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Women’s Soccer is Too Conservative

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Women’s soccer is politically progressive, but conservative in almost every other respect. It’s time to embrace the future.

The biggest cultural moment for women’s soccer in American history happened this summer, surpassing even the famous 1999 World Cup victory on home soil. And the defining player of the moment, Megan Rapinoe, is also famously outspoken and forthright about politics. She is an out lesbian who has kneeled in solidarity about racial injustice, and been the subject of personal attacks from Donald Trump. She has seized her fame and used it as a vehicle to speak about important political causes.

And it’s not just Rapinoe.

Her USWNT teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger married this year to much fanfare. Both have been unafraid to voice their opinions on contentious topics. The entire US team unabashedly celebrated their record goal-scoring output during the World Cup and then celebrated with some friendly drunken debauchery once they came home, inspiring an important conversation about expectations placed on women compared to men.

The women’s soccer fandom too is diverse, and organized around political causes. They support labor, queer rights, racial justice, and gender equality. They put their money and time into these causes, and challenge their own teams when they fail to live up to those expectations.

But in spite of all that, women’s soccer in this country remains fundamentally conservative in many respects. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s worth interrogating why a community that’s so open to progressive values in other areas is so parochial in others.

Teams are conservative in their marketing

For three decades, women’s soccer has been sold as ‘family-friendly’ and targeted primarily at young girls. The tide is starting to turn on this, with teams slowly starting to realize that people in their 20s and 30s—with time, disposable income, and the desire to drink alcohol—are a prime sports market. But why did it take so long, and why are many teams still focused on families first?

Answer: because it’s safe.

It’s safe, in the first place, because it’s a time-tested strategy. You won’t become the next Portland Thorns by running the same ‘little girls’ marketing campaigns as everyone else, but you also probably won’t have anything blow up in your face. It’s also safe in the sense that it avoids ruffling any feathers. No one gets upset when young girls come to games. But some people will get upset if you cultivate a rowdy environment. And god forbid there’s heckling or any kind of harsh words.

Or consider the consistent under-investment in merchandise. Stories were rampant during the World Cup of fans who were desperate to buy shirts but simply couldn’t find a dealer able to sell them.  Or all the fans at the World Cup hoping for something to commemorate the experience but unable to get anything because of winding lines at the few available locations.

In all these cases, conservatism about the potential value of the market resulted in significant lost sales, and a worse experience for fans. It’s safe to market to young girls, but it produces a less energetic experience for fans who want to experience the agony and ecstasy of sporting endeavor. It also does a disservice to the athletes themselves to treat them primarily as role models, rather than peak competitors in the world’s most popular sport. And at the margins, it’s actually alienating. For progressive fans, for people who don’t fit the family model, it can be dispiriting to attend events that feel like they weren’t designed for you. 

There’s nothing wrong with families, and I’m all for young girls (and boys!!) coming to games. But the sport is much more than that, and should be treated as such. 

Ownership is conservative in their investments

That basic conservatism in operations goes up to the top. After two failed leagues, the current ownership group (and US Soccer as a controlling partner) have been understandably worried about over-leveraging their stakes. They’ve imposed a strict salary cap and severe limitations on what amenities can be provided to players. They’ve held back on imposing demands for higher standards, for fear that it will drive teams out of business.

None of this has been an obvious mistake. The NWSL, after all, has survived longer than the two previous leagues combined, and appears to be on an upward trajectory. The recent changes to compensation structures announced this offseason are the clearest sign that the league is ready to transition to its next, more free-wheeling stage. There’s also strong indications that the league will soon sever its direct connections with US Soccer, which should provide more opportunity for the owners to put their feet on the accelerator.

In this case, slow-and-steady may indeed have won the race.

But there’s also a risk of overlearning the right lessons, or of overcommitting to a good premise. There were good reasons to be cautious about overspending. But it’s also true that investment is the only way to kickstart exponential growth. The NWSL was almost certainly the best league in the world for overall quality of competition over the past decade. But big European teams are (finally) starting to truly invest in their women’s teams. And there has been significant bottom-up action as well. We’ve seen the English league fully professionalize in recent years. The Italian league is in that process right now. The Spanish players recently engaged in collective action to force better conditions in their league.

