By Alex Perdikis
All it took was the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Japan. An estimated 25 million American viewers tuned in to watch the match, a giant leap in viewership from the 17 million who watched the men’s final the year before. Since the U.S. Women’s World Cup win, participation in girls’ soccer programs has surged.
The surge in popularity has not been without its growing pains however. Recent developments such as wage discrimination lawsuits and new programs to develop world-class players are working to challenge old assumptions while building on soccer’s growing popularity.
The Equal Pay Debate
The U.S. women’s national soccer team is more profitable, watched more and wins more than the men’s national team. In a lawsuit filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016, top female players, including Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, accused U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. Solo said, “The numbers speak for themselves.” The men’s team members, she added, “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”
The current debate is not the first time women’s soccer in the U.S. has struggled to gain respect. In the 1980s, there was no women’s soccer Olympic event and no Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in which to compete. That began to change after Title IX became law. The federal civil rights law prohibited the discrimination based on sex of any federally financed educational program or activity. Public school programs were mandated to give girls equal access and training programs for sporting activities, including soccer.
One of the first beneficiaries of Title IX was Mia Hamm. Hamm, along with teammates Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, dominated the first FIFA sponsored tournament for women, called “The M&M’s Cup.” But the U.S. public barely noticed.
The team finally caught the public eye at the 1996 Olympics. The women’s team earned less than the men and only earned a bonus if they won the gold. Playing on the largest stage of their lives, team members realized the opportunity they had to both gather a following and make a difference. After negotiations failed to reach a resolution, the team held a strike and refused to report for practice sessions. When the Olympic Committee failed in its attempt to bring in nonunion players, the team won the fight and went back to work.
Many believe the latest lawsuit, which has yet to be resolved, is simply the next step on the road to equality for women’s soccer and female sports in general.
Developing Tomorrow’s World-Class Players
U.S. Soccer announced early this year that it will launch a Girls’ Development Academy Program beginning in fall of 2017. The new Development Academy will impact thousands of young female athletes. Through specific curricula, training requirements, higher-quality games and added resources, the new program will focus on developing world-class players. The program’s core values include coaching and teaching athletes in a positive learning environment. Competition will range from local and regional matches to regional and national events.