In Los Angeles tomorrow, the women’s soccer world championship will be decided. Whether the United States or China wins the game, the Women’s World Cup has been a major victory for both soccer and women in sports.
Not too long ago, it was taken for granted that women were not interested in sports. It was considered even more obvious that women could not compete at the same level as men. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, women’s sports have shown phenomenal growth both in sheer numbers of participants and in the amount of respect given to players.
The U.S. women’s 2-0 semifinal victory over Brazil on Sunday set a cable TV record for soccer viewership. The match, broadcast on ESPN, was watched in 2.9 million homes, topping the number of U.S. homes that tuned in to the Men’s World Cup games last summer by nearly 20,000. The final will be played in a sold-out Rose Bowl, where more than 90,000 fans will comprise the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event.
The numbers illustrate broad support for the event, but the diversity of the audiences stands out. It was assumed the World Cup’s following would be dominated by young soccer-playing girls, but the fan base has also had a large number of males, young and old.
The popularity of the event is in large part due to the players themselves. Led by Mia Hamm, the U.S. team shows women athletes as both strong and feminine. The players are aggressive on the field, but at the same time could look perfectly comfortable in makeup and high heels. Not only are these athletes’ attitudes comforting to those threatened by successful women, but they are also encouraging to young girls who want to be strong and successful, but do not want to “turn into boys.”
The women’s soccer team — along with the WNBA and track and field stars such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee — is allowing the youngest generation of girls to grow up with female role models who are immensely successful in all areas of athletics.
But while women’s soccer clearly has support in the United States, coverage of the Women’s World Cup has been minimal throughout most of the world. England, a men’s soccer powerhouse, did not even field a team. Brazil, home of Pele, has virtually ignored their national team’s participation in the event.
Women’s athletics needs support on a global level, not just in the United States. The pool of talent is only as big as the number of people who participate in any given sport. The Women’s World Cup is certainly a step toward creating worldwide support for women’s participation in sports, but there is much more work to be done.
The World Cup is demonstrating that Americans will support athletes who are aggressive and don’t give up, regardless of gender. The WNBA is another example of the growing recognition that being athletic and being female is not an oxymoron. That recognition needs to go further, though, by spreading this knowledge across the globe. It is called the World Cup, after all, and women from all over the world are participating.
Perhaps at the next Cup in four years, the rest of the world will also be watching.