Sam Mellinger

Women’s soccer is a viable and growing professional sport

Abby Wambach held a flag after the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in the Women’s World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Abby Wambach held a flag after the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in the Women’s World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Associated Press

The simplest thing to write about women’s soccer is that it had its moment and is now going back into the ground, not unlike a gopher. In the beginning, that’s the kind of column this was going to be.

We planned it to run this weekend, in part because a week away from the United States winning the Women’s World Cup seemed like enough time for reality to reappear. Twenty-five million people watched the national team last weekend, which is more than have watched any regular-season or playoff game in the last year of major-league baseball, the NBA or NHL.

But only 2,525 showed up to watch FC Kansas City in Boston on Thursday.

So the case against professional women’s soccer as anything more than a once-every-four-years curiosity is easy to make, and this could still be that kind of column, you know. There’s enough of a history to make that point, and enough people predisposed to disliking or ignoring women’s sports to make it popular.

It’s just that, well, that view is short-sighted, ignores strong trends and is largely built on the world today being the world tomorrow.

Women’s sports are changing. They’ve long been growing, but this is easy to dismiss when the wrong standards or unrealistic demands are applied.

No, women’s sports are not as popular as men’s sports. Yes, the women who won the World Cup are going from global stardom last weekend to a ticker-tape parade in New York on Friday to a league in which the average salary is $15,000 next week.

But the world in which these players are living is already very different from the one of the generation before. Little girls and boys will grow up in a very different world.

The changes are coming fast, in other words, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see women’s soccer making for a viable, growing and profitable professional sport.

You just need an open mind, reasonable standards and the information. At least, that’s what happened with me. That’s why this column is much different from the one I thought I’d write.

Because it’s not about the hysteria of this last week. It’s about the more reasoned, level-headed planning and inevitable shifts behind it. The positive signs are subtle but solid, going far beyond the World Cup bump helping FC Kansas City sell out its next game in record time.

“They’re doing, finally, a lot of what MLS did to get going,” says Peter Wilt, an executive with a previous failed attempt at a professional women’s soccer league.

“There is this myth around women’s sports that people don’t watch, which more people are starting to see is not true,” says Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of women’s studies at Purdue.

“The timing is really, really, (on) right now,” says Carol Stiff, an ESPN executive and effective gatekeeper for the growth of professional women’s sports.

The reasons to doubt are here on a weekday at FC Kansas City’s practice. The Blues are the defending champions of the National Women’s Soccer League, the country’s third pro soccer league for women to form since 1999.

Each of the first two folded after three years.

By all accounts, FC Kansas City is a league power. Not just as the champs, but in dominating the postseason awards and featuring four national-team players — including Becky Sauerbrunn, perhaps the world’s best defender, and Lauren Holiday, who scored the third goal against Japan.

Those women aren’t here at this practice, of course, busy with a nationwide publicity tour promoting their sport, and you can see why they’re hard at work. Their teammates here are practicing on artificial turf — the same surface many professional men refuse to practice on — because they are allowed only one day a week on natural grass.

Most of the women on this team need second jobs to live. One left the team last year to take a middle-school teaching job.

“We’re not where we should be,” says Huw Williams, director of soccer operations for FC Kansas City. “But we’re knocking on the door. We’re getting closer.”

Women’s soccer is, finally, at a place where there’s more to be taken on the last part of that quote than the first.

The reasons are a combination of scale, publicity, self-awareness and timing. Part of what has doomed previous attempts at women’s soccer is an ambition unrestrained by reason that pushed two leagues beyond the boundaries of sound business.

The first league assumed it could support more than it really could, so the second league cut team operating budgets down to $3 million or less. NWSL teams are operating on budgets of around $1 million, and the soccer federations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico are covering salaries for many national team players. As a professional product, women’s soccer has long been in effective poverty. The difference now is they have help.

If past failures were at least in part about women’s soccer living beyond its means, this version is about restrained spending. More Dave Ramsey, less Floyd Mayweather.

“We’re trying to run it like any other business,” says Jeff Plush, the league commissioner. “Revenues have to grow. Expenses will grow over time, but they’re going to grow in a prudent and sustainable way.”

Teammates are rooming together, often in apartments, or living with host families. The league just announced a contract with Fox, but only six games will be broadcast on TV — and even those will be on Fox Sports 1.

Last year, Alex Morgan — perhaps the sport’s most recognizable star — openly complained when she and the Portland Thorns played an NWSL semifinal at UMKC. It was a hot day, and the turf field there measured 130 degrees. Players were dipping their cleats in ice water at halftime.

These are all indignities for professional sports, at least on some level, but two cycles of failed leagues have given the NWSL a humility and self-awareness that are helping keep the league going.

“We accept those things because the goal is to make this work,” says Yael Averbuch, a midfielder for FC Kansas City. “It took years and years for MLS to be what it is now.”

It’s a smart point, and one that’s often missed. Professional sports leagues struggle, particularly in the beginning. The NBA Finals were on tape delay into the 1980s, part of why that league has been so steady with its support of the WNBA (which, by the way, generally gets higher TV ratings than MLS).

There is a growing feeling within the sports and television industries that the traditionally lower performance of women’s broadcasts has more to do with lighter production quality, worse promotion and sparser coverage than the product on the field or court.