There are still plenty of reasons to regard the NWSL as the best league in the world. Its average attendances dwarf the other top leagues. It has far higher parity, with genuine quality from top to bottom. It boasts a solid array of international talent, combined with (by far) the deepest national pool of players. The US college soccer infrastructure continues to draw international talent, and funnels players into US clubs.

But there are also growing reasons to doubt each of those premises. Few of the true top internationals play US college soccer, and those who do generally prefer to take their talents to Europe after graduation. Parity is growing in other leagues as they improve their compensation models.

The recent compensation changes in the NWSL—especially the allocation spending—is an important step. It gives NWSL clubs the chance to genuinely compete for big name internationals. But we have yet to see any of this money actually used. Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for the international window to open, for expansion questions to get settled, for the draft to conclude. But it’s at least still an open question whether the teams will utilize the new opportunity to fight for global market share.

Caution is important. But there’s also a time and place for bold moves. There’s a risk that the league is missing out on its potential first-mover advantage by dithering.

The league has a deeply conservative communication strategy

Long-time fans of the NWSL are familiar with its many PR disasters. Games played on tiny baseball fields, teams folding immediately after the draft, horrible conditions for players, failed media endeavors, low-quality streams, preposterous Best XI lists, players collapsing from heatstroke, the FURT situation, and so forth. Some of this is inevitable. A small, developing league with a tiny front office infrastructure is simply not going to be able to anticipate and resolve issues before they arise.

So the question isn’t whether the league will make mistakes; it’s whether they respond to those mistakes productively. On that front, it’s mostly been a dismal failure. In case after case, they have opted for secrecy and obfuscation. Rather than acknowledging the issue, explaining what went wrong, and outlining plans for improvement, we generally get radio silence.

It’s a deeply conservative model of damage response, focused entirely on limiting exposure to risk, rather than seeking to build positive change. It follows the old hierarchical model of sports consumption, where teams supply material to passive fans. Which puts it very much at odds with the sort of collaborative/collective model of participation that many fans desire. 

Fans are conservative in their approach to the game

It’s not just the clubs that are conservative, though. It’s also the fans. For as much as women’s soccer fandom embraces progress at the social level, they’re resistant when it comes to the game of soccer itself.

Consider the uproar when teams experiment even mildly with tactics. Women’s soccer fandom is deeply skeptical of a back three, and heaven help us if teams try anything more innovative—even if these are extremely common and successful models for men’s teams around the world. Fans are often skeptical of innovations in league structure or team organization. There’s not much apparent appetite for advanced statistics. And so on.

None of this is particularly surprising. Sports fandom is notably conservative in almost every field. It took decades to drag baseball fans—kicking and screaming the whole way—to some limited acceptance of sabermetrics. Men’s soccer fans in Europe spent similar decades insisting that ‘the way we’ve always done it’ was the only viable way to ever do it. But something doesn’t have to be surprising to be lamentable.

Women’s soccer fans are far more comfortable with difference than most sports fans. They are familiar with the value of innovation in other areas. It would be nice to see that comfort reflected more often within the structures of soccer.

Conservatism in investments is often wise, but it can go too far

You can make a case for all of the conservative impulses I’ve outlined here. Women’s soccer has historically been a rocky investment, and the NWSL has succeeded in part because of its caution. It’s also relatively young. After decades, even centuries, of terminal neglect, the women’s game has none of the institutional learning that sustains things on the men’s side. If tactics are immature, if fandom is unaccustomed to demanding higher levels of innovation, there are good reasons for it.

But we shouldn’t take all of these things as given. One of the core strengths of the women’s game is its freedom from the stultifying traditions that enframe men’s sports. It’s time to start leaning more into that strength.

That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind and inviting new Dan Borislows to the league. It doesn’t mean spending millions to get Ada Hegerberg or Pernille Harder. But teams should be more willing to take reasonable risks. They should be thinking more about how to grow their brands tenfold, rather than worrying about how to maintain the status quo. And fans should be demanding innovation and improvement. 

This is a great thing, and it would be a huge shame to lose it to a bad gamble. But it would also be a shame to see it stagnate when it could soar. It’s time to start tipping the balance a bit more in the direction of exploration.