The Women’s World Cup in soccer should be a cause for celebration, as the game’s best female players get to show off their talents in front of bigger crowds than most of them have ever played before. But it’s apparently impossible these days for players—as well as coaches, commentators, journalists, or even spectators—to enjoy a major sporting event without filtering the experience through the prism of resistance politics. And so, this edition of the Women’s World Cup, taking place in France now and continuing through the first week in July, has turned into a festival of resentment and grievance.
Too numerous to catalog in their entirety, the complaints have piled up: the women aren’t paid enough; the male-dominated media don’t pay enough attention—and, conversely, too many male reporters are covering the games; the commentary is sexist; the commentators engage in too many stereotypes; the greedy men who run international soccer don’t care whether the women succeed. It’s difficult to watch a broadcast, read a game account, scan a blog, listen to a podcast, or read anything on social media about the tournament without being reminded of all the injustices these athletes and coaches are enduring. One journalist even described the games an “act of defiance.”
The backdrop of all this is the modest success and growth of the women’s game. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) estimates that the games will generate about $130 million in revenue, a healthy increase over the $75 million or so four years ago. Members of the winning team will split $4 million, while total prize money for all teams will be $30 million, up from about $10 million in 2015. Professional women’s soccer leagues operate now in about a dozen countries—including the National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S., the Women’s Super League in England, and the Feminine Division 1 in France—where the best players can make a career. While players don’t yet earn the money made by female tennis and golf pros, who dominate the list of the world’s highest-paid women athletes, a few female soccer players earn more than $1 million annually, if endorsements are included.
That’s the good news, but a reality check is needed. The men’s World Cup generates $6 billion in revenues, which subsidizes the women’s cup. Few women’s professional soccer clubs are profitable. The NWSL, organized after the failure of two previous women’s leagues in North America, averaged about 6,000 spectators a game last season, though two-thirds of the franchises welcomed fewer than 5,000 per game. Chelsea led all women’s teams in England, attracting an average of just 1,864 paying customers a game this past season. Lyon in France garnered 1,428 per game, while Wolfsburg led the German women’s league with per-game attendance of 1,689. Even so, Lyon paid striker Ada Hegerberg roughly $450,000 this past season, while American star Carli Lloyd was paid $480,000 last year playing for Sky Blue NJ in the NWSL.
These facts are ignored in coverage of how women’s soccer is treated unfairly. Some press reports note the difference between the $30 million total prize money for the women and the $400 million pot for the men without mentioning the vast disparity in revenues that the two tournaments generate. In fact, FIFA is setting aside a greater percentage of revenues as prize money for the women than the men get.
Throughout the tournament, Brazilian player Marta is wearing soccer boots emblazoned with a gender-equity logo. She’s protesting that she hasn’t received endorsement contracts approaching what men get for wearing brand-name soccer gear. Commentators have drawn attention to the enormous gap in earnings between her and her countryman Neymar, one of the world’s most popular male players, who earned some $38 million in salary alone this season. But Neymar has played for some of the richest and most successful clubs in the world, while Marta has had to change teams seven times throughout her career when teams and leagues went bankrupt. The two Brazilians are playing—literally—in different leagues.
It isn’t all about pay in the age of language police. During the first game of the tournament between France and an overmatched South Korean team, a male soccer analyst on Fox, Alexi Lalas, tried to employ an updated version of the old “this is a case of boys vs. men” comparison in sports, calling the match “women vs. girls.” This inflamed social media, which called for Fox to dump Lalas for denigrating South Korean players. When several men defended Lalas, the Twitter mob hauled out an increasingly common response: “Ever notice how it’s the men who just don’t get it?” When analysts described the Japanese team as disciplined and organized, and Nigeria as quick and athletic, critics decried the national stereotyping. Never mind that anybody who knows soccer could see that the Japanese team really was organized and disciplined (if not exactly creative), or that many of the Nigerians were—you know—fast.
These days, nobody is free from shaming. The U.S. women’s team was criticized by a former player, Hope Solo, in the Guardian for being “dominated by white girls next door.” This, her column noted, was evidence that “something is broken” in American soccer—though the team is the current world champion.
Despite all the bitterness, the Women’s World Cup has helped expose young girls and women in the U.S. and the rest of the world to soccer, and increased youth participation rates as a result. My mother, who spent years sitting in the stands watching her kids compete, would occasionally lament that she had to wait until she became an adult to learn about sports, and never got to try them herself. That’s no longer the case. Today, millions of girls who will never take part in the World Cup or earn a dime from the game get to experience the thrill of athletic competition and make lasting memories and friendships. It’s part of a larger trend, involving much more than just soccer, in which at least half of all girls in the U.S. now take part in some athletic competition.
But that, apparently, isn’t as interesting as what kind of a shoe deal Marta gets.
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