The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team celebrates victory in the 2015 FIFA World Cup.
The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team celebrates victory in the 2015 FIFA World Cup (photo via US Soccer).

On March 8, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, claiming gender discrimination. This was only the most recent step in the team’s two-year old fight for more equitable resources, a fight that has inspired women athletes to push for change in other sports as well.

Reading the lawsuit, what struck me most was not evidence of disparate treatment of the women’s team compared to the men’s team, but the argument used to justify it. Specifically, U.S. Soccer argued that, “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.”

However, this argument doesn’t easily fit the data. The women’s team has performed far better in international competition than the men’s team, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. In recent years the women’s team has drawn sizeable crowds and generated substantial revenue for U.S. Soccer, with record television viewership numbers for the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. In other words, the market has valued and rewarded the women’s team despite their poorer training and travel conditions and lower compensation than the men’s team.

The persistence of appeals to the “market” despite the women’s team’s recent outperformance of the men’s team suggests that the issue isn’t really the market at all. It’s about the way that women’s sports are treated differently than men’s sports, with greater hesitation to invest on the part of media and corporations and greater skepticism that reward will follow.

What I identified as the “ideology of interest” in Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer is a one-sided logic that return drives investment but not the other way around. It is an idea we apply uniquely to women’s sports, denying them resources by pointing to the size of their fan bases or corresponding revenue generation as if there were no way to improve these.

Ultimately, this logic moves responsibility for unequal patterns of investment from decision-makers within sport, media, and corporate organizations onto sports fans. Inequality diffuses across the many thousands who could be paying customers but aren’t, presumably because they just aren’t interested in the product. Appeals to market forces not only fail to recognize the two-way street that is interest and investment, but they make inequality harder to see, and thus to challenge.

Men’s sports routinely receive media and corporate investment to boost their visibility and enhance interest. Consider Major League Soccer (MLS), which saw English language TV viewership increase between 2006-2014 while the league enjoyed a broadcast deal with ABC/ESPN worth $8 million annually. A decline in viewership from 2011 to 2013, and a small decrease in average game attendance between 2012 and 2013, did not present a “market reality” that prevented a new contract in 2014 with ESPN and Fox Sports worth $75 million in rights fees.

In contrast, the National Women’s Soccer League, the regular home of many U.S. women’s national team stars, currently has no national television exposure after the league recently parted ways with A&E. This is despite an increase from 4,271 to just over 6,000 fans per game on average since 2013 and an average of 106,000 viewers across 21 regular season games on Lifetime. This is a third of the audience for MLS games on a less prominent network not known for sports coverage, and for a league that has been around less than a third as many years.

Ultimately, audiences do not emerge from thin air. Yes, preferences exist and numbers matter, but investment plays a role in generating interest. We simply don’t give women’s sports the resources, exposure, or time to reach a sizeable audience—a process that has taken decades for most men’s professional sports leagues. And, as in the case of the women’s national team, we often discount the audiences that do exist, failing to reward them in the ways we do for men’s sports audiences.

Couching low investment in women athletes and the leagues they play for in terms of existing market returns contributes to perceptions that women’s sports are inferior to men’s. The expectation of little reward and hesitance to invest on this basis create the conditions in which this perception thrives. It’s an unforgiving cycle for women’s sports where low investment damages perception and hinders interest, which then makes future investments less likely.

Recently, cracks have appeared in this cycle. Adidas announced that it would compensate this year’s Women’s World Cup winners equally to their male counterparts. This is an important start. Giving women in sport equitable resources is not only the right thing to do, it’s a smart business decision given that 84% of self-identified sports fans report an interest in women’s sports, including 51% of male fans. Soccer is the most popular sport among women under 30, with 59% reporting that they “sometimes” or “regularly” watch on TV.

There is a market for women’s sports. Historically, women’s soccer has accessed it, but it has required a leap of faith. Upon moving 1999 Women’s World Cup games into the largest possible U.S. stadiums, the theme of the tournament became a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If we build it they will come.” As midfielder Julie Foudy explained, “Women’s athletics needs to know it can put on a big event and be successful. The hardest part is they don’t want to take the risk. We were fortunate enough that we had great backing to take the risk.”

The over 90,000 fans who watched the tournament final in the Rose Bowl that year remains the largest audience for a live women’s sporting event in the U.S. to date. In that case, the risk paid off. Following that example, I’ll revise the 1999 slogan for a new, 2019 Women’s World Cup era: “If we build it, there’s no guarantee they will come. But if we don’t build it, they can’t.”

It’s time to break the cycle. It’s time to invest in women’s soccer.

Rachel Allison is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University and author of Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer.