The women’s game has changed significantly over the last 10 years. The past decade opened with the U.S. hosting the Women’s World Cup and Olympic Gold medals won, domestic leagues form and fold, and more. Soccer365’s Tim Grainey looks back at the decade in this week’s Grainey Report.
By Tim Grainey
2003-2013—Ten Years Significant Changes for the Women’s Game in the U.S.
2013 represents the 10 year anniversary of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, a significant event in the history of the sport in the United States. A lot of people look at the 1999 World Cup as the true benchmark for the sport domestically, when the national team exploded into mainstream consciousness as 90,000 attended the final at the Rose Bowl to see the U.S. defeat China 1-0, after a dramatic penalty kick session. Forty million viewed the game on national television, still the most watched soccer game ever in this country.
The 2003 Women’s World Cup is probably a better benchmark for the women’s game for many reasons. The event, held in the Fall as an emergency replacement for China which was reeling from the SARS crisis, was profitable and utilized some of the MLS Soccer specific stadiums for the first time (Home Depot Center in LA, Crew Stadium in Columbus) but had to struggle for attention versus the end of the Major League Baseball season and the start of the NFL. Due to television commitments, the final started early Sunday morning in Los Angeles. On the field, the 2003 WWC was the first of three consecutive Finals that the U.S. either did not appear in or lost, with Germany (2003 and 2007) and Japan (2011) triumphing, sending a positive message for the game in their regions.
One cannot think of the 2003 Women’s World Cup without remembering that the first professional women’s soccer league—the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA)—folded only five days before WWC’s opening game, after losing more than $100 million in three years. The league’s demise was a blow to the game and it took six years to revive a truly professional league—Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)–which itself lasted only three seasons. As 2013 winds up, we have the third incarnation of a professional league—the U.S. Soccer-run National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which appears to be on solid ground after its initial season, despite launching in a matter of months. The three powers of CONCACAF—Canada, Mexico and the U.S.–uniquely contribute to the league by covering the salaries of their national team players. The league brought new American players to national team attention, such as Erika Tymrak and Leigh Ann Robinson, while the play of Lauren Holiday (Cheney), Kristen Mewis and Sydney Leroux was eye-opening, and reinforced their importance to the national team.
Average attendance in year one was strong in most markets, led by Portland Thorns unheard of average of 13,320 per game. The Thorns, owned by Merritt Paulson who has helped establish the Portland Timbers as an iconic MLS market, is in a special city that has always embraced women’s soccer. WUSA and WPS both missed an opportunity by not putting teams into the Pacific Northwest. Through the Thorns’ success, NWSL has also opened up a critical path for future teams to twine with MLS sides. FC Kansas City’s owners also run a Major Indoor Soccer League men’s team, and the women’s team averaged 4,626—second in the eight team NWSL–in a market with little past history of the women’s game. NWSL trail blazed new ground for the future in joining with men’s soccer franchises; MLS and WUSA were antagonistic to the point that both were bidding for U.S. Soccer Division I status and then pretty much went their own ways afterwards, despite an agreement to assist in marketing and expansion opportunities. This cooperative agreement effectively became only words on a sheet of yellowing paper. WPS worked with MLS’ marketing arm but never paired a women’s franchise with a men’s team, despite positioning that possibility in their business plans and exploring it initially in some markets. Cooperative agreements across genders have worked in other countries, particularly in Australia for branding and in the Netherlands for having men’s professional organizations actually form and operate women’s sides. This approach of exploring more links with men’s teams can only help NWSL grow.
During the professional gap years of 2004-2008 between WUSA and WPS and while WPS was dithering around in 2012 with restructuring plans before finally giving up the ghost, players went abroad to keep their careers alive. Now some of the top young talent such as Whitney Engen, Christen Press and Amber Brooks has played for major European clubs rather than joining NWSL. Lindsey Horan, who received her second international cap against Brazil, spurned a full scholarship at the University of North Carolina to play at Paris St. Germain, where she has been a potent goal scorer.
Meanwhile, the past ten years have brought three Olympic Gold medals (2004, 2008 and 2012) and the U.S. National Team routinely draws 15,000-20,000 domestically for matches around the country (for example, the 20,274 in Orlando to see the 4-1 victory over Brazil on November 10th.) For the past ten years, U.S. Soccer has appointed two foreign coaches in order to bring in new ideas: Pia Sundhage from Sweden and Tom Sermanni, a Scottish native who coached Australia’s National Team for many years.
The U.S. is targeting the 2015 World Cup in Canada to again be acclaimed world champions.
Over the next ten years, I hope we see more bidders for the Women’s World Cup.
Canada had Zimbabwe as their only opposition for the 2015 tournament, which was never taken seriously due to their challenging financial situation. Ultimately that tournament should grow to 32 teams, from the 24 that will play in Canada.
We should see a FIFA sanctioned World Club Cup before 2023, as FIFA has recently appointed a committee to explore the concept. Later this month, the second mobcast Cup International Women’s Club Championship will be held in Japan between the champions of UEFA (Wolfsburg of Germany), CONMEBOL (Colo Colo of Chile), the Champions of Australia (Sydney FC) and Japan (INAC Kobe Leonessa).
I hope that we see more players (and not just professionals) transferring to overseas clubs. Besides the life experience of living in another culture, imports exchange ideas on playing styles, training, marketing, and club management.
I envision that a vibrant National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) reaches a second decade with 16 teams in the United States, Canada and Mexico. To do this, they will have had to figure out how to attract young adults (20-45 year olds) and transfer some of the national team support, which is quite strong throughout America. Ideally, half of the clubs will control their own 5,000 to 10,000 seat stadiums, while the rest rent facilities from colleges and minor league baseball teams. In its commitment to the global development of the game, the league hopefully will have attracted players from over 50 countries and every region of the world. A team comprised entirely of players from four East African countries could even play in a strong market like Minneapolis/St. Paul or Hartford. Prospective funding sources could come from the respective federations and local sponsors. The Caribbean Football Union has already broached this idea, utilizing players from multiple CFU nations such as Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. NWSL did not expand for 2014 so it is current in the proposal stage.
As we near the end of 2013, the women’s game in the U.S. has survived a bleak period for the professional game during the past ten years and is now in a stable position to grow. With new young talent being nurtured in this professional league, the team is poised to challenge for more Women’s World Cup titles, beginning with Canada in 2015.
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to Soccer365. He is the author of Beyond Bend it Like Beckham. Get your copy today.