In 1991 the U.S. women's soccer team won the FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) Women's World Championship, defeating Norway 2--1 before sixty thousand fans in Canton, China. The victory hardly made a ripple in the American media. So minimal was the interest that some couldn't be bothered to even get the facts right: One newspaper erroneously reported Americans had won the game in Canton, Ohio.
When the victorious women arrived back in the United States, only a few family members were on hand to meet them. "Not one reporter or TV camera was there when we returned from China,"American midfielder Julie Foudy recalls. Women's team sports, it seemed, were still in the wilderness, misunderstood and rarely taken seriously.
But fast-forward eight years. On July 10, 1999, at the packed 90,000-seat Pasadena Rose Bowl in California, the U.S. women defeated China--in a nail-biting penalty shootout--to reclaim the World Championship. President Clinton was watching from the stands along with a TV audience of forty million. The game topped off a month in which Americans--many of whom had never given soccer a second thought--were captivated by the exploits of the U.S. women. "The American soccer team produced old-fashioned nationalism of the unprecedented, of transatlantic flights and moon walks," wrote New York Times writer Jerry Longman in his book The Girls of Summer. "Shattered was any lingering belief that no one would pay to watch women play soccer."
The championship game generated a higher rating than the finals of professional hockey and basketball. In seemingly no time, the American soccer players had become the nation's heroines. American forward Mia Hamm appeared in Nike commercials with sports giant Michael Jordan, and the women's soccer team was on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. Never before in American history had soccer been given so much attention.
The future is feminine
It didn't go unnoticed in the land of baseball, hoops, and the Dallas Cowboys that women were leading the march for the sport. Sepp Blatter, the powerful president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, even declared the "future of football is feminine."
The attention surrounding the photogenic American women signaled that women's team sports had to be taken seriously. Women could run, kick, play hard, and still not lose their femininity. And it was OK for women to show muscle, too!
The success of the women's team was also a breath of fresh air in the American sports environment. Soccer players like Hamm, Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, and Tiffeny Milbrett carried the flag of liberation for women in the march to win attention on the male-dominated sports pages. "The exceptional success of the American women's game--in notable contrast to the status of their male counterparts--fulfills two key conditions essential to making any sport popular in the United States," wrote Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, "attractiveness for winning and making their fans feel proud for being American."
Akers, the team's tall, chiseled midfielder and captain, had dreamed of being a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers until being told that little girls didn't play football. She was now a spokeswomen for the cause of women's right to play and was promptly invited to the White House to speak on pay equity. But these new advocates for women's rights were not hard-line feminists; they had ponytails and girl-next-door looks. They were, as David Letterman told the world when he hosted them on his late- night show, "certifiably babes."
For the previous fifty years, U.S. men's soccer had been craving attention, but with little success. Though the United States had hosted the most financially successful World Cup ever in 1994, the American men could only manage to reach the last 16 of the competition. This was a considerable feat for any national team in the eyes of the soccer world, but for a nation that only remembers winners, it was failure. Four years later the Americans were back at the World Cup (their third appearance in a row, again a significant accomplishment for all but a handful of nations), only to be eliminated in the first round of play. It was hardly a dismal advertisement for the American game.
But in 1999, in the span of just four weeks, the women's team garnered more media attention than the men ever had. There was no looking back. "If still merely for a limited time, soccer had finally made it to the popular world of office talk around the water cooler," wrote Markovits and Hellerman. "The success of the 1999 World Cup would ultimately lead to the first women's professional soccer league in the world, established in the
United States in April 2000."
A long journey
Just like men, women have been playing soccer for the last two hundred years. In the early eighteenth century, ten thousand fans watched a competitive soccer game in Iveresk, Scotland. In the 1920s women's soccer flourished in the northern industrial towns of England (see sidebar). But the game was dealt a major blow in 1921 when women were banned from playing by the Football Association, England's governing soccer body.
Women's soccer remained in a comatose state until the late 1950s, when the game picked up steam in communist Eastern Europe and the more liberal nations of Scandinavia. In America the women's game piggybacked the interest created by the men's North American Soccer League. The NASL kicked off operations in 1968 under the slogan "Soccer is a kick in the grass and girls play, too."
Future American stars like Chastain and Foudy grew up kicking a ball and watching the exploits of male icons PelA, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best.
It wasn't until 1985 that the U.S. Soccer Federation began a bare-bones program for women, and it took a year for the women's team to win their first game. Six years later, the American women were the best in the world, and they still dominate. Through the nineties, girls began to play soccer at a phenomenal rate. Their mothers were even recognized as a potential political force when Newsweek dubbed them "soccer moms."
Women's soccer became an Olympic sport at the 1996 Atlanta games, and the Americans ran away with the Olympic gold medal, beating China 2--1 before a crowd of 76,481. American women also won gold medals in softball and basketball. "Women's team sports reached a critical mass of public and corporate interest in the mid-1990s," wrote Longman, "and soccer was riding the wave of interest.
"On the heels of the success at the 1996 Olympics, professional basketball, softball, and soccer leagues were formed in the United States. Never before had so many women been competing in sports."
The development of women's sports in the United States was accelerated by Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating equal scholarships, competitive opportunities, and facilities for male and female athletes at colleges. Many college athletic departments had no choice but to create room for women, sometimes at the expense of men's programs. The biggest benefactor of Title IX turned out to be women's soccer.
