This year’s Women’s World Cup has broken television records all around the world. The Round of 16 match between France and Brazil was viewed by more than 35 million people in Brazil and 10.6 million people in France, making it the most-watched women’s soccer match of all time. In Italy, 7.3 million people watched their team’s match against Brazil, which was more than 35 times Italy’s previous record for a domestic television audience viewing a women’s soccer match.
The U.S. Women’s National Team jersey has officially become the highest-selling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, in the history of Nike.com. And, according to Ben Strauss at the Washington Post, Fox Sports is pretty much sold out of ad space for the tournament already, and the price of those ads has nearly tripled since the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Any way you look at it, this tournament has been a triumph for women’s soccer.
However, it’s impossible to ignore the tragedy that underscores this success: The sport should be so much further along by now; these women should be making so much more money; and these women shouldn’t have to fight so hard just to prove that they’re worthy of a modicum of the investment and attention that male athletes get simply because they’re men.
It’s a tragedy that for decades, women in certain countries were actually banned from playing soccer. In England, that ban didn’t end until 1971, and in Brazil it didn’t end until 1978. At this year’s World Cup, 41-year-old Formiga played in her seventh Women’s World Cup in Brazil; when she was born, the ban was still in place.
It’s a tragedy that FIFA, the pompous and corrupt governing body of the sport, had to be pushed, kicking and screaming, into ever actually holding a World Cup for the women. The first official FIFA Women’s World Cup wasn’t held until 1991. Today, FIFA still offers the men’s World Cup $410 million more in prize money than it awards the Women’s World Cup — a gap that actually widened just last year.
And, according to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, FIFA clearly didn’t invest in much marketing this year in France — nor did it require France to spend its own money to market the event it was hosting. In Paris, away from the stadium, there was reportedly little advertising showing that the Women’s World Cup was happening, even before the marquee France vs. United States quarterfinal.
“There are few billboards, signs, banners or pretty much anything else touting the event. Fan festivals are minimal. Restaurants and bars aren’t plastered with signs welcoming fans or saying they are serving the official beverage, or whatever, of the World Cup,” Wetzel said.
“Everyone running this event should be ashamed, although don’t hold your breath on that occurring. The only way to get a FIFA official to feel shame is to bribe him or her to feel shame.”
It’s a tragedy that newspapers and television stations are only now starting to realize how important this coverage is — and that so much of said coverage still is painted in a way that lifts up women as inspiration and role models, not merely as bad-ass women worth of respect because of their on-the-field talents. There’s still a patronizing, almost placating tone to so much coverage of women’s soccer, coverage that highlights these women as role models and inspirations first, and athletes second. While the human-interest angles are always worth highlighting, that’s often the only media that these women receive — and they’re told to be grateful for whatever they get.
It’s a tragedy that so many of the women who leave the World Cup stage don’t have thriving professional leagues to return home to. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the most successful women’s pro soccer league in the history of the United States, but it is only in its seventh season, and there, the minimum player salary is $16,538, and the maximum salary is $46,200. The WK-League in South Korea is in flux. Women who play in one of France’s top clubs only earn on average $4,000 euros a month. In China, only recently have teams in the Chinese Super League been required to have a women’s team in operation by 2020. It was just about a week ago that Real Madrid, the most decorated men’s club in Europe, confirmed that it will have a women’s team in competition next season.
It’s a tragedy that women have to play at the World Cup with so much pressure on their shoulders. When men’s teams don’t qualify for the World Cup, or when they fail to play their best on the biggest stage of the sport, it’s heartbreaking for them, but it’s rarely a threat to the very future of their sport. They don’t have to earn respect and investment from their federations or sponsors or FIFA itself every time they step on the field; they don’t have the pressure of proving, with every kick and every save, whether their sport is deserving of attention. For the women, every bad game is an indictment on their gender, every controversy a potential excuse for investors to back away.
There’s legitimate hope to be had that this Women’s World Cup could be a turning point — the sport feels so much farther ahead than it was even just four years ago. But so many turning points for women’s soccer — and women’s sports as a whole — have actually just been U-turns in disguise. In the meantime, the tragedy is the generations of girls whose talent went without being nurtured; the toxic patriarchal structures that have been allowed to persist, untouched; and the money and power and fame that has been denied to women from all over the world, just because men wanted to hoard it all for themselves.
This Women’s World Cup was a giant step forward, and it was only made possible because of the women who carried themselves through wastelands of empty promises and sexist comments and abusive actors and dismissive fools to this place of prestige. But, as we celebrate these steps and the women who got the sport to this point, never forget: By now, the sport should be flying.