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US Women's Soccer: Unifier or Divider?

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

The US Women’s lost in the 2020(1) Olympic semi-final to Canada. This defeat may mark the end of an era. Carly Lloyd is 39, and Megan Rapinoe is 36. The next Women’s FIFA World Cup is scheduled for 2023.

The USWNT may be the team that best exemplifies the current era of sports fandom.

The USWNT is tremendously popular. The team is also increasingly controversial.

The USWNT had been a unifying, feel-good story since the 1990s, with players like Mia Hamm become near household names.

In the mid 2010’s the team became known for an equal pay lawsuit. Wikipedia’s take on the lawsuit:

Despite substantial media pressure and allegations of discrimination and unfairness, the judge in the case ruled against the women players, and noted that they did not have a valid claim. It turns out that the women were in fact already paid more than the men ($220,747 per game for the women vs $212,639 per game for the men), and that the players filing suit were paid more than the four highest paid men's national team players. The judge also noted that the women were given the opportunity to accept the same contract as the men, and that the women's contract offered substantial benefits that the men's contract excluded, including a base salary, continuing payments to injured players, and severance pay.[2]

However, the resolution of the lawsuit doesn’t seem to matter. The USWNT and its star players have become feminist icons and marketing influencers. Megan Rapinoe is one of the strangest stories in the history of sport. She is simultaneously a champion and a victim. It’s a profitable positioning as she has become the face of the USWNT, has been both an SI Swimsuit Model and SI’s Sportsperson of the Year, and has endorsements deals ranging from Subway to Victoria’s Secret.

The challenge in discussing the USWNT is that the team’s politics mean that almost everyone’s mind is made up before the discussion begins. Even discussing the team in terms of politics quickly becomes a problem. One side believes that kneeling before the first Olympic game is a political action. The other side views the act as a moral imperative.

So maybe politics isn’t the right lens to apply to the USWNT. Maybe we have to think about the team in terms of shifting cultural values. But, of course, this probably doesn’t get us to a place where more nuance is possible since the two sides of the culture seem to have irreconcilable differences.

When I teach my course on sports analytics, I ask for each student to identify their favorite team. For the men in the class, the favorite team is almost always a hometown team. Oddly, because of where Emory draws students, the NY Yankees are the most common response.

For the women in the class, the USWNT is the choice.

For the women in the class, the “female” identity group is the primary driver of fandom. For the men in the class, family and local community is the main driver.

When identity group membership becomes the motivator for sports fandom we are in a different world.

In possibly related news, the Olympics TV ratings are off by about 40%. Note this is linear TV ratings, so the viewership story is incomplete.

Its related news because it is the latest data point that suggests that the upheavals of 2020 seem to have resulted in an enduring drop-off in sports viewership.

With every new set of sports ratings the two standard narratives can be trotted out. First, sports has gone woke, and now they will go broke. Alternatively, the athletes are using their platforms for social good and anybody not watching is a troglodyte. We’ve been stuck at this cultural impasse for about five years.

I come to believe that it’s a reset. COVID, BLM, Trump, and all the other real and manufactured societal commotions have combined with some technological trends to change the world fundamentally. No one knows what’s on the other side.

The USWNT may be the most fascinating example of how sports now deviate from their traditional role as a community builders. The USNWT may be the first time that a national team splits rather than unifies the culture. I can only speculate where we go from here, but it is a unique cultural moment that should give everyone in sports (and America) pause.

Listen to our conversation on the USWNT, these Olympics, and more politics in sports here:



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