Mark Zeigler: Women's soccer's journey from promise of 1999 to reality of 2019The San Diego Union-Tribune — By Mark Zeigler The San Diego Union-Tribune
June 11-- The opening game of the 1999 Women's World Cup between the United States and Denmark was at the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home to a pair of NFL teams. There was a massive traffic jam on the Jersey Turnpike that afternoon.
I know. I was stuck in it, wondering how bad the accident was ahead and whether we'd miss kickoff.
Except there was no five-car pile-up. The U.S. team's bus was caught in it, too, with players able to look out the elevated windows and see the cause.
The crowd that day was 78,972, then the largest in U.S. history to watch an all-women's sporting event. The seminal moment for me came five days later in Chicago, where the U.S. women faced Nigeria in their next group game, when I woke up in my hotel room on Michigan Avenue and peeled back the curtains.
One of the country's most iconic strips of pavement was filled with girls in pony tails and No. 9 Mia Hamm jerseys. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, mothers and daughters, from urban metropolises and map dots with water towers, from Iowa and Indiana and Illinois, from Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan. Just took over the place.
Two weeks later, we were in Pasadena, Calif., for the final against China. The game drew 90,185 at the Rose Bowl, and President Clinton's motorcade made the traffic even worse. The TV audience peaked at 40 million for the dramatic shootout and the most famous sports bra in history.
That was 20 years ago.
The 2019 Women's World Cup began Friday in France. The defending champion Yanks opened the 24-team tournament Tuesday with a dominating 13-0 win over Thailand in the northern city of Reims.
You'd be surprised how many people, soccer fans included, don't know that.
So what happened?
Perspective is always distorted by the lens it is viewed through, and so it goes with women's soccer. The game is more popular in the United States than it was before the '99 WWC started, and less popular than when it ended.
It is within this incongruity, within this perplexing reality, that the sport plods along two decades later. To borrow an analogy from the "other" football, it outkicked its coverage.
The following spring, hoping to capitalize on the tournament's momentum, the Women's United Soccer Association launched in eight cities, San Diego among them, with $40 million in seed money plus another $24 million for stadium renovations.
They blew through that in the first season and folded after three, a victim of an ambitious business plan that overpaid players and confused America's hunger for big events with its appetite for women's sports. The pro league's collapse came on the eve of the 2003 Women's World Cup and cast a pall over a tournament that the U.S. agreed to host at the last moment, hoping to recapture the spark of '99, after the SARS epidemic forced it out of China.
It was held in September and early October instead of June's relatively barren sports calendar, conflicting with high school, college and pro football, in the midst of baseball pennant races. Crowds and TV ratings were smaller. The U.S. crashed out in the semifinals against Germany in Portland in, symbolically, a minor-league baseball stadium.
It took until 2009 to launch Women's Professional Soccer, a more modest version of the WUSA with smaller salaries and lower expectations. It, too, lasted three years.
In its ashes came the NWSL, downsized even more and subsidized by U.S. Soccer. Salaries range from $16,538 to $46,200, roughly half what they were in the WUSA. In February, the A&E cable network cancelled its broadcast agreement with the league a year early, relegating games to web streams.
There were other issues. U.S. Soccer, run almost exclusively by males resentful of the women's sudden fame and demands in labor negotiations, under-promoted them for years, seemingly out of spite. And the face of the next generation of players went from endearing, engaging personalities like Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Briana Scurry to ... Hope Solo.
The outspoken goalkeeper ripped the coach in postgame interviews for benching her at the 2007 World Cup; got in a Twitter battle with Chastain at the 2012 Olympics; was charged with domestic violence in 2014 (later dismissed); offended the nation of Brazil before the 2016 Olympics by posting a picture of herself in a beekeeper's helmet amid the Zika mosquito scare; then called Sweden "a bunch of cowards" after it eliminated the Americans in a quarterfinal shootout following a 0-0 tie.
It also didn't help that they weren't winning silverware like their golden predecessors, failing to claim any of the next three World Cups despite being prohibitive favorites and having, according to some surveys, more female soccer players than the rest of the planet combined along with the thousands of Title IX-mandated college sports scholarships.
But it wasn't all their fault. The rest of the planet simply wasn't ready-socially, culturally, financially-to embrace the sport at the levels from that glorious summer of '99.
Five years later, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter was suggesting as a way to boost the appeal of the women's game that "they could, for example, have tighter shorts." It wasn't until last October that the sport's world governing body adopted a formal "global strategy" toward promoting women's soccer, and even then the total payout to the 24 participating teams this June ($30 million) is less than what France got as men's World Cup champion last year ($38 million).
Jamaica qualified and is in France ... with a volunteer coaching staff. Norway is there, too ... without Ada Hegerberg, the reigning Ballon d'Or as the world's best female player who is protesting her federation's treatment of the women's team compared to the men. Denmark, runner-up in the 2017 European Championships, isn't in France ... after forfeiting a key World Cup qualifier amid a pay dispute.
Still, there are stalks popping through the permafrost. Crowds have been promising in France, and TV ratings for non-U.S. games are up slightly here. England's opening victory against Scotland attracted 4.6 million viewers on BBC, a record for women's soccer and nine times what's watching England in the Cricket World Cup. Australia's opener, a 2-1 loss against Italy, got higher ratings Down Under than cricket and rugby.
This is the first U.S. team without a member of the '99 roster, but the links to the past remain. Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath were in the stands that day at Giants Stadium. Ali Krieger was at the quarterfinal against Germany outside Washington, D.C. Christen Press was an impressionable 10-year-old at the Rose Bowl when Chastain ripped off her jersey after bulging the net with the clinching penalty kick.
The mission statement of tournament's domestic organizers was "to stage a BREAKTHROUGH event for women's sports, AND TO INSPIRE the next generation of female athletes." Check, and check.
"I'm impatient," Foudy told the Los Angeles Times recently when asked about the sport's growth since, "and want to see that happen faster than it's happening."
But it's happening, is the point. Slowly, in fits and starts, somewhere between glacial and lava at times, but a lack of swift progress shouldn't be confused with a lack of progress. Permafrost, if heated enough, eventually melts.
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