Women's soccer must strike now
Original post date: July 14, 1999
Now for the hard part. In all the euphoria about women's soccer, the operative question becomes: How does the sport maintain a place in the American spectator universe?
For all the screeching crowds of soccer moms and daughters -- and, yes, soccer dads and sons -- for all the incredible front-page publicity, for David Letterman and all the terrific television ratings ... still: Can women's soccer use these fabulous last few weeks to build something lasting as a spectator enterprise? I think it can, but the sport's admirers would be wise to put aside their press clippings and be coldly rational and pragmatic. And be tough DOBs. (And you go ahead and figure out what DOBs are.)
First of all, ask the question: Whatever happened to Cammi Granato?
Well, way back in 1998 Cammi Granato was the very attractive, very talented star of the very popular U.S. women's gold-medal ice hockey team. I mean no disrespect to Ms. Granato or her charming colleagues, but they have disappeared from our consciousness faster than Somalia or William Ginsberg.
We Americans are constantly -- but momentarily -- diverted by big-hype events, but we have so many monster sports leagues already in place, playing games day after day -- and that leaves very little regular room for interlopers. If women's soccer is to cram into a permanent spot at that table, it better move fast and it better be rude and pushy. Tough DOBs.
Okay, we know girls and women can play games on the field as proficiently as men, as entertaining as men. We also know that, with 120 minutes of tedious scorelessness, soccer women can play just as dreary a game as soccer men. But what we don't know is whether the women in suits can play sports business as well as the men. Never forget: As soon as women's basketball started to get big, the men of the NCAA came in and took it over, and all of a sudden other men started replacing women as coaches. And then, when the time was ripe, the men of the NBA muscled in on women's pro basketball.
Don't be lulled, soccer ladies. Don't let your male colleagues tell you this is a soccer success story. It is not. It is a women's soccer success story. Soccer men have been trying desperately for almost 40 years now to sell America on men's soccer as a spectator sport. They have succeeded barely, with huge financial losses. They must be terribly jealous right now.
But if women's soccer has only a moment to strike, it also has a perfect vacancy on the sports calendar waiting for it. It can be the women's version of football. In high school and college, football is the one men's sport that has no female analogue. Every other sport is gender-twinned: men's and women's basketball, volleyball, tennis, golf; men's baseball/women's softball. But football stands alone, the biggest spectator game, the biggest money-eater-upper -- which is a prime reason men's soccer never can have room to succeed. Women's soccer should strive to be the the female pair with football. It needs to promote this idea: Don't think of us as the female version of little ole rinky-dink men's soccer. Think of women's soccer as the glamorous All-America pair to powerful, hot-stuff men's football.
And, of course, women's soccer must also press for a professional league. NBC and Turner Sports are looking into the possibility of another, second-rate football league. For goodness sake, wouldn't a first-rate, one-and-only women's soccer league be a more valuable investment for serious networks than would be a football league for NFL rejects?
But move fast, ye women of soccer/football. Yes, little girls will keep on playing soccer. It's good exercise. But grown-up soccer women have a rare fine chance now to be popular in schools and paid in the pros and visible. Carve out that place in the spectator world now, or risk being that passing fad of the summer of '99, soon after which somebody named Mia Hamm joined somebody named Cammi Granato on the back shelf.
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer