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Why Women's Sports Struggle to Gain Popularity

Why do Women's Sports Struggle to Gain Popularity?
One decade ago, Brandi Chastain was showing her sports bra to 40 million TV viewers in the Women's World Cup Final. Today, women's professional soccer players are kicking off on Wednesday afternoons for crowds of 4,000. Why has the following for women's soccer decreased? We speak to Union-Tribune Sports Reporter Mark Zeigler about the rise and fall of women's soccer in the United States, and Cal Poly Pomona Sociology Professor Faye Wachs about what it means for female athletics in general.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The game of soccer has been a hard sell in the United States, as American fans apparently find it hard to warm up to the international style of football. But there was a time 10 years ago when it seemed that women's soccer was on the verge of becoming a very big sport in America. The 1999 victory by the U.S. team at the Women's World Cup match and the launching of the WUSA professional league were seen as watershed moments for soccer and for women athletes. Well, as it has turned out, that moment was not the launching pad, but the high point of interest in women's soccer. The WUSA fizzled out, as have many other women's professional sports leagues, and the ones that remain, like the WNBA are relentlessly struggling to gain revenue and a wider audience.

Almost two generations after the passage of Title IX that opened up opportunities for girls to pursue sports in school, the options open for girls to pursue sports as a profession are still very limited. With me to discuss the challenges faced by women’s sports leagues are my guests. Mark Ziegler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome, Mark.

MARK ZIEGLER (Sports Reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune): Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And my other guest is Dr. Faye Wachs, a sociology professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Dr. Wachs, welcome.

DR. FAYE WACHS (Professor of Sociology, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d also like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Would you like to see more women’s sports teams? Why do you think women’s teams have such a hard time succeeding? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Mark, let’s start out by talking a bit about that glorious moment in women’s sports when the U.S. team won at the World Cup Final in 1999. You recently did an article about that ten-year anniversary.

ZIEGLER: Yeah, I actually covered that and it was an incredible, incredible couple of weeks and, you know, the players talk about this as being the moment that they really realized something big was going on and I kind of had the same feeling. It was the opening game, it was at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s where the New York Giants and New York Jets football teams play. And, you know, you’re on your way to the stadium and there’s this huge traffic jam and you’re like whoa, what happened? There must be some big accident. Well, it turns out the traffic jam was for the game, and the players were coming on their bus and had the same experience and they couldn’t believe it, that this stadium would be close to sold out to watch women’s sports. And it just picked up from there and then the next sort of – sort of seminal moment was in Chicago, they played a game against Nigeria. And I remember walking down Michigan Avenue and it was taken over by what they called the pony-tailed hooligans and they were, you know, nine- and ten-year-old girls wearing Mia Hamm, number 9, jerseys…


ZIEGLER: …with their moms, coming from all over the Midwest, driven, you know, hours upon hours upon hours to come to this game and it just kept culminating to the final at the Rose Bowl where they beat China in a penalty shootout.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it was seen as natural, after all of that commotion, after all of that outburst of joy after that win, to start a women’s soccer league. And they started out with pretty high hopes, didn’t they?

ZIEGLER: They did and, you know, one of the things they were able to do was they – they were able to get as owners televisions companies, cable television companies, and that was the thing, I think, people on the inside were most excited about. Because starting a league, whether it’s men’s or women’s is very difficult in this country. There’s so many sports, the market’s so saturated, and it’s tough to get exposure. Well, not only did they have the buzz from the ’99 Women’s World Cup but they also had television and they had the Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks as sort of the leader and they had Comcast and Cox Communications. And they had some of these just moguls in the business behind their cause and they basically have every game on TV, very accessible, and so, yeah, there was quite a bit of excitement when it started for a lot of reasons.

CAVANAUGH: So where did the WUSA go wrong, Mark?

ZIEGLER: Well, I think they misinterpreted 1999 as being what – you know, as being a measuring stick of the interest for women’s sports and – in general and women’s soccer in particular. And I think they got a little bit caught up in that and so they overspent. They just thought this league is going to take off automatically, we’ve got so many things going our way, and so they, you know, they had corporate offices in downtown New York, Manhattan, and they had $40 million was their seed money plus another $24 million for stadium development, and they spent that in the first year.


ZIEGLER: And the staffs were huge. And in many cases, for example, the local team here, the San Diego Spirit, had two of the best PR guys, not just in women’s soccer but in the business, two of them, working for the same team. And so they overspent, they were overstaffed, and over ambitious.

CAVANAUGH: And before I get Dr. Wachs into the conversation, I want to ask you to tell us about the new league, the new women’s professional soccer league. It’s called Women’s Professional Soccer, the WPS. Who plays in the league and how many teams are there?

