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How to win the (women’s) World Cup

United States’ Carli Lloyd (10) outjumps Japan’s Saki Kumagai to get her head on the ball during the first half of the FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on July 5. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Now that the Women’s World Cup is over, one might ask: Are countries with more gender equality more successful on the women’s soccer field?

It sure does look like it, if you take a quick glance at country rankings and tournament history. While the men’s game has historically been dominated by the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain  and Germany, the women’s game has been dominated by countries like the U.S., Norway, Sweden and – well, Germany. If you look more closely at the data, however, the reality is more nuanced. More important, it seems, are the right kind of norms and the right kind of resources allocated to the game.

That’s what we found when we looked at how the top 100 women’s national teams based on ELO scores, a popular measure of team strength based on game-by-game results, perform on several U.N. indicators that are frequently used to measure the concept of gender equality. Certainly the best women’s teams come from countries that are more equal than the worst women’s teams, as identified in the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index.

However, looking at other gender equality measures, such as what percentage of a nation’s legislature or workforce is female, we found no real relationship between gender equality and the quality of women’s national team — with no substantial gender-equality differences in the countries sponsoring the best and worst teams in the world.

Consider the example of the two best recent teams in the game. Japan’s legislature and labor force have fewer women than the average, with percentages of only 11 and 48, compared to the average of 23 and 54 among the 100 nations analyzed here. In 2013, the U.S. was also below average on gender equality statistics, with only 18 percent women in Congress and a middle-of-the-pack score on Gender Inequality Index. On the flip side, teams from undeniably equal societies like those of the Netherlands and Denmark, both of which — unlike Japan or the U.S. — have very strong soccer traditions on the men’s side, have historically underperformed in women’s competitions.

In short, being an equal society is not enough. What’s necessary as well is to allocate resources into women’s soccer and to promote it, ensuring that it is not merely seen as a male-oriented sport. In the U.K., where the love of football is perhaps greater than in the U.S., fewer than 6 percent of football club members are female, and soccer is only the 9th most popular sport among women. In the U.S., on the other hand, soccer is truly unisex, with 48 percent of registered youth soccer players being female.

Just as important is whether there are genuine opportunities for women to continue playing the game after they reach adulthood. That’s tied to women’s opportunities within a society, but needn’t be exactly parallel to that society’s broader level of gender equality. The fact that U.S. colleges have reasonably well-funded women’s soccer programs – thanks to Title IX – helps explain not just the success of the U.S. women’s team, but why the Canadian women’s team has done as well as it has. Of the 23 players listed on the Canadian national team’s roster, no less than 20 either played or are currently playing soccer at a U.S. college. Several star players of the surprise team of this tournament – England – also attended U.S. colleges.

But the women’s game faces some serious challenges, as we can see when we look at the opportunities – or lack thereof – for playing the game professionally.

Though professional women’s soccer leagues have been developed, they struggle to last. In the U.S., the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league folded after five years. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has so far played only two seasons; the league has only 9 teams and plays in very small stadiums. For instance, the Chicago Red Stars stadium has a capacity of only 3000. And though some games have been sold to sports broadcasters, most are available on YouTube. The contrast with the glitzy men’s equivalent, Major League Soccer, could not be starker. MLS, a league of 19 teams (and growing), had an average attendance of more than  19,000 fans per game in the 2014 season, with Seattle boasting an average of nearly 44,000 attendance.

Another issue is wages. Though one of the biggest starts of the game, American Alex Morgan, earns about $3 million a year, mostly from endorsements, the vast majority of professional women soccer players make less in a year than what an average Premier League player makes in a week. Sure, the U.K.’s Premier League is the best and wealthiest league in the world game. Still, the difference could not be starker, as a majority of NWSL players make  about $30,000 per season — while an average weekly salary in the men’s Premier League is more than $70,000.

Many argue that the pay is lower because the quality of play in the women’s game is poorer than in the men’s — a debatable contention. But even if that’s true, one could argue that investing more and ensuring a high-quality playing environment between major international tournaments would increase the women’s game prestige, marketability  and wages of the women’s game. Many national footballing federations – including those of the U.S., Canada, England, and Brazil – have this in mind and are contributing to their players’ wages.

To grow the women’s game, in short, nations need not only more gender equality, but more resources spent on women’s game and more women managing these resources, which is unlikely to happen without stronger representation at soccer governing bodies. Currently, the UEFA Executive Committee, which governs European soccer, has only one female member. The world soccer governing body, FIFA, didn’t elect its first women to the executive committee until 2013.

That shouldn’t be surprising, as FIFA is notoriously indifferent to the women’s game. It once  recommended  that it could attract viewers by having the players wear shorter shorts. FIFA even failed to mention the women’s World Cup in its own financial report. Women’s equality around the world would help the game progress, but more resources are just as important.

Dominik Stecula is a PhD student in political science at the University of British Columbia. Daniel Drugge holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia. Both are lifelong soccer fans.