Women's Soccer Is a Feminist Issue
Female athletes have historically received very little attention from activists and advocates for gender equality. Why?
When I told my friends and family I’d be going to Brazil for the World Cup last year, they looked at me like I’d just won the lottery. In a sense, I had; I’d entered a lottery just to be able to purchase tickets. In Recife, I attended games at a brand-new stadium with a bright-green grass pitch, along with 40,000 other soccer fans from around the world. For months leading up to the event I saw news coverage on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines hyping Team USA, even though they had a virtually nonexistent chance of victory. By the time I left for Brazil, friends who I never knew to be soccer fans were telling me who their favorite players were, jealous that I would see “our boys” play against the tournament favorites, Germany.
This year, I’m going to the World Cup again. There was no lottery, and tickets were half the cost of the ones I bought last year, including a ticket to the final. (Which, last year, would have been nearly impossible to come by, not to mention afford.) The games I’ll attend this month will be played at a 32-year-old stadium with an artificial-turf field. Some of the games in the tournament will be played at a stadium with 10,000 seats, while the smallest stadium in Brazil seated 37,634. Even though this year Team USA are favorites to win, there’s been little preview coverage of the tournament. When I tell people I’m going, most of them say, “There’s a World Cup this year?” There is, only it’s being played by women, not men.
Starting this month, millions of viewers will watch women’s soccer on television, and even start to recognize players by their first names. Some might wonder why audiences only see these world-class players, like Abby Wambach, who holds the international goal-scoring record—for women and men—for a few weeks every two years at the World Cup or the Olympics. But most, even those who care about equality for women, won’t consider how different these athletes’ careers are compared to those of men who do the exact same thing for a living.
Today, the gap between men’s and women’s wages, the tiny fraction of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, and the lack of respect for Hollywood actresses and directors receive regular and impassioned coverage in both the mainstream and feminist media. The gender inequities in sports are just as vast as those faced by women in corporate offices and on movie sets, but for some reason they fail to incite the same level of outrage.
In 1978, in the midst of the second-wave feminist movement, Hollis Elkins, a professor of women’s studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, published a paper that asked why the women’s movement hadn’t ever concerned itself with equality in sports. (This was six years after the passage of Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded schools, including in athletic departments.) Elkins died in 2013, but if she were alive today, she’d likely still be asking the same question.
Elkins laid out four main reasons why the women’s movement was wary about involving itself in sports. One: Female athletes were perceived as either unconcerned with or hostile toward the women’s movement. Two: Feminists didn’t want to be “doubly damned” by “the suspicion of lesbianism” that both feminists and female athletes faced. Three: Sports was seen as a realm where men proved their manliness, negatively predisposing many feminists toward sports in general. And four: Sports was considered “frivolous.” It wasn’t seen as being as important as issues like the right to work, abortion, and equal pay.
In October of last year, the biggest names in women’s soccer did something unprecedented: They sued the world soccer governing body. A group of top international players including Wambach, Brazil’s Marta, and Germany’s Nadine Angerer filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA citing the fact that this year’s World Cup in Canada would be played on artificial turf instead of natural grass. All six prior women’s World Cups, and all 20 men’s, have been played on grass fields, because it’s considered a superior playing surface. Simply by pointing to gender discrimination, the lawsuit did something female athletes don’t usually do.
“There’s a major fear of the explicit use of the term feminism to sell women’s soccer,” says Rachel Allison, a professor of sociology at Mississippi State University who has studied women’s professional soccer. “The one major event that’s broken that trend is the FIFA turf lawsuit.”
When this explicitly feminist issue arose, it went unmentioned on websites such as Jezebel, Everyday Feminism, and The Feminist Wire. Ms. Magazine’s blog wrote one post on the issue with no follow-up, and Feministing.com posted one link to an outside story on the topic in a news roundup-type post.
This isn’t the first time feminist issues in sports have gone relatively unnoticed by sites that focus on women’s issues. In 2012, Jezebel and Feministing both lamented the folding of the Women’s Professional Soccer league, though neither site had covered the league in any prior stories. And neither Jezebel, Feministing, Everyday Feminism, nor The Feminist Wire have ever run a story on the current women’s league, the National Women’s Soccer League. Ms. has published one blog post about an NWSL team, written by a fan.
“It’s not like we never thought about sports stories,” says Dodai Stewart, the former deputy editor of Jezebel. “If there were notable newsy things happening in the world of women’s sports we would cover that. But it wasn’t like we were existing for sports coverage. In the atmosphere we were in, it just didn’t feel like, ‘oh, this thing is lacking,’ even though it was.”
The problem is, sports media isn’t covering women’s sports either. In 2014, ESPN’s SportsCenter dedicated 2 percent of its on-air time to covering women’s sports, according to a study published this week in the journal Communication & Sport. The study found that three local Los Angeles news networks did slightly better, devoting 3.2 percent of their sports coverage to women athletes.
Cheryl Cooky, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of women’s studies at Purdue, says these numbers are actually lower than they were when this study began 25 years ago. But even this clearly unequal treatment is difficult for people to understand as sexist.
“There’s still this cultural investment in the idea that sport is this space wherein talent and hard work is what matters, and things like race, gender and sexual orientation don’t,” Cooky says. The thinking goes that if women’s sports were worthy of more coverage, they would receive it. But as Cooky points out, a lot of our perceptions of how interesting women’s sports are come from the media itself. “Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting,” she says. “They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary ... When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.”