ZIEGLER: There’s seven teams and it’s, you know, it’s, in some sense, at least the on field product is very similar to the WSA. A lot of the same players who are still around. The WSA folded in 2003 and almost from the day it folded, there was talks of relaunching a new sort of reformed WSA. It took them six years. It was very hard, a lot longer, far more arduous than they thought it would be but they finally pulled it off. The big difference is from a financial side, an operational side, it’s much, much more stripped down, much more modest. Smaller stadiums, smaller staffs, much smaller budgets.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to introduce Dr. Faye Wachs. She is sociology professor of California State Polytechnic University. And, Dr. Wachs, you’ve been listening to Mark talk about the late, lamented WUSA women’s soccer – professional soccer league, and now this new women’s professional soccer league. What’s your take on how that might click with the public?

DR. WACHS: Well, I think it – we should just point out that, in general, it’s very difficult, as Mark pointed out, it’s very difficult to start a sports league. Major League Baseball had lots of false starts in the 1800s. If you look at the history of the NBA and the NFL, right, there’ve been mergers, there’s been competing leagues that have been absorbed. It’s never – it’s never an easy beginning so you would never want to forecast smooth sailing. And there’s a number of things they can do to try to raise their profile and to try to be successful. Of course the current economic climate does mean that it’s going to be more difficult for people to spend on luxury items like supporting a new sports league or attending live events. It’s really going to be crucial for them to garner a fair amount of media coverage and not just general coverage but what we call audience building coverage, coverage that highlights the significance of the sport, the importance of following it long term that – Around many men’s sports, there’s this sort of aura of this as an important, significant, historical event, and that creates long term audiences, not people who just want to see the novelty of, you know, a game once in a blue moon. We want – They are going to need fans who are going to invest in the games and watching the games but really for most leagues today it’s media coverage. That’s more important than the gate receipts because that’s where the media contracts or where the larger dollars really come from.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to ask you both—I’ll start with you, Faye, if I may—the fundamental irony in any discussion about women’s soccer, actually soccer in general but let’s keep it to women’s soccer, is that so many young people, so many girls play soccer and love it in – while they’re growing up, and yet it’s so difficult for any kind of professional team, league, to really catch on with adults, adult men, adult women. Why is there this irony, in your opinion, Faye?

DR. WACHS: Well, I think one of the key reasons is just soccer historically, in the U.S., hasn’t been one of, you know, the big three, big four sports that people have – have been sort of grown up having an interest in even though there are a lot of people who played soccer as a child. I think it’s really coming down to media exposure, something that – You know, I very much enjoy hiking and I’ve been doing that since I was a kid but I would probably never go to watch other people hike. So it’s creating that media hype. I mean, soccer in general is difficult to promote from a media standpoint because it doesn’t have regular breaks for commercials, which is where televised media’s going to be making most of its money. It doesn’t lend itself to the sort of coverage that sports like baseball or football or basketball that have regular stoppages or that have adapted to create things like television timeouts have really sort of made themselves amenable to this media coverage and soccer really, you know, it doesn’t have stops in the action. It’s long, continuous play. It’s, you know, small moments of very exciting action punctuated by a lot of watching the ball go back and forth. It doesn’t sort of lend itself to the type of media coverage that we’re used to with American sports and that’s – Getting that sort of coverage and getting that sort of excitement is going to be crucial to making the league more popular. You know, they real – And, also, by the same token, the media’s going to have to get behind it as well. Show the games during primetime and create a sense of excitement around them and create a sense of interest around the league, and the players and the sport, and create a sense of specialness that are going to make people want to tune in game after game.

CAVANAUGH: I know, because, Mark, for heaven’s sake, the sports channels show hot dog eating contests, you know. There must be some – some area where women’s soccer might be able to be plugged in.

ZIEGLER: Yeah, you know, the one thing that the soccer in this country, that the people who run soccer or set up leagues in this country have always looked at is the huge numbers of youth that play the sports. And they think, if I could just turn those participants into spectators, we’d have it made because we have more participants than any other team sport. And it’s sort of this holy grail and no one’s been able to do it. And, you know, it’s been interesting. I wrote something about this earlier this week. You know, I almost am to the point where I don’t think they should do that any more. I don’t think it’s ever going to work. It’s – Soccer in the rest of the world is not this happy family sport; it’s got this edge to it, this tension, almost this anger, this sense of danger. And women’s soccer, you know, trying to attract nine-year-old girls, it’s just – there’s this disconnect there. And if you watch soccer in the rest of the world and if you look at the spectators, very few of them look like they’ve stepped on a field in the last five or ten years. They might’ve played when they were younger but they’re really going to the game as a spectator now, as part of this culture, and in other countries it’s much more a sport of the masses. Here in the United States, it’s a sport of the upper middle class and the upper class in the suburbs. And so it’s very, very difficult to make that – that connection between participation and spectating and I just don’t think, you know, they might – maybe down the road they’ll be able to do it but it’s going to take generations and generations to make that switch.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about soccer, women’s soccer and women’s professional sports leagues in general. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Aaron is on the line from Solana Beach. Good morning, Aaron, and welcome to These Days.

