In women’s sports, unity of fans doesn’t stick around

Columnist July 14, 2011

Little girls all over America are pulling on their shin guards and cleats this week and spending long, summer days on the grass trying over and over again to head the soccer ball — bam! — just like Abby Wambach.

And if the astounding U.S. women take us on another whirlwind, white-knuckle ride and win the World Cup on Sunday, the soccer girls may be inspired to try out for a travel team this fall. And if they excel, they’ll play in high school and maybe even college.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And then, what?

Oh, yeah. We’ve been here before.

Last time around, when the 1999 women’s soccer team energized the sport and the nation, we had some optimism surrounding female professional sports teams. After all, 90,000 people filled the Rose Bowl to watch their victory. Afterward, thousands of girls all over the Washington area and the country signed up to emulate their idols.

Besides proving they were the best players in the world, Mia Hamm smiled that electric grin, Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey and we thought that this had to be it. This had to be the moment when Americans learned that a female team can electrify and unify fans.

“There was a lot of talk then that this could be the spark that could ignite women’s sports,” said Mike Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California who has studied women’s sports.

Mia Hamm joined the Washington Freedom in 2001, the local entry into the Women’s United Soccer Association. The team was based in Germantown and snapped up Abby Wambach in 2002.

And then, the next year, the whole professional league folded.

The league and the Washington Freedom came back as the Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2009. They played great, but the Washington team was sold and moved to Boca Raton this year.

Turns out, girls and women make great players. But fans? Not so much.

Interest and coverage of women’s teams in 1999 “really tracked up, but then it dropped off and then plummeted,” Messner said. “It didn’t turn the tide then.

It’s never been about talent, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. It’s about having a good business model: finding sponsors and winning the support of fans. It took six tries to get the National Football League to finally work, she reminded me.

It’s the story of women’s professional sports across the spectrum. Every time we have a women’s team do something astounding, we all wonder if this will be it, the tipping point that will make the Mystics as popular as the Wizards.

But even with a deal that gets you two pizzas and four tickets to see players do amazing things on the court for $44, a Mystics game isn’t always the first choice for fans.

Why?

Often, people are still freaked when they see women playing contact team sports and playing them well. It further “blurs that line” between genders, Messner said. And that unnerves some fans.

It’s so much easier for some folks to cheer on women in cute skirts playing tennis (even if they look as intimidating as Serena Williams) or ice skating outfits or swimsuits.

Last year, I took my two boys to see the D.C. Divas, the women’s professional football team here. The players crashed and smashed. Trigger McNair broke a leg in the first half. Blood, guts, bone-crushing and great, complicated plays.

I asked my boys if they noticed something different about the team. They didn’t. And they argued with me for 20 minutes when I told them the players were women.

“Girls don’t do that,” one of my sons said. They didn’t believe me until they saw them coming off the field, helmets off, hair flowing, waving to their kids in the stands.

That crazy feeling you get when you see great sports — fist-pumping, jumping, screaming, re-enacting the plays — will happen no matter who it is that’s playing.

I love the proof of that in a home video posted on YouTube this week of two goofy dudes, Joey and Pualie (although I’m guessing it’s really Paulie), watching Abby Wambach slam it in.

They go absolutely wild watching the play, jumping up and down, trying to recreate the amazing goal in their own living room while screaming with glee.

See, guys? This kind of thrill can be yours every week at a local sports venue. You’ll probably get a pizza along with your tickets, too.

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