I’ve spent too much time on Twitter this week grabbing the third rail. I’ve been in conversations on promotion/relegation, women’s soccer equity, and UConn women’s basketball.
Let’s dispense with the last one first. The “Connecticut is too dominant” issue has reached The Guardian this week, but it’s being fanned by ESPN. You know — the colossus based in Bristol, Conn., founded by people who wanted to watch Connecticut sports.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to point to ESPN’s institutional roots when I’m bringing my own bias to the conversation. I can often toss aside my Duke background — I was disappointed in the way Grayson Allen and Coach K acted as they departed the NCAA Tournament this year, and I’ve been nice and conflicted over the lacrosse saga. But when it comes to women’s basketball, I covered it in the days of drawing a couple hundred people in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and I watched with admiration as Gail Goestenkors built the program into the dominant force in the ACC. My heart still breaks when I think of Kristi Toliver hitting an impossible 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in women’s basketball to stop Duke from winning the 2006 national title.
So forgive me if one of my better women’s hoops memories involves Jessica Foley taking sweet revenge on Geno Auriemma. The UConn coach had tried to recruit the Australian player, but she opted for Duke instead. Auriemma made some wisecrack about drinking too much Foster’s. Foley got the last laugh.
Does that mean my Duke bias has colored my impression of Auriemma and UConn? Or is just that I have a better memory of him doing things other than winning scads of basketball games?
In any case, I don’t think of him as a latter-day John Wooden. Or Anson Dorrance, who might be accused of having a bit of an ego or competitive streak himself but is always a fascinating interview and gracious to others.
Mike and Mike can tell me UConn is superior because the women work harder in practice. I can counter with first-hand glimpses from other programs of overtrained athletes tearing their ACLs.
Clearly, Auriemma is doing something right. His players love him, and he certainly doesn’t fail to give back to the community with charity work.
But I won’t be watching the Final Four this year. If Dawn Staley, one of the best athletes I’ve ever covered, was leading her terrific South Carolina team against the Huskies, I’d be more inclined to tune in. As a journalist, I’d like to see a good clash of the titans. As a fan, I’d like to see another Jessica Foley moment.
The other big women’s sports topic of the week is women’s soccer pay. I delved into that on the heels of one of the most aggravating promotion/relegation discussions I’ve had in years.
I only mention that because I’ve stumbled into a connection between the two topics. No, I don’t think women’s soccer fans (most of them, anyway) are as delusional as promotion/relegation advocates (most of them, anyway). WoSo fans generally listen, and they appreciate (and argue about) the complexities of the soccer business.
But what’s easily forgotten in both cases can be summed up in one word …
The most zealous pro/rel advocates cherry-pick from history like a corrupt televangelist cherry-picking the Bible. “Oh, see? We had 35,000 people turn up to watch Liverpool play Real Madrid, so obviously, there has always been a huge fan base for soccer in the USA, and the only obstacle to its growth is MLS and its evil NFL owners.”
I’m sure I’m already trusting people’s patience here, so I won’t rehash everything I’ve written about pro/rel. In short, there are legitimate, non-evil reasons why it hasn’t happened in the USA, and while a lot of us (including myself) come up with fun pro/rel schemes, it’s a long way from becoming reality. If you won’t take the word of a journalist who remembers the pre-MLS days and has fought tooth and nail to get mainstream media to take soccer seriously, read Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Or Soccer in a Football World. Or talk to the fine folks who’ve poured their hearts and cash into soccer clubs of all sizes across the country. (Not just one guy in San Diego. Talk to a lot of them, especially those who’ve been in the game for decades.)
The fundamental mistake of pro/rel zealots is that they take pro soccer in the USA for granted. They forget what a long, difficult slog it’s been to get things going. It was a risk when MLS launched in 1996, and it was a risk when MLS nearly folded in 2002. It’s still a risk because you can do whatever you want with a U.S. league, and thanks to NBC and the Internet, you can still watch more Premier League coverage here than you can in England. Or Liga MX. Or whatever you like.
At the nadir of 2001/02, MLS had to do something drastic to save the sport. Out of those meetings came Soccer United Marketing.
Which brings us, at last, to the recent flurry of news about women’s soccer and pay equity.
First, read the NY Daily News piece examining the issue. It’s a long read, but it’s worthwhile.
That said, as long as it is, there are plenty of complexities beyond its scope. And so a casual reader can get some false impressions from it. FIFA corruption has little to do with how much revenue the Women’s World Cup generates. (Endemic sexism in FIFA, sure.) No, Soccer United Marketing is not the reason Chuck Blazer had an expensive apartment for his cats. (Not that the piece says so, but the juxtaposition could give you that impression.)
SUM saved MLS. And it helped build MLS to the point at which it can be a legitimate partner for the NWSL.
A more difficult question: How much money is available for women’s soccer? Or should be? Or how much revenue is generated?