AARON (Caller, Solana Beach): Thank you. Good morning. Thank you for having me.


AARON: I wanted to comment as a person who’s played soccer all my life. I’m in my mid-forties now. And enjoyed playing it in college and further on and a little bit pro. We actually am working with a gentleman and a few more people but one of which is our main frontrunner. His name is Warren Bachmann. He used to play pro in England for many years, for Newcastle and the English National Team. And he’s also actually on a – Fox soccer commentator. We are actually working on putting together a soccer academy in San Diego…

CAVANAUGH: Soccer academy?

AARON: Yeah, which would be like the academies they have in Europe, for example, Barcelona, I think, has a big one. And which is going to be a year round school, room and board, and open for from the age of 12 to 18 for boys and girls in which they will attend the school and the academy and by the time they are 18, they’ll be good enough and most of them, I’m sure, would be to have scholarships for college here in the States and would be able to play pro. So we really believe that there is a great potential here. We’re hoping to launch it when World Cup is going to be going on and use that as, you know, ride on the back of the World Cup and start enrolling at that time. And we really believe that we can encourage boys and girls and develop the sport here in the country and I think we have great potential.


AARON: I mean, we have – Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Aaron, when is the World Cup?

AARON: This next summer. Next August in South Africa.

CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. Thank you so much for calling. Well, there’s perhaps the future of some more interest in soccer and women’s soccer in particular, but I would like to, if I could, talk more generally for a few minutes with Faye Wachs and Mark Ziegler about women’s sports in general. There are many women’s sports on the collegiate level but only a couple women’s sports leagues and I’m wondering, Faye, why is that?

DR. WACHS: Well, there’s, you know, many different reasons but one of the key things we look at in sports sociology is the role that sports have played in America, in particular and in western culture and that if we look at modern sports, which emerged in, you know, with industrialization in the late 1800s, mid-1800s, what we see are the sports being used primarily to differentiate men from women and also to quell fears of social feminization in that as the nature of work is changing, as the nature of the way we live is changing, and men are increasingly being educated by women and as work, as people are moving into formal education as opposed to home-based education, there’s this fear that how will boys learn how to be men if they are educated by women, if they’re spending their time on book learning, if they’re not out in the fields, like how are we going to make boys into men, and sports was one of those answers. And another is, as women and men are starting to do more similar type labor under industrialization and the industrial factory, how are we going to continue to prove male dominance and male physical superiority and, again, sports is the answer, right. Sports provides a means to visibly demonstrate the male physical superiority over women and also some men’s physical superiority over other men, as in early sports, for example, non-white people were often banned though, of course, what non-white meant at that time and what non-white means today were different. But sports played that role and that function and over the last 100 years we’ve really seen sports used as a means to demonstrate that men are physically superior to women. And now, again, I don’t actually believe that they are but sports is the ideological base that supports this. So, for example, in Michael Messner’s work, he has this great quote from a guy—it’s an old quote—you know, saying I may have to work for a woman but I’ll always know she can’t take a hit from Ronnie Lott, who’s an old – you know, an oldtime linebacker. And if we, you know – You know, we think this is how people are thinking, they’re thinking, you know, sports are for men and they’re for strength so women’s sports then become viewed as something very secondary, as not quite as good, as not as valid. And women are discouraged from playing sports with men because if you actually have men and women playing sports together, a lot of that fiction gets imploded as I’ve seen in my own research, right. You know, how do you deal with the fact that often women are better athletes than men and sometimes men are better athletes than women, and it has a lot to do with early training and genetics and all of those different things. And it’s, you know, it’s sort of very complicated in that also the sports we tend to value are sports that are in line with our beliefs about masculinity and our ideologies about masculinity and in the U.S.—now certainly not internationally but in the U.S.—soccer certainly has suffered from the perception that it’s a sport for women. Now, internationally that is absolutely not the case but in the United States it’s been one of those sports that, as you brought up, a lot of young girls play. So it’s sort of been devalued even though there’s really no reason to do that as a women’s sport. And then women’s athletics, because they’re always seen as sort of secondary or not as good, it was – it’s only recently the NCAA Tournament has started referring to men’s and women’s rather than NCAA Tournament and Women’s Tourmanent (sic)…


DR. WACHS: …Tournament. So you’re sort of facing this uphill battle ideologically when you’re trying to promote women’s sports because you have to counter this idea that women are physically inferior and that women’s sports are a lesser-than product, secondary to men’s sports.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, and, Mark, I wonder when you look at the new WPS and you look about – they’re not getting much attention and they’re not getting many people going to the games, and I wonder if you think that there’s – is it any – is any of that reason because it’s a women’s team? Or is it just because they’re playing soccer in America? What’s your take on that?

