The watershed moment for women’s soccer came July 10, 1999, when 90,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl and a global TV audience of 40 million tuned in to see the Women’s World Cup final between the United States and China — beating the ratings for the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals that year.
Then-President Bill Clinton, who attended the game, called it “the most important sporting event of the decade.”
After Brandi Chastain made the penalty kick to seal the win for the Americans, she dropped to her knees, roared, raised her fists, and ripped off her shirt to reveal her sports bra. That iconic image was the exclamation point on a summer that saw women’s soccer sell out NFL stadiums, and members of the U.S. team on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines, and on the set of David Letterman’s late-night show.
World Cup Barbie dolls and ponytail scrunchies flew off store shelves, and for the first time ever, replica soccer jerseys came with female-sized neck and arm holes.
That 1999 team inspired a generation. Twenty years later, the U.S. team enters the 2019 World Cup in France on a double-mission: to win a fourth trophy at the deepest women’s tournament in history, and shine the spotlight on issues of gender inequality in the sport.
In March, 28 members of the U.S. team filed a class action suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles. The suit claims that the U.S. federation discriminates on the basis of gender as it relates to pay scale, that the women’s team is paid far less than the men’s team for game appearances, even though the women’s team has won three World Cups — 1991, 1999, 2015 — while the men haven’t reached a semifinal since 1930 and didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The argument against the women is that the men, although not as successful, generate more revenue. The women feel they would make more money if they were given more support and publicity.
Megan Rapinoe, the bold midfielder who has become the team’s most outspoken social justice warrior (“a walking protest,” she calls herself), had this to say at a recent news conference: “There is so much potential, so much untapped potential. I don’t really understand why there is such a resistance toward going all in on women. It’s pretty clear women in sport have not been treated with the same care and financing as men’s sports have. No one is really arguing about that anymore. I don’t understand why the action step is not there with it.”
Although there has been some change, Rapinoe and other global stars don’t think it’s enough.
“Strides have been made, but in terms of [FIFA’s] capacity for change and their ability to change — obviously they have essentially unlimited resources — I don’t think it’s really been a huge change at all,” Rapinoe said. “The incremental change we’ve seen is just not enough.”
FIFA, under pressure, doubled the pool of Women’s World Cup winnings from $15 million to $30 million, but a massive gap between men and women remains. The men’s pool went up to $400 million, from $358 million.
Another snub, say women, is that FIFA scheduled the men’s Copa America final and Gold Cup final for July 7, the same date as the Women’s World Cup final.
Norwegian star forward Ada Hegerberg, the reigning women’s player of the year, is on strike against her national federation over what she perceives as unequal treatment of the women’s team there. She will not play in the World Cup.
And the German national team, along with sponsor Commerzbank, released a cheeky 90-second ad that touches on gender inequality. It starts with a player asking: “Do you know my name?” Another asks, “How about me?” and then replies “Didn’t think so. We play for a nation that doesn’t know our names.” They also point out in the ad that upon winning their first European title, they were given a tea set.
There have been some indications that attitudes are changing.
Visa, one of FIFA’s top sponsors, announced it would spend more money on women’s soccer, and signed a sponsorship deal with U.S. Soccer that requires at least 50 percent of the money go toward the women’s national team and other programs to benefit the women’s game. Adidas also has pledged to award equal money to its female soccer players.
The U.S. women’s team stars had their faces plastered on billboards in New York City and Los Angeles. Alex Morgan is the most marketed American player since Mia Hamm, has 5.8 million Instagram followers and sponsorship deals with Nike, Coca-Cola and Secret.
The Women’s FA Cup in England has drawn crowds of 40,000-plus the past few years. Manchester City’s social media campaign #SameGoals, showcases female talent on Instagram, and the club hosts special events to promote women’s soccer.
France, Netherlands and Australia have invested heavily in their women’s programs. Jamaica will be the first Caribbean team in the World Cup, the result of a fundraising campaign led by Cedella Marley, the daughter of reggae king Bob Marley.
“We’ve seen the women’s game grow tremendously on the pitch. We’ve also seen it grow off the pitch,” said Carli Lloyd, the 36-year-old American playing in her fourth World Cup “You are seeing other federations support their teams more and more. It’s massive. It’s growing and growing, and that’s what we want to see.”
The World Cup field has expanded from 16 teams to 24. Although the United States is favored to defend its title, it will have to contend with strong opposition from host France, England, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, Sweden and Canada.
Former U.S. star Julie Foudy, who hosted the ESPN special The 99ers Reunited said the investment in the game is showing: “It’s the first (World Cup) where I’ve been able to count the number of potential winners on more than one hand, which is a good sign. There are countries out there who have put the money in and are investing and now they are seeing the returns of a potential World Cup-winning team. But it’s been slow for sure.”