Timothy F. Grainey
Women's Soccer Insights: Women’s Soccer—The Future Beyond 2012 Domestically and Internationally
FIFA’s statistics cite the number of females who play the game globally at 26 million; despite that impressive number, for every ten players only one is female compared with nine males. However, as Mary Harvey—former U.S. Women’s World Cup winner in 1991, FIFA director and Women’s Pro Soccer (WPS) Chief Operating Officer--points out, one of every five new players being registered around the world is female. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of registered female players grew by 54 per cent.
Harvey explained that beyond the total numbers, “The acceleration rate, that’s what you really look at because that’s where it’s heading.” FIFA, at the macro level, has driven this growth surge with U-20 and U-17 World Cups every 24 months as well as expanding the number of participants at the Olympics and Women’s World Cup. Juxtaposed against that growth, the announcement on Friday May 18, 2012 that Women’s Professional Soccer was permanently shutting down did not have the devastating impact that could have put the sport into a sustained limbo. Though the WPS’ demise was a setback, there was not the abject depression that surrounded the WUSA announcement when they ceased operations just 9 years ago.
The sport in general is in a much better place than when WUSA folded in 2003. Players had very few options then; a few headed overseas but most hung on to the hope that WUSA or a new league would start…but it took six years until WPS was able to launch in 2009.
Players have more paths now to continue their playing careers—American players are valued overseas in top level leagues like Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and Russia and even in developing leagues like Australia, Croatia, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. We expect to see more players (and not just professionals) transfer to overseas clubs. Besides the life experience of living in another culture, imports exchange ideas on playing styles, training, marketing, and club management. Also, particularly for countries struggling with antiquated views of women’s roles, diaspora and other imports act as role models for players and portray a different social order for their parents.
At the end of this first summer without WPS, the women’s game in North America has survived nicely and is brimming with energy and potential, with around 100 amateur teams in WPSL and W-League, a semiprofessional WPSL Elite league with 8 teams; indeed three of their playoff bound teams are refugees from the deceased WPS: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and Western New York Flash.
The WPSL Elite has announced that it is expanding to the West Coast in 2013, with the recent news that the San Diego SeaLions are joining with more teams expected in California, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest. The W-League retained all their 2011 franchises, added three in the Southeast (Colombia, South Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida) and has a true phenomenon in the Seattle Sounders Women, who attracted at least 4,000 fans to three college exhibitions and every league match, which was more than five times what some W-League teams attract for an entire season (2011 league average was 333 a game).
Signing U.S. World Cup veterans like Stefanie Cox Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo certainly got people’s attention, but also showed that there is a demand for top level women’s soccer on a regular basis in that soccer-mad part of the country. W-League Pro—a higher level league above the existing W-League--is a concept that should see fruition within a year or two, potentially including some of the top club sides in the game like Atlanta Silverbacks, New Jersey Wildcats, Ottawa Fury, Pali Blues, Vancouver Whitecaps and the Sounders.
The loss of WPS teams does mean that we may not see some of the top players in the world except for an occasional national team exhibition match. Players such as Marta of Brazil, Caroline Seger of Sweden, Kelly Smith of England, Lisa DeVanna of Australia and Sonia Bompastor of France are all playing in Europe.
However, the college game still uncovers some real international gems, such as Lauren Dickenmann of Switzerland, who a few years ago was a star at Ohio State and in the W-League and since has won the last two European Champions League titles with France’s Olympique Lyon. The captain of Colombia’s 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympic Games squad—centerback Natalia Gaitan—will be a senior at the University of Toledo in Ohio this fall.
With these options, though not receiving as much money as from a fully professional league, players can still keep their soccer careers alive after college. I
n addition to coaching in college, others are finding new avenues for their passion, while helping fuel the growth of the game. Two WPS veteran players: defender/midfielder Joanna Lohman and English forward Lianne Sanderson, played for the Philadelphia Independence in WPS last season. They played in Spain last winter for RCD Espanyol and then with D.C. United in the W-League this summer. The two have developed a program through their JoLi Academy that is impacting the lives of girls in developing countries.
As part of their soccer training work, Lohman and Sanderson spent a month in rural India this past January working with young girls. They paired with a NGO (non-governmental organization) Yuwa (Youth in Hindi) which was founded in 2009 by Franz Gastler, a Harvard graduate. Yuwa’s mission is to help girls improve their quality of life by realizing their potential. Lohman and Sanderson worked with Yuwa in Jharkhand in Eastern India, where women are frequently targets of exploitation and where over 30,000 women a year are abducted by human traffickers. Sanderson explained: “We work with groups that have already built a foundation; we are supplementing their excellent programs and bring our expertise which is obviously in the women’s game.”
Rural India has very traditional perceptions about the roles of women in society, which does not include careers or sports. Joanna Lohman explained: “We want to give these girls opportunities beyond what they have, which are very few and far between. When you are born as a woman in India your life is pretty much set for you, especially in the poorer areas. You have your daily responsibilities and obligations towards your family. You’re married off at 13 or 14 years old and you go to school but it’s more of an arbitrary school day; you don’t really learn that much but you do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Then you’re married off and you have kids and again you have your family obligations.” Lianne Sanderson explained that Franz Gastler took them to one home to meet with the parents of a 13 year old girl who was soon to be married, but after realizing that there were other life options for their daughter, the parents decided against the marriage.