ZIEGLER: No, I don’t think it’s necessarily soccer. I mean, look at what just happened in the last week. Some of the biggest clubs from Europe have come over here and they’re averaging, I think, 70,000 or 80,000 a game just for preseason exhibition games. Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona’s coming next week. They draw. There’s a – there is a thirst for soccer, particularly in ethnic groups. The U.S. played Mexico yesterday in the final of the men’s Gold Cup and it sold out Giants Stadium and it was the B-teams from each country playing, not even the A-teams. So there is certainly an interest. I think, you know, when women’s sports is legislated through Title IX, it works very, very well. Look how well it’s worked at the NCAA level. Look – And, certainly, it’s, you know, there are some issues still there and some equality issues at schools that play big time football but still, they’ve done very well, they’ve created a lot of opportunities, they’ve created a lot of great experiences. But I think professionally, you know, in this country the model, of course, is that they’re private enterprises, that there is no Title IX to sort of legislate that. And businessmen have a hard time separating – or maybe an easy time separating what’s a cause and what’s a good business investment. And I think a lot of the investors in the original WSA thought this is a great, noble cause, which it is, very important to have professional sports played by women so that young girls can see that, yes, there are possibilities to play sports as a woman. You don’t have to grow up following men’s sports. However, I think they also realize that maybe it doesn’t work from a business standpoint and that’s one of the reasons they pulled out. And the issue with the WPS is it’s a much lower level than WSA. I’ve always said if you had this business plan and you put it into place back in 2001 with the WSA’s money and the WSA’s momentum and their TV contacts, it would work.


ZIEGLER: I’m not so sure the WPS is going to work because they’re still losing money. They’re losing a lot less money but they’re still losing money and the – you know, and the prof – there’s no profit margin. It’s actually a deficit of about 60-80% on your investment.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Faye, what is the rationale, do you think, behind the idea that you have individual women’s sports stars like tennis players garner huge amounts of attention and media coverage and they get endorsements for things but when it is actually a team of women playing a sport, that doesn’t seem to click with the audience in general. And I wonder what the difference is between those two concepts.

DR. WACHS: Well, historically some sports have been branded as male appropriate and others have been branded as female appropriate. And sports that are team sports, that are collision sports, sports not – that maybe collisions aren’t supposed to occur but are likely to occur, are often branded as male appropriate, so women playing those sports have been subject to a host of forms of discrimination from being labeled as unfeminine to being – having their sexuality questioned to having their sexuality even be considered relevant when it shouldn’t be to your athletic ability. And also, by the same token, what we’ve seen are individual sports, sports often in which artistry like figure skating or gymnastics is a component are generally labeled as female appropriate and so you tend to see men in those sports facing similar problems and not receiving the same endorsement dollars that the women do. Tennis has been sort of one of – you’ve got – tennis has been sort of a sport in the middle where it’s been perceived as sort of gender neutral, where it’s appropriate for either men or women though historically men have received higher endorsement dollars in tennis relative to women though a few women have managed to really capitalize. So tennis is sort of in that gray area but it’s going to generally be women that are in female appropriate and men that are in male appropriate and then maybe some people who are in the sort of gender neutral sports that are going to garner the best endorsement deals because they’re – what they’re doing is most in line with our – sort of our larger notions of appropriate gender behavior and, of course, we’re talking about the mass media, right, if the person is viewed to be extremely physically attractive then that’s certainly going to up their cachet as an endorsement figure especially more so for women…


DR. WACHS: …than for men.

CAVANAUGH: And, Faye, I wanted to ask you in closing, because we are running out of time, I was interested in something that you said earlier and it made me think. Do you see a time when there aren’t men’s and women’s teams in certain sports but there are just teams?

DR. WACHS: I – That would be my hope. There’s a scholar named Ann Travers who does a lot of research on that topic, a lot of really wonderful research, and my own – I’ve done research on adult recreational co-ed sports and, really, for many sports, there doesn’t really seem to be a physical reason. I mean, maybe there’s a historic reason but it would be nice to see sports played or if you’re going to create different leagues, create them on skill level or size or ability for the leagues rather than gender.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. I want to thank you so much, Dr. Faye Wachs, sociology professor at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Thanks for joining us.

DR. WACHS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Mark Ziegler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, thank you very much.

ZIEGLER: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And we will – if you would like to post your comments online I want to remind you that you can do so. It’s easy, and we read them. It’s And These Days will continue in just a few moments.