The NYDN points out, quite accurately, that it’s hard to quantify the money streams. Everything is bundled — men’s and women’s World Cups, even U.S. national team and domestic league TV rights. Given that, it’s really difficult to come up with conclusions like “Of the $1 billion FIFA doles out in development money every year, only $13 million is earmarked for women’s football.” How much of that money is gender-neutral — say, programs that help men and women? Probably not enough, but we don’t know.
But what we do know is that outside the USA and maybe Canada, the interest in the Women’s World Cup does not compare to the interest in the men’s version. Use any metric you want. How many countries entered. How many people watched.
I covered nine World Cup games in 11 days in Germany, if I remember that whirlwind correctly. Crowds were pretty good. People were excited. It was not the men’s World Cup.
It’s better than it was. Go back to 1995, when the Women’s World Cup was in Sweden. Nigeria vs. Canada. 3-3 thriller. Attendance: 250.
“While we take women’s soccer seriously, everyone else around the world doesn’t,” Alexi Lalas said on Periscope this morning.
Which does not mean women should not or could not be making more. Lalas also said a lot in support of the WNT’s position, and so will I.
But even within the USA, the outlier in which a Women’s World Cup is the media event of the summer, the biggest difference between men’s and women’s World Cup quests is immense. No one’s happy that the U.S. men lost in Guatemala, and even after avenging that defeat a few days later, people are still questioning Jurgen Klinsmann’s job performance. (My favorite: Slate compares Klinsmann’s delusional state with Monty Python’s Black Knight.)
Yet the qualifying gauntlet is intense … for men. More countries enter, so that means more games over a couple of years just to get to the big show. Mexico is still far ahead of the USA in soccer infrastructure. Other CONCACAF countries used to be. And Alex Morgan doesn’t get urine and batteries thrown at her in Central America.
In fact, the U.S. women rarely get anything other hero worship. If Jessica Fishlock thinks Hope Solo was disrespected, she’ll lecture the media (and, by extension, the fans) about it.
It’s a different game.
USSF numbers aren’t as transparent as they could be. I tried to get through the numbers in the Annual General Meeting report, but it’s difficult to get apples-to-apples comparisons. Some charts line up “total national team revenue” next to “total Women’s World Cup revenue.” Some of it isn’t USSF’s fault — last year, the U.S. women played (and won, for the first time in 16 years) the World Cup. The U.S. men did not have an event anywhere near that scale. In 2018, assuming Klinsmann doesn’t totally botch it, the situation will be reversed.
Then figure that the USSF is directly underwriting salaries and office expenses for the NWSL. You’d need a forensic accountant to figure out whether the USSF has a net gain or net loss from MLS. U.S. Soccer has aggressively stepped in to stop another U.S. league from failing.
And some WoSo fans will argue NWSL salaries and conditions should be a higher priority than national team salaries and amenities. Quite possible.
But again — we can’t forget how difficult this has been over time. The pay for a U.S. domestic club player in 2005 was $0. That has risen infinity percent.
All that said, when you read about the action the U.S. women have taken to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it’s hard to say they don’t have a point. (Insert my standard reservation about having Jeffrey Kessler represent soccer players here. Safe to say he didn’t impress when he had Sunil Gulati on the witness stand.)
Would a USA-Mexico men’s friendly in Texas draw NFL-level crowds, dwarfing anything we saw on the women’s Victory Tour? Yes. But the “attendance ticket revenue bonus” should ensure the men get paid. Why is it higher per ticket for the men?
So what’s the solution?
I don’t know. But it’s going to be something more creative than simply saying “equal pay for equal play.” It’s not equal play. In some cases, the WNT should get more than the men. The league needs more underwriting to get on its feet. But if the men crash the World Cup quarterfinals and land a massive windfall of money, they should get a fair share, right?
(Maybe the MNT should have lower per-game pay and bigger bonuses? Give them a little more incentive? That’s another rant — and a difficult case to make when a high-paid coach/technical director isn’t being held accountable.)
Just remember: Creative solutions are not evil. Soccer United Marketing is not evil. MLS is not evil.
And look — you can ask all sorts of equity questions. The U.S. women’s softball team has had fantastic success. Why don’t we support it the way we support soccer? Why are U.S. track and field stars and skiers of each gender more famous in Europe than they are here? How many of us even know who Dawn Harper Nelson is? Or Allison Schmitt? Or Ashton Eaton? Or Jennifer Suhr? Or Betsey Armstrong, a goalkeeper with more world championships than Hope Solo?
All of these issues are complicated. And history also tells us USSF could’ve done better for the women’s team in the past, so there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with players drawing another line.
But we need to do what’s best for all parties. Sinking MLS doesn’t help the NWSL. War between the sexes and inflated expectations brought us the WUSA, which sank beneath its excess and returned scores of players to amateur status. Bundling rights for MLS and women’s games with the men’s World Cup is, most likely, a net positive, as complex as that paper trail may be.
We have a lot of boats here. We need a rising tide.