A Sociological View on Selling Women’s Soccer: A Conversation with Dr. Rachel Allison
Most of the media that cover women’s sports have made themselves experts in the field – and often times using expert feels a bit dicy – through years of following the teams and players. We get there by writing about the on-the-field play and the off-the-field drama of whatever is going on.
But let’s face it. Most of us, when you come right down to it, are not experts in gender studies or sports in any sort of academic sense. There are a surprising number of lawyers in the women’s soccer media ranks, a lot of former players, a few academics from other areas. But most of us come to the media from a place of passion to fill a gap we see.
That’s where Dr. Rachel Allison enters the picture. Dr. Allison recently wrote a book called Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer that addresses a lot of issues that have faced women’s soccer. She is what many of us would call a honest-to-goodness expert in what a lot of the women’s soccer media writes about. In 2014 she received a PhD in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University.
“I typically teach undergraduate and graduate classes in research methods, sociology of sport, and sociology of gender and sexuality,” Dr. Allison explained when I asked her about her work at Mississippi State University.
I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Dr. Allison and ask some questions about why she decided on this topic and why she went in some of the directions she did.
The story of why this book was written is one that most women’s soccer fans can get behind. Dr. Allison was, like so many in women’s soccer, a fan of the 1999 team and all that was born out of their World Cup winning side.
Like most of us that cover or write about women’s soccer at all, there is a confluence of the personal and professional love for this game and those who play it.
“I came to this topic for both personal and academic reasons. Personally, I grew up playing soccer and continued through college. I love the sport and it has been a big part of my life and my own physical and social development. I’m also the right age (34) to remember events like the 1996 Olympics, 1999 Women’s World Cup, and birth of the WUSA – as a fan, of course. My students call me old! But I have very clear memories of watching the Women’s World Cup and feeling so excited to see women playing my favorite sport on TV. It would have been hard at the time to avoid seeing clips or images from the ’99 championship! I knew about the WUSA, although I lived too far from any team at the time to attend a game. And when that league folded in 2003, I was leaving home for college. It was a huge disappointment to me that at the time it was becoming more possible for me to travel to a game as I became more independent, it wasn’t an option anymore.”
“In graduate school, I did a lot of research on women’s sports and I realized that multiple other women’s pro sports leagues had failed through the 1990’s and 2000’s. While the WUSA’s story was, of course, unique, it was also part of a pattern. And there just wasn’t much research that looked at that pattern. A lot of scholars have examined the experiences or identities of women athletes, but not so much the operations of the teams or the leagues that they play for. My personal and academic interests came together with WPS in 2009. I was in Chicago for graduate school and bought a season ticket right away for that first season. I enjoyed the games enormously (Megan Rapinoe was still brunette!) but was also aware of a lot of the struggles to gain fans, sponsorships, etc. the league faced early on. Over time, I became convinced that better understanding women’s soccer could shed light on both the challenges and opportunities for women in professional sport in the U.S.”
“I wanted to write this book to present a sociological analysis of the development and operation of women’s pro soccer, with the goal of understanding how the landscape in pro sports has changed for women in some ways and yet remained the same in others. It’s an academic book, but I hope that others can and will read it!”
The book opens with the 1999 World Cup. A place that is alive in most of our minds even if we somehow weren’t glued to the TV that day almost 20 years ago.
“I start with 1999 for a few reasons,” Dr. Allison explained, “for one, it’s an event that many people remember, even if they don’t typically follow women’s soccer or know much about it. So it’s a familiar place to start. And it’s also interesting for exactly that reason, that lots of people who recognize the players from that tournament or the now-iconic image of Chastain don’t know much else about women’s soccer. That tournament really did capture national attention in a way that has had lasting impact on our culture and that brought people “in” who hadn’t closely followed soccer before. I think this is a case of the right group at the right time with the right buy in. These women were an easy sell – they were attractive, talented, charismatic, and had clear group chemistry. 1999 marked two decades of incredible growth in girls’ and women’s sports participation, especially in soccer, and especially among affluent and predominantly white girls. Companies like Adidas and Nike perceived that women were a somewhat untapped market and had increasingly used women athletes in their advertisements and commercials. The idealized body for women had shifted away from thinness and towards athleticism. And there was buy in from corporate and media organizations that made this tournament available to watch, and in its timing, the tournament did not directly compete against other highly popular sports events.”
“The success of this tournament, like other Women’s World Cup and Olympic tournaments, fundamentally challenges the idea that there is little interest in women’s sports in the U.S. One of my arguments in the book is that interest and buy in are a two-way street: investors often want to see a quantifiable ROI to their investment, but we can’t always fully know this in advance, in part because an ROI requires that investment in the first place! Support from sponsors and media give women’s leagues legitimacy and make them available for fans. When there is buy in, even in a climate of uncertainty like that around the 1999 Women’s World Cup, interest often follows.”
When the topic shifted to what the WPS/NWSL has done well, Dr. Allison was quick to point out one major area of benefit.
“On the positive side, women’s pro soccer adopted social media early and did a great job using it to communicate with fans. This probably seems completely commonsense now, but I studied WPS in a slightly earlier era in the social media landscape, and this has allowed me to appreciate just how quick they were to get on Facebook and Twitter and how impactful social media has been, especially without being on TV. One of the results has been the creation of really vibrant and active social media fan and follower communities.”
We do often take for granted how much social media has been a boon for women’s soccer and the teams to market themselves. From the days before the internet was a thing most of us spent our time on to the days of six hours a day on Twitter, things have changed and women’s soccer has been great at using this tool to market.
Dr. Allison noted another less ethereal benefit. “I also think that women’s pro soccer changed quickly over time towards the greater acceptance of lesbian and gay sexualities and this has been a positive change. In large part, this change mirrors trends towards greater acceptance in U.S. society more generally.”
Though it seems from fans to amateur writers to PhDs the one thing we can all agree on is sometimes the leagues just don’t know who to market to.
“On a more ambivalent note, I think that women’s pro soccer has historically defined their “market” as soccer-playing girls and their parents.” Dr. Allison noted. “And while there are good reasons to go after these fans, there are also good reasons to go after other groups of fans, and these groups, particularly adult fans without kids, sometimes feel less welcomed when game day spaces are set up entirely for kids. One of the things I find in the book is that while families with soccer playing kids may be interested in women’s pro soccer, they are also not the most consistent in their fandom, often pulled in multiple directions by other of their kids’ activities and sometimes just burned out on soccer altogether.”
Women’s soccer has had an interesting journey since the early days of the internet and how it has been marketed. People like Dr. Allison and books like Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer help to remind us of where we’ve come from and how to make the future a little easier to sell.
Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer is now available on Amazon and where other books are sold.