Three years ago I joked that, in 2018, when people asked me if I was watching the World Cup, I would stare blankly at them and then reply, “Oh, you mean the men’s World Cup?”
When we refuse to legitimize women’s sports with viewership, we signal to girls and women that their participation in sports is important only in a secondary fashion — as spectators of men or as participants in a separate, niche arena. It was a long play, but I’ve been making this joke all summer — admittedly, the joke’s more snide than funny, but it’s one that every fan of women’s soccer surely understands. The U.S. Women’s National Team has had infinitely more success than their male counterparts; they won it all in 1991, 1999, and 2015, and they medaled in every World Cup and Olympic competition between 1991 and 2015. Despite this success, women’s soccer is thought secondary to men’s in the United States. It’s the game that gets the gender qualifier, and the one most people I know tune out — not because it’s soccer, but because they “just can’t get into women’s sports.”
This isn’t a refrain unique to soccer; it’s a universal feature of sports, though the U.S. Women’s National Team’s success makes the refrain applied to them laughably ironic. With few exceptions, we’re socialized to view women’s sports as unwatchable compared to men’s. We cite excuses like, “Women’s sports are less physical and fast paced” or, my all-time favorite, “They can’t dunk.” To an extent, though, this is true: women play sports differently than men do. (In soccer, for example, women are far less likely to flop around the field with a feigned injury.) I contend, however, that different doesn’t mean worse, and the occasion of the Men’s World Cup proves my point.
To put it plainly, most Americans don’t know how to watch soccer. Despite its near universal popularity worldwide, the beautiful game has garnered frustratingly little mainstream attention in the United States. Having grown up playing soccer, I frequently heard the old adage, “Soccer is the future sport of America … and it always will be.” Compared to football and basketball, easily the most popular sports to watch in the United States, soccer is slow and unexciting. That said, a recent Gallup poll indicated that soccer viewership is undeniably on the rise in the United States. Seven percent of surveyed participants indicated that soccer is their favorite sport to watch, a number up three percentage points from the last poll, which was taken four years earlier. Even more telling is the fact that this survey was conducted during a non-World Cup year when the U.S. Men had not qualified for the World Cup. Time will tell, but this certainly seems like a good indication that the world’s most beloved sport is finally catching fire in the United States.
Anecdotally, I’ve observed this to be true. Despite the fact that the USMNT is not competing in the 2018 World Cup, I’ve noticed lots of people watching this year’s competition. It’s been on in bars and waiting rooms, and vague Facebook and Twitter posts from my family and friends have indicated a general fervor surrounding the World Cup. Despite the fact that the game is slow. Despite the fact that Americans don’t have a dog in the fight. Certainly nobody is dunking (though I’d pay money to watch Messi try).
To this I have two pronouncements to make to the internet’s collective band of newfound soccer fans:
- You will not be sorry.
- If you can learn to enjoy men’s soccer, you can learn to watch women’s sports.
I hesitate to say this because, on its surface, it sounds like a petty Facebook joke that probably should have remained in 2015. However, undergirding this pettiness is a legitimate grievance: when we refuse to legitimize women’s sports with viewership, we signal to girls and women that their participation in sports is important only in a secondary fashion — as spectators of men or as participants in a separate, niche arena. This not only frequently leads to the dehumanization and sexualization of women in sports, but it also upholds a more general, damaging trend — one that casts women as observers rather than agents, as objects rather than subjects.
Further, when we cite excuses for abstaining from women’s sports that boil down to the biological, physical differences between men and women, we perpetuate an unhealthy exertion of male privilege — one that unnecessarily draws out and favors the biological strengths that men, as a very general rule, are genetically endowed with. There are capacities in which this is unavoidable, for better or for worse. Sports entertainment is not one of them. The pace of women’s sports is often different from that of men’s — but, to the viewer conditioned to observe it, this means women’s skills manifest in more prominent, interesting ways. Games are often slower; they are also frequently more dramatic.
Our problem with women’s sports is not actually rooted in the biological differences between the sexes. More accurately, the issue boils down to a misinterpretation of gender roles. Christians, for example, frequently view women solely as helpmates. We arbitrarily genderize personality traits; women are sensitive and empathetic while men are rough and tumble, stoic creatures. Men act; women support. It is no surprise, then, that we have cast women in similar roles in sports. I suspect that we do not care so much that female athletes trend toward slower and weaker than male athletes, but rather that we have been socialized to reject the idea of women as main players.
I have long believed that, with the appropriate ideological shift, Americans could expand their pallets to appreciate slower games — ones that deviate from the brutish formula that football employs (a formula that I fully confess to indulging in, too). Perhaps the increased interest in the 2018 Men’s World Cup is proving that this shift is finally coming to fruition. I am skeptical, though, that this will lead to more mainstream coverage and viewership of women’s sports; after all, I don’t think the problem has ever really been that women can’t dunk.