The last time the U.S. women’s national team won the World Cup, it was on home soil, before a record crowd of more than 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. They did it in one of the most dramatic ways possible, with Brandi Chastain scoring on the final kick of the penalty shoot-out. And if those factors weren’t enough to make the game memorable, Chastain’s shirt-twirling, bra-bearing celebration became one of the most iconic images in women’s sports and, I would argue, the game of soccer.
Against that kind of historical moment, even the best outcome for the Americans in today’s World Cup final is bound to be a disappointment. That might seem like an odd claim given that television viewership could likely reach an all-time high for women’s soccer. But is it likely to boost women’s professional soccer going forward, or will its popularity be more like that of track and field or cycling, which soak up our attention during the Olympics and the Tour de France but recede into the shadows once those marquee events are over?
I suspect it’s going to be the latter. And that’s a shame, because women’s soccer has never been more interesting to watch. Historically, the popularity of the Women’s World Cup and women’s soccer at the Olympics have translated to a short-term bump in attendance at professional games in the domestic league of the winner. (This has been observed in the U.S. after 1999 as well as in Japan after 2011.) But in the United States, two pro leagues have folded since the last time Americans hoisted the World Cup. The current one, called the National Women’s Soccer League, seems to be on stronger financial footing than its predecessors, but it faces the same basic challenge: to transform women’s soccer from being hugely popular twice every four years into a viable business proposition every week of every season.
The trajectory of Major League Soccer (MLS) may be instructive, because the challenges facing the NWSL are not entirely different from those that men’s professional soccer has to deal with here in the U.S. In its early years, MLS struggled to fill the gaping NFL stadiums its teams called home. Nowadays, all but a handful of MLS teams play in smaller stadiums that were built for soccer. The seats are often sold out, and the battle now is to attract a larger TV audience. The league’s primary battle for marketshare is not with other American pro sports but with the best European soccer leagues, which are widely available here on TV. If MLS can attract more viewers, its teams will receive higher broadcast fees, enabling them to compete for better players, which again feeds into the cycle of acquiring more viewers. It’s a struggle for dominance as a spectator sport.
The NWSL faces a similar challenge, but on a smaller scale. While it doesn’t compete with Europe for TV money—the audiences are miniscule—it does battle with teams in Germany, France, Sweden and England for players. Roughly 13% of the athletes playing in the Women’s World Cup play club soccer in the NWSL, making it the single most-represented league in the tournament. (Most of these players are American, Canadian or Mexican.) But collectively, the European leagues sent more players. And the individual teams that sent the most players are both European: Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, with 14 and 12 respectively.
Why does this matter? Because the European leagues are eligible to send their best teams to the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which has grown in popularity and importance in recent years. More than any other club soccer event, this one has the same ingredients—scarcity, quality, and the chance for a rooting interest along national lines—that make the Women’s World Cup and Olympic women’s soccer so compelling. If any women’s club soccer event has a chance to grow into the third most important competition on the women’s soccer calendar, that’s the one. And the United States is excluded.
It’s possible that the NWSL will be able to hold its own against its European competition. After all, the prize in women’s soccer is not really the television audience but the people you can convince to attend matches in person. However, if the Champions League does indeed continue to grow into an important event, will the best American players decide to keep playing in the U.S.? And should we, as American soccer fans, want them to?