Soccer is now the most popular women's sport in college. An estimated 18,188 women played soccer in the three college divisions in 2001, compared with 17,788 in track and field. Since 1996, over 180 women's soccer teams have been established. Members of the 1999 women's World Cup team were often referred to as "the children of Title IX"; Hamm was listed as one of the "Most Fascinating Women in Politics" in George magazine. "She's a new kind of athlete, a product of Title IX," said tennis great Billie Jean King. "She's more than a role model--she's a revolutionary."
Indeed, the U.S. soccer players were never shy in their praise of Title IX, and with their newfound fame, flexed their political muscles. After putting soccer on the map in America they demanded rewards from the U.S. Soccer Federation and publicized the giant pay discrepancy between the men's team and the women's team. But most of all, they clamored for their own league. In no time, their voices were heard.
A league of their own
On April 14, 2001, history was made when the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), an eight-team professional league, kicked off its first game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The league, bankrolled by billionaire John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications, AOL Time Warner, and Cox cable companies, was not only the first women's proleague in America but the most powerful women's soccer league in the world.
Over thirty-four thousand fans were in attendance to see Hamm lead the Washington Freedom against her former teammate, Chastain, and the Bay Area CyberRays in the inaugural game. Ten years after helping the U.S. women's team win its first World Cup and opening a golden decade of women's soccer, Hamm and Chastain were embarking on a new adventure. "What an awesome day," said U.S. team captain Julie Foudy, "We have dreamed about this day, talked about it, fantasized about it. It's such an exciting day for us as players. We want to make this the best league in the world."
"This brings tears to my eyes," said Janet Joy, a soccer coach from Arlington who came with her daughters, Hannah and Victoria, to see the league's first game."I didn't get a chance to play growing up, because soccer for girls didn't exist. This is truly a historic event."
Donna Liberman of La Plata, Maryland, who followed the U.S. women's World Cup team around the country in 1999, had similar feelings. "I can't believe this is finally happening," she said. "My kids play soccer, but I didn't get the opportunity. Now they have the role models we never had."
The WUSA established teams in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Jose, Boston, New York, San Diego, Philadelphia, and North Carolina and met most of its goals for its first season.
The Freedom drew the biggest crowds, with an average of 14,421; the league as a whole broke its goal of 7,500 fans per game, drawing 8,104. Four months after the opening game, over 21,000 fans attended the championship match on August 25 to see the CyberRays beat Atlanta on penalty kicks after a 3--3 tie.
"This is the most awesome moment on a soccer field," said Chastain after the championship game brought the league's first season to a close. "We started from nothing, and we built something together."
In America, girls rule
Five years after the men had established Major League Soccer (MLS), the American women were celebrating the existence of their own league. Still, there are unique differences between the two leagues. While MLS often loses its best players to overseas clubs and can find few big stars willing to play in the United States, the WUSA faces the reverse situation: It has attracted the very best female players in the world.
The league easily drafted more than eighteen international stars. Foreign players such as Sisi (Brazil), Charmaine Hooper (Canada), Sun Wen (China), Hege Riise (Norway), and Doris Fitschen (Germany) could earn up to $85,000 playing the game they love for American clubs. Also, to create the WUSA, the famous U.S. women's team had to be broken up, with its players dispersed to each of the eight WUSA clubs. For the first time since their college days, the American stars found themselves facing each other on the field.
The WUSA also attracted significant sponsorship in its first season, signing deals with Johnson & Johnson, Hyundai, Gillette, and Acuvue. There were doubts that another league could survive in America's already-crowded sports market. "A lot of people will have their doubts about a new league, but the best thing going for this league is the core of players," said Jim Gabarra, coach of the Washington Freedom. "In the men's game, it's very hard to get marquee players to come and play here, but in this league the best players in the world are knocking on your door to play."
While the sudden popularity of women's soccer is still an American phenomenon, women around the world, inspired by the Americans, are now taking to the sport. There are already minor leagues in Japan, China, Germany, and Norway. Women's soccer is the fastest growing sport in Britain, where the number of women's and girl's teams have doubled since 1999 to 2,500 teams today and a professional league is planned.
It is estimated that 40 percent of all soccer players in the United States (more than nine million) are female. "Women's soccer fans are probably the largest untapped market in America," said Soccertimes.com managing editor Gary Davidson. "The potential of the WUSA and women's soccer is enormous."
In December 2001 Hamm was named FIFA Woman Player of the Year. "Since 1991, with the success of the U.S. team, we have seen great progress in America," she told me. "Soccer is really not part of the American fabric. It is so ingrained in other parts of the world. But I've seen the game grow so much with the kickoff of our league. And with the way this year ended--it was tremendous." Hamm is currently listed as the fifth-highest product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Anna Kournikova..
In the upcoming second season, the WUSA plans doubleheaders with MLS teams and midweek games against international teams. The women's game may even eclipse the men's in America. While soccer is still very much a male game around the globe, in America the girls rule.n
John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times. Comments on this essay may be directed to him at jhaydonher information on the WUSA and the 2002 soccer season, visit www.us-soccer.com and www.wusa.com.…