The two educated, successful young women from the West discussed their schooling, soccer careers and other aspirations, and in the process it opened up a world of possibilities to both their academy participants and their parents. Lohman said: “We’re trying to take their girls and give them more opportunities than what they’re offered or what society really expects of them.”
Another unique aspect of the JoLi Academy experience is that they reached out to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which is U.S. Soccer’s equivalent as the governing body for the sport in the country. The national team players came to Jharkhand for five days, for what Lohman described as a very powerful partnership on all levels: Sanderson admitted that they were particularly pleased that the federation selected three of the Yuwa players to join their national team program. Lohman felt that their academy program in Jharkhand allowed the AIFF to expand their reach to identify more players in poorer, remote areas, where most of the best players are; however they want the AIFF to emphasize schooling in their residency camps for national youth teams.
Sanderson and Lohman are soccer pioneers and leaders, not just interested in furthering their own careers, but also in improving the sport on a global basis. Their passion and dedication present role models for the girls in India and for young women at home, inspiring them to make a difference. Other players have combined a soccer career with graduate school or even entrepreneurial endeavors. Natalie Spilger played in WPS for two years, and utilized her Masters in construction engineering management to establish GreenLaces in 2008. As a nonprofit organization, GreenLaces’ purpose was to engage the global athletic community to improve the planet with specific actions (that are published online.) GreenLaces works with youth athletic leagues and after-school programs to teach children the importance of recycling and eco-friendly lifestyles to promote “a greener generation.”
Dr. Maggie Tomecka took a break from her residency program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine to play in WPS in 2009 while former National Team forward Christie Welsh worked for eighteen months for National Geographic’s television show “Wild Chronicles.”
The WPS’s demise does show that the model for professional women’s sports is still an unsolved rubric—not just for soccer but also for softball and hockey. As Boston Breaker’s head coach Lisa Cole noted: “We just need to find what makes sense for women’s soccer from a business perspective.
The folding of the WPS…just means we need to create a new, economically viable model.” Players will have to play and work other jobs or coach in the off-season, but many in WPS already did anyway. The sport will survive this setback. Another top amateur league coach told me that, “At least with WPS gone, we can get rid of the idea that we can only operate a team on a $1M plus budget. We can do it for much less and we will.”
On a global scale, the sport is also in very good shape; last summer’s Women’s World Cup showed how competitive all the finalists were, over 50,000 attended the Women’s UEFA Champions League Final in Munich this past May and the next Women’s World Cup in 2015 will expand to 24 teams and be staged in neighboring Canada. WPSL Elite showed how it can help developing countries in the region as 17 of Haiti’s National Team played with F.C. Indiana this season under Shek Borkwoski, who doubles as the head coach of both teams.
Though they only won one game out of twelve thus far, their goal is to develop the imports so that they can qualify for the 2015 World Cup through CONCACAF’s regional qualifying. Borkowski sees the team as a work in progress and was grateful for the opportunity to meet top teams like Western New York Flash--who he felt was one of the best club sides he had ever seen--Boston Breakers and others each week, providing a benchmark for his national team players to strive for.
What women ultimately want with soccer (or any activity) is to be treated with respect in the same way that men are. They don’t want to be evaluated differently because of their gender, with qualifications like, “They are weaker, less adept or something less than the men’s game.” They want people to discuss their games as they discuss men’s games--discussing great players, certain players they like or dislike--rather than whether they should even play the game, how they should play it, or what they should wear.
It is happening more and more, particularly with the reception of last summer’s exciting World Cup in the U.S., with fans comparing it favorably in style and excitement value to the 2010 Men’s Team in South Africa’s World Cup. Since last summer, the U.S. Women has drawn crowds of at least 15,000 in Dallas, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Portland, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. After averaging only 5,784 fans for 8 games in 2010—including a World Cup interregional qualifier versus Italy in Chicago--it is clear that the American’s nail-biting performances last summer in Germany have made them a premier attraction throughout the country.
Almost ten months later, people still want to see this exciting collection of veteran standouts like Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx, as well as exciting youngsters like Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe. This summer’s Olympics in London, where the team will attempt to win its fourth gold medal in five Olympics since the sport was added for the 1996 Atlanta Games, should provide more publicity.
A solid performance could take average gates for national team matches well over 20,000 and further embed players like Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan and others as legitimate marketing forces.
A challenge that cuts across all countries, not so much a federation issue as a local team/league level concern, is field availability, quality, and time of access for women. Ideally, in ten to twenty years, women’s clubs will have some dedicated stadiums and training grounds in more and more countries. Currently, girls in Latin America and Africa play on fields cows wouldn’t want to be seen on or have to wait until boys have finished practicing.
Looking ahead for the next generation, I hope that more women’s organizations control their own budgets, but are able to work in tandem with men’s teams for occasional doubleheaders, special events, and marketing. This will be for the “good of the game.” Then maybe men’s teams’ promoters and administrators will view women’s supporters as a market to access and grow in tandem, rather than a threat to their resources.
Will women’s soccer ever be at a level of a Barcelona-Real Madrid derby, or Manchester United playing AC Milan in a European Champions League tie?
It’s important to dream, because we wouldn’t be at this point without big ideas, but the goal is not to hurt, replicate, or supplant the men’s game; that is unrealistic. What women want is gender equity and fairness so the sport can reach its potential around the world. Women’s soccer has brought passion and energy to the sport, particularly in North America, and has much more to offer.
The future looks very bright indeed.
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