How long before stars of Women's World Cup are invisible again?
Last Friday, as the headlines were dominated by the build-up to the Women's World Cup final, a story slipped between the cracks. FIFPro, the international union for soccer players, had arranged a press conference at a Vancouver hotel. What followed was a ground-breaking announcement: from now on, female players will become direct members of the organization. From now on, there will be an advisory board, featuring current female players, designed to help improve working conditions. From now on, there will be a designated service in place to support the thousands of women across the world still amateur in name but professional in practice.
It's certainly a success of this tournament. It's given a platform to the players and it's allowed them the opportunity to stand up and speak. For a long time, the women's game hasn't been able to take big strides. Instead, it's been about gradual development owing to the pitfalls that have pockmarked its recent history. For a long time, it's dangled precariously on the edge, in spite of successes. The scars run deep and its not that long ago when it was in crisis.
There was the rapid collapse of WPS (Women's Professional Soccer) – the league that ran in the U.S. for three seasons before an inevitable crash. Attendances were grim, some teams played on college football pitches. It was a strain. And even though many expected the feel-good vibes of the 2011 Women's World Cup to push interest in the league and to reignite people's interests in it, WPS was gone by the time the London Olympics happened the following summer.
And the thing to remember is that a Women's World Cup is a temporary event. After a month, it's gone and doesn't come back for another four years. In between, there are other temporary women's soccer events that we can get excited about – like the Olympics or the European Championship. But you can't build anything sustainable on something that is an ad hoc suspension of reality. The real success of a Women's World Cup can only be measured by its effect on the domestic game.
One of the biggest success stories of the tournament was the English team. They reached the semi-finals, suffered heartbreaking defeat but found redemption and left with bronze medals around their necks. There was an outpouring of positivity. These women were heroes, many said. These women were inspirational, many said. These women had changed the landscape, many said. Monday morning, they touched down at London's Heathrow Airport and were greeted by a small smattering of people who turned up to cheer and wave Union Jacks. It was nice. It was calm. It was dignified. But it was pretty low-key, despite the hyperbole that followed their World Cup performances.
Many of the players are back in action for their club teams next weekend. Fara Williams, who scored the winning goal in the 3rd/4th-place play-off against Germany, will be at Meadow Park next Sunday – a 1400-seater venue on the outskirts of the capital city. Her Liverpool side take on Arsenal and six members of the England World Cup squad will likely feature in the game. An adult ticket will cost nine dollars. But it remains to be seen just how many people will show up.
On August 1, the FA Women's Cup final will be played at the iconic Wembley Stadium for the very first time. It's a big deal. Last year, the game saw 15,000 attend. Now, with the added allure of a cultural landmark hosting it, the success of the England team at the World Cup and a live BBC broadcast too, it's a huge opportunity to make a firm statement of intent. But not just in the UK.
And here's what seems to be missing in the women's game: the joining of dots. Something like the FA Women's Cup final isn't just an opportunity for local exposure. The match-up pairs Chelsea with Notts County. For the Londoners, their key player is a South Korean, Ji So-Yun – who featured at the World Cup for her country. On the other side, there's the Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott, who is expected to feature. Yet, will anyone care? Will the stories permeate any international markets? Probably not. And the thing is, everyone loves a local hero. But let's face it. There may be some exposure for Yun back in her native Korea given her status as a popular sports figure but going by the lack of Women's World Cup marketing across Canada, Scott's involvement won't even merit a mention on local Winnipeg stations, despite her being from the city. And it's CFL season anyway. The local sports news will inevitably focus instead on the Blue Bombers and how they lost again.
Last week, FOX Sports announced they would show ten NWSL (National Women's Soccer League – the current professional women's soccer league in the US) matches during the current season, which culminates with the Championship Game on October 1. The first four games of the package will only be made available for streaming across mobile devices before the first big test arrives on August 9, when FS1 will carry live coverage of Portland Thorns' clash with Chicago Red Stars. With such intense and genuinely exhilarating passion shown by US soccer supporters across recent weeks, the viewing figures for the country's own women's league should make for interesting reading when released.
This Women's World Cup had its critics. For many, there wasn't enough quality on the pitch. There were too few entertaining, thrilling encounters and too many dull, listless non-events. It went on too long. The expansion was an issue. It dragged. There was little or no buzz in certain host cities. All valid points. But, at this Women's World Cup, female athletes were under a consistent spotlight. Television audiences started high and continued to get bigger. This wasn't just about tuning into the high-profile event of a World Cup final. There was a remarkable interest in unremarkable group games. In a perverse way, the awful moments – Laura Bassett's own goal, Claire Lavogez's uncontrollable tears after her missed penalty in the quarter-finals against Germany, got people talking and invested in all of this. It got them to care about all of this.
But when we talk about legacy, it's merely a word that sounds good. Because World Cups are a sure thing. They happen so infrequently that they'll always be an event. It's big, it's international, it's accessible. But the real test of how successful this tournament has been will occur when all the players get home, the fanfare dies down and they turn out for their club teams again. How long before they're invisible again? When the spotlight is switched off, how long will they stand in the dark? And without the World Cup, will people care about them in the same way anymore?