Why women's soccer doesn't score
CHESHIRE, ENGLAND — To supporters of women's soccer, the big surprise at the World Cup continues not to be the performances on the field but the fact that the US professional league - the world's best and highest-paying league for women - was shut down less than a week before the event opened.
The shock is understandable: The World Cup was supposed to be the happening that revived the WUSA - just as the Cup four years ago, with its wildly supportive American crowds, was the event that helped launch it. Some think the shutdown was a hopeful stratagem on the part of the powers that be to pressure corporations to invest more in the league. The money Nike is paying LeBron James, the high school basketballer turned pro, which could total more than $90 million - would cover the shortfall for the league alone, one columnist suggested. Others have blamed sexism: The male soccer league in the US is no one's idea of a blockbuster, yet somehow it continues to putter along.
All of these are factors, as was the target audience for the league - middle schoolers who discard fads as often as they do outfits. Sadly, however, the US women's professional soccer league was doomed from the start. The question was never if its sponsors would pull the plug, but when.
The league always faced three major problems. First, pro soccer is still an extremely tough sell in North America, no matter which gender plays it. Television dictates which sports survive, and the ratings for any kind of soccer are usually so low in the US as to be almost unmeasurable. Test patterns have been known to do better than soccer matches. That isn't the case almost anywhere else in the world where the most popular sport is soccer, and the second and third choices are soccer, too.
The US crowds that flocked to the last women's World Cup and watched the finals on TV were a pleasant aberration. Yet what American fans saw in their first major exposure to the women's game they may not have liked: Everyone remembers Brandi Chastain's euphoric celebration, but most tend to forget that until that celebration, the 1999 final was an ultra-boring 0-0 draw. It's also worth recalling that the profit-oriented North American TV honchos have never particularly liked soccer because it's a very hard game in which to fit commercials, unlike football or basketball.
Second, even if Americans suddenly decided they liked soccer, there is a far smaller audience for female sports than for their male counterparts. Watching sports, especially on television, is primarily a male-centered activity. To their substantial credit, many women would rather do any number of things, even strapping on their own cleats, than sit at home alone in front of a screen and watch someone block a lineman. Thus, even the women's soccer league drew a TV audience composed of more men than women.
And sad but true: Men for now - even abroad where soccer is adored - would rather watch male sports. The women's game has a significant following, including live fans, in only three regions of the world - the US, Scandinavia, and China. In Britain, where I live, the tournament is receiving next to no coverage, which tends to be the story with almost all women's sports.
Finally, the organizers of the women's league misunderstood the nature of the fan base for women's soccer. Soccer is one of the prime success stories of Title IX - the law that guaranteed sexual equality in school sports. Throughout suburbia, girls (and their parents) have taken to soccer - not only because females can play it well, but because its skills aren't based on how big you are. The swarms of boys and girls who take the field together in suburban leagues each Saturday morning would shock the more macho European or South American soccer fan.
In fact, this custom has become so rooted in modern American life that "soccer mom" is a fixed political term for describing the whole middle-class niche of suburbanites who are culturally liberal and economically conservative. According to the truism, these swing voters drive SUVs or station wagons as they cart their kids around to school, various lessons, and, of course, to soccer practice.
Yet, these soccer families love watching one another play soccer - not necessarily watching strangers play it. It takes decades to build a spectator base - especially with a new audience and sport. In their early days, even the NFL and NBA were nothing like they are today.
The organizers of the women's professional league lacked patience. Thanks to the success of the current American team, the game will continue to grow at the grass roots for some time. But the women pros have learned that even if you build it, not enough will come. At least not yet.
• Steven Stark is a frequent commentator on sports and popular culture.