by Rachel Allison
At the end of February, Fox Sports released a new set of advertisements for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Marking the 100-day countdown to the summer tournament, the new video commercial consoles fans of last year’s men’s World Cup with the prospect of renewed American sports victory.
The hashtag #scoretosettle solidifies the supposed continuity between the men’s and women’s World Cups, suggesting that America’s reputation in sport is defended equally within both tournaments.
On the one hand, appeals to national pride have proven to be a highly effective strategy for bringing attention to the women’s game. During the 2011 Women’s World Cup I was conducting dissertation research with one women’s professional soccer team. My study involved participant observation as an unpaid staff member with the team, in-depth interviews with owners, employees, fans, and media personnel, and the collection of print, electronic, and social media coverage of the team and league. I vividly remember the noise and excitement of our first sold-out crowd of the season immediately following the end of the Women’s World Cup. Many fans bought tickets knowing there was standing room only!
Unfortunately, however, this attention was short lived, with the stadium half empty a few weeks later. What remained afterward was the continued challenge of garnering investment into the careers of the top women players in the world and the failure of the league in early 2012. And this rollercoaster of fan and media attention was not unique to 2011. In a 2006 article Sean Brown describes how nationalism was partially responsible for the unprecedented media, corporate, and fan enthusiasm for the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Yet the support gained via U.S. pride waned post-tournament, failing to translate into success for the first attempt at a women’s professional league.
So despite the purported equal ability of the men’s and women’s teams to contribute to national pride in a World Cup year, in most respects American women’s soccer struggles to find its footing. And in fact women’s soccer often received inequitable treatment from the very types of organizations now deploying the rhetoric of national pride to boost support.
While a television deal with Fox Sports to air 16 of this summer’s games live is a major coup, women’s sports writ large continue to suffer a lack of mainstream mass media coverage. For instance, a longitudinal study of ESPN’s Sports Center found that under 2% of airtime was devoted to women’s sports in 2009, a slight decrease since 1999. Only 3 U.S. print journalists attended a media session prior to the U.S.’ match against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
In women’s soccer, perhaps nowhere is unequal treatment more evident than in the fight for equitable field conditions for the Women’s World Cup on the part of elite players. FIFA and the Canadian Women’s Soccer Association’s refusal to create grass fields for the tournament, a routine investment for the men’s World Cup, is nothing less than blatant mistreatment. This unequal treatment is entirely unwarranted, particularly given the American women’s record of success in international play.
Studies of gender inequality in sport have focused on the important role that ideologies play in justifying and naturalizing disparate treatment for men and women’s sports. For instance, the almost nonexistent amount of mainstream media coverage that women’s sports receive is often justified through essentialist ideologies suggesting women’s physical inferiority to men or related interest ideologies that presume low levels of fan interest in women’s play. The Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota’s #heresproof campaign does a fantastic job of debunking these myths.
Nationalism may also contribute ideological support to inequality when its deployment reinforces a popular story of women’s triumph in sport, masking more complicated, and inequitable, realities. As Giardina and Metz write in their study of women’s soccer, “The “success” – socially, culturally, politically, and/or economic – of the WNBA, WUSA, Women’s Tennis Association, and female athletes in general allows the American public to engage in self-congratulatory rhetoric vis-à-vis the state of women’s athletics” (111).
While the upcoming Women’s World Cup is certainly an event to be celebrated, let’s not congratulate ourselves just yet. Fox Sports’ new advertising campaign may drum up short-term support from those soccer fans for whom the women’s team is rarely on their radar. Still, the very nationalist fervor evoked by the #scoretosettle campaign denies and obscures the unequal treatment the women’s game routinely receives on the part of sport, corporate, and media organizations.
For women’s soccer there is certainly a #scoretosettle. But the biggest battles may lie off the field.
Rachel Allison is assistant professor in sociology at Mississippi State University. Her most recent research project is an ethnographic study of U.S. women’s professional soccer.