So it’s worth noting that the women’s College World Series averaged almost 440,000 more viewers than the men’s version this summer. Both events aired on ESPN, on the same days of the week, three weeks apart.

The progress is there. You just have to know where to look, and come with realistic expectations. Each of the previous women’s leagues folded after three seasons of wild spending and bizarre scandals.

Next year will be the NWSL’s fourth. It has been, in Averbuch’s words, “low drama.” The league may even be expanding.

Carol Stiff saw the world of women’s sports change last weekend in Vancouver — and this was the day before the record audience for the World Cup final.

She was at a summit, one of these events where leaders and executives get together to share ideas. A guy from TSN — Canada’s version of ESPN, basically — was on stage. He was going through slides, expressing pleasant shock at the amount of attention and viewership being generated — and, remember, this was before the final.

“Welcome to the club,” Stiff thought to herself.

Stiff lives in the world that will largely determine whether women’s soccer is viable as a professional sports product. She is vice president of multimedia strategy and integration at ESPN, which is continuing to expand its coverage and interest in women’s sports.

The network has more than 7,500 hours of programming for women’s sports planned this year, up 6 percent from last year, and 14 percent from 2013. ESPNW, the parent company’s site for women’s coverage, is growing its profile. The network has taken the WNBA from Lifetime Television to prime-time slots on ESPN and is considering spots on ABC.

“We’re in this for the long run here,” Stiff says. “We feel this is underserved, and there’s a lot of growth available to work on.”

This is part of the critical mass that is building in support of women’s sports. The progress is often missed by straight-up comparisons to men’s sports, but considering cultural factors and timing, this is like comparing a start-up to Facebook. The start-up will probably never be Facebook, which is neither the point or the goal. They are two different products.

The same is true here. The men’s World Cup is a rowdy, raucous, rave of a party. The Women’s World Cup is something you’d feel comfortable taking your 10-year-old daughter to. Both sold out and are valuable TV products.

Title IX turned 43 years old last month. That’s long enough to see massive improvements to the opportunities available for American girls and women, but not long enough for an even comparison to men, particularly on the professional level.

Even so, women’s soccer is showing obvious signs. The progress of American women in international competition is proof that grassroots support works, as is the success of women’s soccer in France, England and Australia. The top federations in all three countries gave clear directives to grow the women’s game, and all three have seen massive returns on relatively small investments.

A similar thing is happening for professional women’s sports here. Stars like Morgan can make seven figures. They are not only in commercials, but often featured in uniform, the emphasis on strength rather than beauty, on competition rather than glamor.

The generation of Michelle Akers’ generation were the pioneers. Mia Hamm’s were like Title IX baby boomers. The women now are just jocks, and increasingly, being treated as such.

The recent push for change to gay rights is one more indicator that America is ready for professional women’s sports in a way that wasn’t true in the past. It used to be hard for women, particularly in team sports, to come out.

Now, Megan Rapinoe says coming out just before the last Olympics allowed her to play her best soccer. Abby Wambach kisses her wife after the World Cup final, and the moment is largely viewed as beautiful, not watershed.

The last time anyone but a New York sports team got a ticker-tape parade there was 1999, and that was for John Glenn and the astronauts of Discovery. The last time non-local athletes received the honor was 1984, for the Olympians.

Much of the appeal for women’s soccer at this moment is wrapped in nationalism. Those women are much easier to find on TV, and much easier to get behind, when they’re on Team USA.

But there is an enormous gap between the attention of last weekend behind constant, and the point at which women’s soccer can make for a viable sports product and be part of an inevitable change to what the sports landscape will look like in the future.

As more entities like the NBA, ESPN, or the soccer federations of various countries invest in women’s sports, that change will only come sooner.

“This is dear to our hearts,” Stiff says. “We’re going to continue to find opportunities to expand and grow women’s sports.”

Maybe you’re like me and some of this changed your mind. Maybe not. That’s fine too, of course. But before reporting this column, my biggest mistake was in expectations. In standards.

I was thinking about a group of women being the biggest thing in world sports one weekend, and largely forgotten the next. I saw that as an undeniable disappointment, and the gap between men’s sports far too wide to close.

But that’s a false premise. College basketball players do not need to be as good as NBA players to make an interesting product, and women’s sports do not need to match men’s sports to be a success. Much of the past pro leagues’ failures have been wrapped up in that unrealistic expectation — too much spending, and too quickly.

The cultural part of this is critical, too. Little girls are growing up now as part of the first generation raised by parents who also grew up under Title IX. Those things matter.

So do realistic expectations. One of the most well-known case studies in marketing classes is of light beer. For years, light beer was dismissed. Seen as a woman’s beer. That changed when beer companies hired football players to promote it as less filling. No longer was the focus on what light beer lacked, but on what it provided. The expectations changed.

That’s the kind of thing that women’s soccer needs. Soccer is more popular in America than ever before. Advertisers can use stars already familiar to the public to sell the product. Expectations seem to have shifted, to a point where teams can survive on small budgets while the infrastructure of awareness and publicity is built.

All of the trends are here. They’ve been here. Now, the culture and business factors are finally here, too.

You don’t have to be interested in women’s soccer to see that it is growing. You just have to acknowledge the signs, and understand that the world is changing.

As it turns out, the column I originally planned would’ve been a much better fit five or 10 years ago.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to