In Seattle, where I live, the men’s professional soccer team, the Sounders, draws 44,000 fans on average to every home game. The women’s professional soccer team, the Reign, draws 3,500. This disparity exists in a place where, while I was growing up, the majority of boys and girls I knew played on a soccer team, at a time when Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick to win the 1999 women’s World Cup was the most memorable sports moment any of us had been alive to see.
The Reign isn’t lacking star power. U.S. national-team superstars Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe are on its roster. To be fair, the Reign is only in its third season of existence. But the Seattle Sounders are only in their eighth year in the MLS, and by their third year, they were averaging 36,000 fans per game at CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play.
Kiana Coleman, co-founder of the Royal Guard, the main supporter group for the Seattle Reign, points to the dearth of media coverage.
“Most people, even soccer fans around here, don’t even know the team exists,” she says. “How would they? Women’s soccer isn’t on ESPN except for the World Cup. I’ve sent messages to [local news station] KING 5 ... The Mariners could be in a deep, dark hole and they still don’t cover the Reign. Last year, we [almost] never lost, and still nothing.”
This disparity in coverage is gender inequality at work, says Cooky. “The media plays a huge role in building and sustaining audiences for sport and they do it very well for men’s sports and they do it horribly for women’s sports.” The World Cup, when more Americans watch and get excited about women’s soccer, proves her point.
It’s a chicken and an egg problem, says Allison, the Mississippi State professor. “This huge media platform doesn't exist for the national league. So media often tells the women’s league, you don’t have the level of interest we need to make this successful. But that narrative falls apart when we see how they are able to do just that with the World Cup.”
“When people find out you're a professional soccer player, they think it’s awesome,” says Jazmine Reeves, Rookie of the Year for the NWSL’s Boston Breakers in 2014. “But they think it’s awesome because there are certain assumptions that go along with the life of being a professional athlete. And they don’t realize that for us [women], it’s kind of like the exact opposite.”
Last year The New York Times ran an article on the tight financial circumstances many male professional soccer players face in the still-fledgling MLS. “Many in MLS Playing Largely for Love of the Game,” read the headline. The minimum salary? $36,500.
Reeves made $11,000 last season, more than the 2014 NWSL league minimum of $6,000, but less than a third of what her male peers were making. The team tried to offset her expenses, as it does with many players, by placing Reeves with a host family in Boston during the season so she wouldn’t have to pay rent. “My host family was great, but at the same time, as an adult, you want to be able to pay for your own apartment,” she says.
This season, the NWSL minimum went up to $6,842. The MLS minimum jumped to $60,000 thanks to a contract renegotiation. Still peanuts compared to male professional athletes in the MLB, NBA, or NFL, but at least it’s a salary, not a four-figure joke.
“I never really thought about it until I was playing professionally,” Reeves says. “Then I realized, wow, there’s a team down the street from us playing in Gillette Stadium and we can’t even get a consistent training field half the time ... You can’t deny the fact that there’s a pattern.”
Reeves does see hope in the way one city embraced its female players. “I did not feel like a professional athlete until we went to Portland,” she says. She likely won’t be on the field to see NWSL’s future, however. At the end of the season, at age 22, she retired from professional soccer to take a job with Amazon.
What Reeves felt during that game against the Portland Thorns was the effect of 14,383 fans dressed in Thorns red packing the same stadium where the MLS’ Portland Timbers play. At their home games a rowdy crowd waves flags, sings songs and performs cheers led by Capos, fans who stand with their backs to the field the entire game simply to fire up the crowd. In other words, Reeves played in an environment very similar to the one most men’s professional soccer teams experience.
In some ways Portland, where soccer scarves—often representing both the Timbers and the Thorns—hang from the walls and ceilings of bars across the city, is uniquely set up to support a women’s soccer team. The Portland MLS and NWSL teams have the same ownership, a distinction shared by just one other of the nine NWSL teams in the league. And it helps that the Timbers are incredibly popular. The waiting list for Timbers season tickets is reportedly more than 10,000 strong. Providence Park, where the teams play, holds 22,000. Marketing the Thorns to these soccer-hungry fans is a no-brainer.
“When the [Thorns] team was announced people stepped up immediately and said we want to make sure the support for them is equal to that for the Timbers,” says Kristen Gehrke, one of the leaders of the Rose City Riveters, the main Thorns supporter group.
But without a built-in MLS infrastructure that promises media, advertising, and audience support, the NWSL fan base in most cities has struggled. Not counting Portland, the average attendance in 2014 was a little less than 3,000, with many of those being families or youth-soccer players.
The Thorns prove that a deeper and more diverse fan base exists for women’s soccer when male and female teams are treated more equally. Hours before the kickoff of a Thorns game against the Washington Spirit in Portland in May, Thorns jerseys could be spotted on the streets of the city. And though the stadium filled with many young soccer players and families early on, groups of 20- and 30-somethings of both genders filled many of the seats before the first whistle, as well as the bars near the stadium before and after the game.
So why, in 2015, is sports, a multi-billion dollar industry that so many take so seriously, still seen as a “frivolous” issue by many feminists, as Elkins suggested in 1978? There are a few small groups advocating for more women coaches and better treatment for women athletes. But according to Allison, “even in the academy, studying sports is often considered a less serious pursuit than studying the economy, or politics.”
And that, says Cooky, is wrong. Feminists need to focus on sports because it’s an institution of massive cultural significance and an area rife with “serious” issues, such as sexual violence, pay inequality, and a lack of women in leadership positions. “Who wouldn’t want to do what they love and say that’s their job?” says Reeves. “I’m not saying I would never play again, but I can’t live off of what they gave me. I can’t.”