If there's anything that the NBA has done well in recent years, it's creating a nonstop news cycle with the draft, Summer League, and foremost, free agency. The NFL is arguably the king of this, a remarkable feat for such a comparatively short season.
Soccer, by nature of being played across so many countries, has gradually filled the calendar more and more in recent years, including tours by prominent European clubs stateside hoping to bust into a massive market that has incredible room for growth. It’s expanded so much so that outcries were made from players and journalists that the Gold Cup and Copa America finals — that’s the Western Hemisphere’s two confederations — were targeted to be scheduled on the same day as the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Netherlands.
It was a moot point, really, as all three were spread throughout the day. I knew plenty of friends who chose to have drinks and brunch for the women’s match, then reconvened for the evening’s Gold Cup showdown between the U.S. and Mexico. Judging by the crowds at the Power and Light District in Kansas City, the evening match did nothing to deter fans from coming out in droves for the women’s final.
While nothing was going to ever overshadow the Americans’ eventual win over the Netherlands, questions that have followed as to how women’s soccer is to grow, and to what extent, make for a much more intriguing discussion.
Until next summer’s Olympics — much of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s older contingent is expected to stick around to avenge a disappointing exit from the quarterfinals in 2016 — the team will go on a five-match Victory Tour. The team’s attendance records for stand-alone friendlies should be snapped, as they were in 2015, and ratings should be good.
In the meantime, plenty of focus also switches to the NWSL, which all 23 U.S. players from the World Cup squad play within. When the U.S. won, the NWSL also won big, especially considering the league was without a TV dance partner following a split from A+E that saw games broadcast on Lifetime. ESPN stepped up earlier this month, picking up 14 broadcasts, including both semifinals and the NWSL Championship.
Now in its seventh campaign, the NWSL is around to stay, without question. But I’m not exactly bullish on its finding remarkable growth from the World Cup win. Soccer fans do a phenomenal job of embracing teams, but lots of fans around the country find indifference in the prospect of watching a non-Euro club without having an NWSL or MLS franchise within their own market. LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has done wonders for MLS since joining in 2018, and has captured headlines last week after scoring a hat trick against rivals LAFC and their star Carlos Vela. The nine-team NWSL could do well to have some off-the-pitch storylines that would draw eyes to the product before latching on in more cities through expansion.
England, Germany and France all sport women’s leagues, top-heavy or not, and all have, to some extent, done their part to grow the women’s game. That’s not enough. A traditional men’s powerhouse, Italy, had missed qualifying for the Women’s World Cup four times straight before this year when they advanced to the quarterfinals. Columbian players spoke out about how they’d stopped receiving pay for practices ($20 per day) while others have spoken out about claims of sexual harassment by coaches. Argentina players have faced similar problems; a story made the rounds on social media that the team slept on a bus because no hotel reservations for the team had been made. While the country’s men’s league is held in good regard, just one team in its women’s league pays all of its players.
FIFA plans to dilute the men’s World Cup by expanding from 32 to 48 teams as soon as possible, likely in 2026 when Canada, Mexico and the U.S. will host. President Gianni Infantino wants to increase the teams at the Women’s World Cup as well, simultaneously doubling the total prize money ($30 million in 2019), which, of course, is a drop in the bucket and wouldn’t require more teams to do.
Equality is at the heart of all these arguments, rightfully so in some ways. The U.S. Women’s National Team is due its bump in pay that its players have campaigned for. Other teams at the forefront also need to see wage hikes. Still, there’s a reason we could be looking at doubling the amount of teams at the Women’s World Cup within such a short time — the field was 16 nations for Germany 2011. It’s hard to say whether an increase in interest that would lead to more money will even do the trick, but social values in countries where men’s soccer rules, or perhaps even gross sexism by their federation members, are making it a slow process of catching up.
As responsible as the U.S. Soccer Federation is for paying its dominant squad and setting an example, it can only take the Women’s World Cup and its own league at home so far on its own. The expanse among the 24 teams in the WWC is already vast, and any measures taken by other countries are unlikely to be reflected by the addition of eight more teams. Still, more nations must do their part. The money is there. If they do, the quality of the sport’s best event will improve, and leagues attempting to thrive between appearances on its grandest stage every four years will be better for it.