, what will it take for women's soccer to gain some commercial success in the U.S. outside of the national team?
What would it take? The NFL and NBA lockouts would have to last years. MLB, the NHL, and PGA would have to disband, and NASCAR would have to prohibit beer sales at racetracks. In other words, Jake, it would take a miracle. Not a sports miracle. The parting-of-the-Red-Sea kind.
If you all think the '99 win was an epochal moment, more power to you. But where can I buy the Grantland you're smoking? Yeah, we won. Cool. The Nike ad with Chastain and Kevin Garnett was hysterical. The problem with women's soccer isn't some fanciful missed marketing opportunity. Mainstream American sports fans (i.e. dudes), who will watch absolutely any sport if the Stars & Stripes are involved, don't want to watch pro women's soccer. Or, really, the men's game.
Which raises a point Emma was kind enough to mention, because she can. We aren't talking Premier, or even MLS. The obvious, not especially gracious truth, is that women players aren't as big, strong, or fast as men, so the game is less interesting. Of course, female athletes train and compete just as hard as men. Yes, it's good that millions of 'tweens took up the sport. That doesn't mean I'll pay to watch them play it.
Emma wants to know if FIFA missed an opportunity to get Americans interested in soccer. Like FIFA cares. Do you really think those corrupt autocrats want the egalitarian, tolerant US to conquer "their" game? Nah. FIFA represents The Rest of the World. As everyone knows, The Rest of the World hates us. They don't really want us to care, because they don't want us to win.
So, go ahead. Get all sad and nostalgic for What Might Have Been. Mourn the Clintonian Belle Époque of inflated tech stocks and third mortgages. Get all pouty about the state of American women's soccer. That's giving the world just what they want. The optimistic, hence patriotic, thing to do is cheer mightily for the Red, White, and Blue right now, looking boldly toward the future, without a hint of nostalgia or regret for what might have been.
Watch the WWC? Sure. Watch with melancholia? That just wouldn't be American.