Millions worldwide watched the U.S. women clinch their first back-to-back Women’s World Cup titles three weeks ago. They watched as the national team’s co-captain, Reign FC’s Megan Rapinoe, led a 2-0 victory against the Netherlands in France.
The celebration of the U.S. victory continued through the next week, as players received extra attention from the media and on social media, participated in parades, toured late-night talk shows and received the Outstanding Team award at the ESPYs.
But as time moves forward and the U.S. players return to their respective National Women’s Soccer League teams in various cities across the country, how long will this excitement and fandom last?
Rapinoe, who became a household name for being the World Cup’s MVP and leading scorer, and her USWNT and Reign teammate, Allie Long, will be welcomed back to their NWSL club, Reign FC, in front of a sellout crowd at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma for the team’s World Cup homecoming match against Chicago on Sunday at 1 p.m. Rapinoe said she will sit out the match, citing exhaustion and a sore Achilles tendon, but will be in attendance.
Across the country as the USWNT players have been welcomed back with the sights of sellout crowds and what feels like a new community of fans nationwide.
Yet, how long will the sellouts last? How long will these new fans stay bought into what the league and its players are doing?
Can the NWSL, and professional women’s sports in general, can capitalize on this momentum created by the U.S. women’s national team’s success? What would this investment require and at what point is it no longer these athletes’ responsibility?
“I think it’s time that everyone else steps up,” Rapinoe said.
At what point can the solution break the cycle of previous Women’s World Cups. The event captivates the attention of the nation every four years, but always seems to lose its hype fairly quickly following the final match as people turn off their TVs and move on.
Will it be different this time?
“We’re going to see now if we can sustain this momentum,” said Storm CEO and general manager Alisha Valavanis. “Can the conversation turn into action? Will corporate America continue to invest in women and in women in sports? It’s about continuing the conversation through action.”
Investing in equality
The gap between professional women’s and men’s sports has been a major topic of discussion recently. It’s seen in terms of opportunity, earnings, media attention and recognition.
Women have been participating in organized team athletics only since the end of the 19th century. Female pro athletes are limited to a small selection of leagues in the U.S.: the WNBA (which has 12 teams), the NWSL (nine), National Pro Fastpitch softball (six) and the National Women’s Hockey League (five).
For men, there is the NFL (32 teams), NHL (31), NBA (30), Major League Baseball (30) and MLS (24). Additionally, the NBA, NHL and MLB have affiliated lower-level developmental clubs (the NBA’s G-League has 28 teams, and baseball’s minor leagues have 256 teams). And aspiring NFL players will have a shot at playing in the XFL, a spring league that begins play in 2020.
“When you have half the population that has been excluded and the value of what sports does for women, to provide these opportunities for young girls is the foundation right there,” said Heidi VanDerveer, the University of California San Diego women’s basketball coach and a former Storm assistant. “That’s why I think this is important. Why the World Cup is important. Why the WNBA is important. Why hiring women as executives and coaches is important. It’s just so important for progress.”
Another glaring gap is in player compensation. As reported by HighPost Hoops, in 2019 the highest-paid WNBA player will make $127,500 (Phoenix Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner). In the NBA, for the 2018-2019 season, that number was above $37 million (Golden State’s Stephen Curry).
Twenty-eight members of the NWSL, including Rapinoe, filed a lawsuit this spring against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking pay that is equal to the compensation for the men’s national team players. The lawsuit states: “A 20-game winning top tier WNT player would earn only 38% of the compensation of a similarly situated MNT player.”
“The gap (between women’s and men’s athletics) is in who is investing the dollars to parlay their product,” University of Washington softball coach Heather Tarr said. “The people who own these WNBA teams are seeing those women (as a good investment), not only tacitly being able to win but to also create a fan base that the women can live in and prosper off of.”
An investment in women’s sports can come in many forms — corporate sponsorship, team owners and league investors, community leaders and fans.
VanDerveer says fans can invest by showing appreciation for women’s basketball, instead of comparing it to the men’s game.
“It’s competitive. It’s fun to play, fun to watch,” she said. “Value it for what it is, no matter if you’re talking about men’s sports or women’s sports.”
A Seattle influence
The celebration of women’s sports and athletes isn’t new to the Seattle area. With two pro women’s teams in the Storm and Reign, mixed with the success of UW’s women’s athletics, the area has become a hot spot for women’s athletics.
“We live in a city where there is a push to make sure there is representation where there can be,” UW women’s soccer coach Leslie Gallimore said. “We’re lucky, because we live in a city where you can see women play professional sports, and that’s pretty cool because there are a lot of places that don’t.”
From Rapinoe and Sue Bird to Hope Solo, Courtney Thompson, Breanna Stewart and Kelsey Plum, Seattle has seen the careers of many top women athletes.
Since its inaugural season in 2000, the Storm has won three WNBA championships (2004, 2010, 2018). The Reign, founded in 2012, has won two NWSL Shields, which honors the top-performing team in the NWSL’s regular season.
UW won the Women’s College World Series in 2009, its women’s soccer program has made 14 NCAA tournament appearances, and the women’s basketball team, led by Plum, reached the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in 2016.
“This city is a special city that is really grounded in its values, in diversity and inclusion, and equality and the sports teams are very much a reflection of that and an extension of that,” Valavanis said.
Behind the Storm is Force 10 Sports. The Seattle-based firm, created by three women, focuses on creating generational revenue and strategic event production for pro and college sports. It works on forming connections with the community and educating people on women’s athletics to provide encouraging environments for players.
“I think when you have ownership groups that are as committed as they are here, players will play here and it makes it easier for us to go out on the field and do what we do,” Rapinoe said.
The USWNT has won four World Cups, including the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. Every four years, the country is reminded of the strength of these women, on and off the field.
Even before their World Cup win this year, the U.S. players were standing up for more than just the sport that brought them together.
“There is just something about the U.S. national team about being America’s team on the women side,” Gallimore said. “You don’t see a lot of other teams that people latch on to like they latch on to the women’s soccer team. Whether it’s in a way where they are just sort of America’s darlings or in a way where there’s controversy surrounding it, and it’s something they like to talk about. There’s just something about the women’s national team that people love.”
Now, after the World Cup victory, Rapinoe said it’s no longer the players’ responsibility to lead these conversations.
“I think that we’ve done pretty much everything that we could possibly do on and off the field to fight for our cause to prove it two-hundred million times over how much we’re worth it,” Rapinoe said. “I think we’re getting a little frustrated and just done with being the group that obviously is discriminated against and having to shoulder all of the burden to try to explain to people why we’re worth it. I think it’s time that everyone else dives into the conversation now.”
Reign FC will host six more home matches this season (the NWSL regular season runs April to October). The Storm is about halfway through its season and has six more home games.
And just like all sports teams, women’s athletics needs investment from everywhere to be profitable.
“We need people to invest in this league,” Long said. “Not just people in the stands, but we need more corporate sponsorship pouring into the game and believing in something that can be really, really big one day. (We need) for people to step up and take that leap of faith.”