The National Women’s Soccer League begins its fifth season this week with markers of success that eluded the two failed U.S. women’s professional soccer leagues that predated it. Perhaps first and foremost is the league’s longevity. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-2003) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2012) folded after three seasons. With no sign of impending failure, the beginning of a fifth season for the NWSL bodes well for this league’s ability to break into the national sporting imagination. Currently, when I ask the undergraduates I teach to name a women’s pro sports league, they are only able to recall the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). This could change in the future, but only with a league that lasts long enough to build a national profile.
In fact, the NWSL has expanded since its 2013 kickoff, adding teams such as the Houston Dash and Orlando Pride, and will feature 10 teams during the 2017 season. Though uneven and still lower than WNBA and Major League Soccer (MLS) figures, average attendance has risen. The Portland Thorns, perhaps the league’s best-known team, routinely draw crowds into the tens of thousands and turned a profit almost immediately upon joining the league.
In February, the NWSL announced a three-year partnership with the television network Lifetime. As a new sponsor, Lifetime will air an NWSL game each weekend during the season. This partnership is an enormous boon for a league that, like women’s sports more broadly, struggles to garner mainstream mass media attention outside of major international tournaments. In addition, NWSL Media is a newly formed, joint creation of Lifetime and the NWSL. The first commercial advertisements produced by this partnership are notable for their quality production values and focus on the athletic talent of the players.
Beyond these commercial and corporate successes, the U.S. Women’s National Team recently scored a goal for gender equity when it signed a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer. This five-year deal closes some (but not all) of the gap between men and women national team players in compensation and benefits. It also guarantees that U.S. Soccer will continue to provide financial support for the NWSL, further solidifying the status of this still-fledgling league. The NWSL recently announced an increase of minimum NWSL salaries to $15,000, up from $7,200 in 2016.
From the outside looking in, then, the NWSL looks to be on solid ground, both commercial and social victories characteristic of its first few seasons. Yet this “success” depends entirely on the league’s increased mirroring of men’s professional sports leagues in their practices, goals, and outcomes. Men and men’s sports remain the benchmarks against which the league is inevitably compared. As much sociological research has shown, however, the values that organize men’s professional sports, such as competitiveness, aggression, and rampant commercialization, have very real social and physical downsides. What does it mean for women’s professional soccer to adopt these values as their primary understanding of success?
For one, an all-consuming focus on competition and winning have increasingly permeated all levels of girls’ and women’s soccer down to the lowest levels of youth participation. As sociologist Rick Eckstein argues in his compelling new book on girls sports, a “winning-at-all-costs” mentality pressures girls to specialize early and totally, denying the benefits of sports participation to girls who prefer to play for fun or who want to pursue multiple sports. The development of a competitive, private pipeline in girls’ soccer leading into the college game also funnels out those who cannot pay to stay in it, particularly girls of color and girls from poor or working class families. While the racial and ethnic diversity of women’s soccer has improved in recent years, greater diversity in the future will require attention to the accessibility of youth soccer. The prioritization of competitive play has also generated high and growing rates of injury. For example, one recent study found that sports-playing girls were more likely to experience a concussion than boys, owing in large part to high rates of concussion in girls’ soccer.
In addition, unmitigated commercialization and corporatization drive a “star” system that sees the rewards of “success” distributed unevenly. Only a few players on the Women’s National Team have reaped the benefits of greater corporate investment, particularly after the team’s win in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Their celebrity status, and the endorsements that accompany it, are not shared by rank-and-file NWSL players who often need to work second jobs while in season. It is also not accidental that the players who have these opportunities are disproportionately white, heterosexual, and feminine, indicative of a long lingering homophobia in women’s sport. And when these best-known players in the country go abroad to play, as forwards Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn have done recently, these moves are feared to hurt attendance by depriving NWSL teams of the only players with widespread name recognition.
Finally, as in women’s college sports, the NWSL is owned and operated almost entirely by men. Research has shown that as women’s college sports gained in size, prestige, and resources post-Title IX, men increasingly wanted and obtained jobs in women’s sports. Persistent beliefs in men’s greater competence in sports than women contributed to shifting employment patterns. As a result, the percent of college women’s teams coached by women has dropped from 90 to 40 percent since 1972. Although it is too early to know definitively, similar dynamics may be operating in women’s soccer; for 2017, only 1 of 10 head coaches in the NWSL is a woman.
The NWSL is one of the few fully professional women’s team sports leagues in the United States. As such, it is a rare and important case study for understanding gender relations and gender (in)equality in elite sport. As the league gains visibility and accrues additional resources, it would do well to simultaneously ask itself what, exactly, success looks like, and what the consequences may be of reaching it.
Rachel Allison is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. Her research examines the gender, racial, and class politics of U.S. women’s professional soccer. A book on women’s soccer is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.