On Sunday afternoon, at a sold-out stadium in Frankfurt, the U.S. soccer team will attempt to defeat Japan for the Women’s World Cup championship. On Monday, and in the days, weeks and months to follow, the American bunch will confront a more imposing endeavor: convincing the public that women’s soccer has more to offer than international thrills.
With dramatic victories against Brazil and France in the past two matches, the players reintroduced the sport to casual sports fans, won the hearts of millions of Americans and likely will inspire a new generation of young players. But will it be enough to financially nourish a struggling pro league?
All but one player on the U.S. roster competes in Women’s Professional Soccer, a third-year circuit operating with just six clubs, all in the eastern United States. Attendance this season has surpassed 4,000 in just five of 34 matches.
Four teams folded in the first two years and the Washington Freedom, which for a decade was the flagship for post-college playing opportunities, was sold last fall and moved to South Florida. The new owner re-branded the team with the name of his Internet phone service and, despite a roster that includes U.S. veterans Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, has yet to draw 1,500 fans to a game.
Ultimately, WPS will need to stand on its own, but the national team’s success has provided opportunity to attract new fans to the league.
“Anytime you try to convert the enthusiasm from a World Cup to a weekly product, it’s a challenge for any sport, any gender,” said ESPN commentator Julie Foudy, who was part of the first generation of U.S. women’s stars, beginning in the early 1990s.
“When you create personalities and stars like this World Cup is, there’s a following. They’ll have a larger fan base now to draw from.”
The U.S. team’s success this summer will help bolster youth development, said Clyde Watson, a former Freedom assistant and longtime youth coach.
“There is no doubt that in a month there is going to be all sorts of young girls [at tryouts] that sees themselves as the next Marta [the Brazilian superstar], next Hope and next Abby. That’s the natural fallout,” Watson said.
According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, as of 2010 the United States had twice as many registered female soccer players as any other country. Female players make up about 35 percent of the 4.3 million players registered by the USSF. In 2009-10, women’s college soccer trailed only baseball, football, and men’s and women’s outdoor track and field in terms of number of NCAA participants.
Youth soccer participation among girls received a boost from the 1999 World Cup, the last won by the United States. According to a 2003 report, the number of girls playing youth soccer grew 12.5 percent from 1998 to 2002, reaching 8.3 million players.
But Watson says that maintaining a viable professional league should be the ultimate goal, to give the sport greater visibility.
“My concern is more the pro level,” Watson said. “Can we parlay these successes into sustaining professional soccer? That’s the bigger question and bigger issue.”
The United States’ success in 1999 — with Brandi Chastain’s memorable goal celebration in the World Cup final seared into viewers’ minds — ultimately was a missed opportunity.
Architects of women’s pro soccer waited too long to tap into the enthusiasm created by the 1999 team, which played in front of sellout crowds throughout the tournament and attracted 90,000 spectators and 18 million television viewers for the final against China at the Rose Bowl.
The professional league that eventually was started, the Women’s United Soccer Association, didn’t launch for another two years, and although top players from the U.S. squad and around the world signed up, the league burned through its five-year, $40 million budget in the first season and folded after three years.
Although WPS is in a tenuous state as well, players and industry leaders are hopeful the success of the Women’s World Cup team will stimulate growth. This is, after all, the first time a women’s pro league has been operational during an international tournament. (No league existed when the national team won its other major titles: the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, and 1996, 2004 and 2008 Olympics.)
“I’ve seen this occur every four years, where there’s a high point and then it trickles off,” said former Freedom president Mark Washo, managing partner of Playbook Management Inc., a sports and entertainment firm that works with soccer teams and leagues. “If we win Sunday, people will want to see these players. But can each market capture it and sustain it? That’s the big question.”
To this point, the perception of women’s soccer has been similar to most other Olympic sports: quadrennial events that fall off the radar in the years in between.
“I don’t know how long this excitement will last. Sometimes I feel there is 15 minutes of fame and the window closes fast,” said Philadelphia Independence midfielder Joanna Lohman, a Springbrook High graduate whose primary occupation is vice president of a commercial real estate firm in Washington.
“I watched Michael Phelps swim in the Olympics, but I wouldn’t go to a swim meet. People will watch the [Women’s] World Cup and the Olympics, but it will be interesting to see if they’ll come out week after week.”
They are coming out to restaurants and bars for Sunday’s game. In Woodbridge, more than 150 fans are planning to get together at Brittany’s Restaurant and Sports Bar to cheer on the U.S. team and, in particular, defender Ali Krieger, a Forest Park High graduate who learned the sport in the Prince William Soccer Inc. youth club.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a soccer fan, but I’d definitely watch more women’s sports because [the Women’s World Cup] is as exciting to me as the men’s,” said Jim Taplett, 57, from Falls Church, who watched the U.S. semifinal victory over France on Wednesday afternoon at Laughing Man Tavern in Washington.
Another observer there, Arlington’s James Robinson, 24, said he would always follow the national team in the Olympics or World Cup but probably wouldn’t watch WPS or MLS, the U.S. men’s pro league. “The level of competition in American pro leagues is not the same,” he said.
Staff writer Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.