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June 28, 2011

Women's World Cup is Happening... Without the Vuvuzelas and the Media Hype

Picture 4 Question: How many of you knew that the FIFA Women's World Cup began on Sunday?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say about three of you. And for two of you, it's because you saw the story about the Muslim female soccer players in the Sunday New York Times. If you're not one of those three, you can be excused for not knowing that this event was happening. I didn't know it was going on and I like to think I know a thing or two about women's sports. That said, I'm pretty embarrassed that the World Cup took me totally by surprise.

But why didn't we/I know the tournament — arguably one of the largest in the women's athletic calendar— was happening? During last year's men's World Cup, people were tripping over themselves to watch the games at bars around Burlington and talk about their mutual hatred of the South African vuvuzela. Seemingly everyone had an opinion on Cote d'Ivoirian player Didier Drogba's fearsomeness and Spaniard Carles Puyol's Weird Al-like hair. We collectively crossed our fingers that powerhouse Ghana would become the first African nation to win a World Cup (They didn't. They were routed by Uruguay in the quarterfinals.). And we all grimaced when the slick-rick U.S. team couldn't make it past their bracket. Again.  

I frequently found myself taking questionably long lunches to watch the men's games that I really didn't care one wit about, other than the fact that there was some buzz around them and they gave me a chance to get out of doing work. And they looked really cool in HD. I was able to take these hours-long lunches (really, those games last forever), because nearly every bar in Burlington that had a large screen TV was open for the games. Das Bierhaus, Nectar's, 156 Bistro, to name a few. I knew that they were open because they all had placards out front of their businesses trumpeting the fact. During the championship game between the Netherlands and Spain, there wasn't a free inch of floor space to be found in all of Das Bierhaus, so heavy was the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the match. 

This year, that's not the case. When I wanted to find a place to take in the U.S. team's first game of the tournament against North Korea (with their Kim Jong-Il-mandated short haircuts) today, I had to search hard. None of the places that opened early for the men's games were doing the same thing for the women's tournament. I get it. The interest isn't there. And business is business. If the early morning national senior citizen tiddly winks tournament was as popular as men's soccer, you can bet the bars would be open for that.

But what I keep coming back to is why isn't women's soccer as interesting to sports fans as the men's game? The answer might seem obvious — the majority of sports fans in this country are men and men aren't interested in watching women play anything but tennis and tonsil hockey. Increasingly, women are holding their own in the world of sports fandom. But they're not interested in watching their fellow ladies either.

That might be the end of the discussion except for the fact that in 1999, the final game of the Women's World Cup between the U.S. and its nemesis China sold out the Rose Bowl and drew more television viewers than the Stanley Cup, the World Series and the NBA Finals. In that nail-biter of a game that ended in a 5-4 overtime victory for the U.S., the American players, including soccer legends Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, were heroes. Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off, exposing her jacked abs and Nike sports bra and promptly landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was a glorious time to be a soccer fan in the U.S.

But the fan zeal for the women's game seems to have petered out, even as the U.S. team continues to be at the top of the heap — they entered this  year's World Cup with a number one ranking. The women's game gets more exciting and the competition more fierce as more countries put money into their national programs. Yet the fans don't seem to be there. The last World Cup held in China barely registered as a blip on the country's collective sports radar. Does anyone remember who won the cup that year? I didn't think so. (It was Germany. They bested Brazil 2-0).

The same tired arguments get trotted out every time the question of why women's sports aren't as popular is raised: Yes, the talent pool in women's soccer isn't as deep, so the competition growth is limited. But worldwide, women don't have nearly the opportunities to play soccer, or sports in general, as men do. Yes, the women's game isn't as aggressive and fast as the men's. Fine. Biology. But have you ever seen Abby Wambach chase down a ball? I promise you don't want to meet her in a dark alley, which may be one of the reasons she and her teammates aren't so appealing to the average sports fan. 

The accomplishment of consistently being one of the best in the world is nothing to sniff at. And the actual differences in the elite games of men and women seem academic. To its credit, ESPN is broadcasting all 32 of the women's games live and in high def. And the U.S. knocked down North Korea in its tournament opener, 2-0. (Take that, Kim Jong-Il!), so that might spur some interest.

I can't blame the media machine for my ignorance about the tournament. But now that I know it's happening I'll be taking long lunches for the next three weeks. 

If you're interested in a wonkier take on the issue of the women's soccer audience, check out Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch's blog post on the subject. 

Photo via 

I took time off work to go and watch the US game this afternoon. I went to Buffalo Wild Wings. I had never been there, but had been meaning to go for some time. Awesome for watching sports. Multiple giant TV screens everywhere. From a "sports bar" perspective there's simply no place like it in Vermont. I will go there to watch all the womens world cup games that the US is playing in.

I agree with you, it's distressing how little attention these games are getting. There were only a handful of people at BWW watching.

And this US team is def worth watching.

I'm paying attention! Admittedly I know about a quarter as much about women's soccer as I do about men's, and I'm using it to comfort the parts of my soul that are still hurting over the men's team's miserable 4-2 loss in the Gold Cup final on Sunday. But I'll watch any soccer, and the Women's World Cup sure beats your average Major League Soccer match...

In fact, there are so many good things about the Women's World Cup! Example: Not only did the USA beat North Korea today (score one for democracy!), but the North Korean coach blamed it on the fact a bunch of their players got struck by lightning! Nearly as entertaining as the identically-dressed Chinese actors masquerading as North Korea fans in last year's men's World Cup.

Also: the women's teams always smile in the pregame team photo! Men's teams never do. Athletes who take themselves too seriously are a pet peeve of mine.

Lastly, the best part about women's soccer in America: Jonathan Fucking Bornstein is not a woman, thank God. USA! USA!

Far more people know about this than you think, as the ESPN networks and a lot of the sports media have been promoting it heavily.

And a big part of the reason you're not seeing coverage at bars is in your comments about players from teams that are obscure to most americans - men's wc hoopla started as largely immigrant driven, and there obviously is a strong bias towards the men's game internationally. We have a lot of immigrants who follow the men's cup closely, so it became a bit more common to see it in bars or hear about it in conversation, and then once the US started looking like competitors, the whole U-S-A thing naturally started ramping up (although it never quite took by the time we were eliminated).

But as we get to the end game, the Women's cup is always bigger in this country, because we're always more competitive - and that's in part due to that male orientation in other countries. Most of these soccer powerhouse nations, the boys are kicking the ball around in a serious way when they're practically still in the crib, which isn't the case here.

Girls, though, usually come to it later - as US girls do. Thus that advantage is neutralized, and the US can bring it's population base (and all the players it has to choose from) and competitiveness to bear - and we win.

But seriously, ever since the women's big win, the women's world cup finals have always been a bigger deal in this country. The last Men's World Cup was the first time I saw people in this country give a damn - but that mostly fell off after the US was eliminated.

And "fast," OK - but I don't see how you can say that women's soccer isn't as "aggressive" as men's, unless you're talking about the spectators.

ESPN has been doing its fair share in promoting the Women's World Cup. They've got decent coverage in both its English and Spanish websites.
@Tyler: You're right to be happy that Bornstein isn't a woman, he was ritually sacrificed by the Mexican team once he came on. has a pretty good tactical analysis of the game and Jonathan Wilson, a writer with a pretty good take on the history and tactics of the game has a nice writeup about the tactical battle as well over as over at SI.

Dan, is one of my favorite websites. Great place for a soccer nerd to geek out.

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