They play on college football fields and training grounds in the middle of nowhere, in front of half-empty bleachers and a small YouTube audience, for peanuts because that’s the only way their league will be sustainable. They’re lucky now, though, because three years ago they didn’t even have a league, because yet another one had folded.
Such is the reality for many members of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), already the third iteration of a women’s professional soccer league in the United States.
With the U.S. preparing to face China Friday in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals, we should take a moment to reflect on the state of women’s soccer throughout America.
While members of the media continually claim that soccer’s “moment” in America has arrived, what they really mean is that men’s soccer’s “moment” has arrived. For as much as we may try to ignore it, there’s a huge disparity in interest between men’s and women’s soccer in the United States.
Not that the men’s game is all that popular here, either. But while MLS and the men’s World Cup have experienced a surge in popularity, many NWSL players have struggled to make a living, and the Women’s World Cup has often garnered meager TV ratings.
First, let’s examine the gap in popularity between the major American men’s and women’s professional leagues.
During the 2014 season, MLS’s average attendance was 19,151 fans, and every game was broadcast on television, at least locally. In contrast, the NWSL’s average attendance that year was only 4,137 and most matches were shown exclusively online.
This divide is also reflected in a comparison of salaries. The minimum yearly wage for an MLS player is $60,000. But the lowest annual pay for NWSL players is just $6,842. Even the NWSL’s maximum salary is only $37,800. That means MLS benchwarmers make more than NWSL stars.
The discrepancy even exists with regard to the men’s and women’s national teams. Last June at the men’s World Cup, the United States beat Ghana 2-1 in its first group play match. The victory garnered an American TV audience of more than 15.8 million viewers — and that’s not counting the thousands more who attended massive watch parties in major cities such as Chicago and New York.
This year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada has been a different story. On June 8, when the Americans defeated Australia 3-1 in their group play debut, a little more than 3.5 million people tuned in on TV in the U.S. That’s less than one-fourth of the draw for USA-Ghana.
The U.S. followed its victory over Australia with a tie against Sweden and a win versus Nigeria to finish at the top of Group D. The second-ranked Americans then defeated Colombia 2-0 on Monday in the Round of 16 to advance to face 16th-ranked China in the quarterfinals.
TV viewership of this year’s Women’s World Cup is so far much improved from the 2011 tournament. But beyond the U.S. matches, most games have received unimpressive ratings. This stands in stark contrast to last year’s men’s tournament, in which nearly every match was popular, no matter the teams.
For example, 9.5 million people watched a 2014 men's World Cup group stage match between Brazil and Croatia on TV in the U.S. Just 786,000 Americans tuned in to the Brazil-Costa Rica Women's World Cup group stage game earlier this month.
It’s a shame that much of America hasn’t bothered to tune in to this Women’s World Cup because the matches have been full of action, intrigue, and offense.
The group stage of the 2015 women’s tournament produced more goals per game (2.97) than the group stage of the 2014 men’s World Cup (2.83).
There have been stars, too. Germany’s Anja Mittag and Celia Sasic have each scored five goals in four matches. Despite her legal troubles, American goalkeeper Hope Solo has been invaluable for the United States, saving nine of the 10 shots she has faced.
There has been dominance, yes, but also upsets. First-ranked Germany has 19 goals in four matches as the team prepares to battle third-ranked France in the quarterfinals. But France already lost 2-0 to 28th-ranked Colombia during the group stage.
Friday, the Americans will face China in the Women’s World Cup for the first time since the 1999 final, when the U.S. prevailed on penalty kicks in a packed Rose Bowl. More than 17 million people watched that game on TV. It was a bright spot in a U.S. women’s soccer history that doesn’t include many of them.
That was also the last time the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup, an event that began in 1991. Team USA came tantalizingly close in the 2011 final, suffering a gut-wrenching defeat to Japan. Maybe on July 5 in Vancouver, the wait will end.
It’s probable that whatever happens over the next two weeks, the status quo in American soccer will endure. Most people will still be fair-weather soccer fans, occasionally following MLS, waving flags during the men’s World Cup, and largely ignoring the NWSL and the Women’s World Cup.
But those not watching this year's tournament are missing out on an incredibly exciting sporting event. Would a little change to the status quo really be so bad?
Photos: Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images (Rapinoe), Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images (Spain)