There was a predictable uproar on Twitter this week when Andy Benoit, an NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, stated that “Women’s sport in general [is] not worth watching.”
Judging from the reaction, you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire American sports social media world had been waiting in a state of high anticipation for someone, anyone, with a degree of prominence to say something sexist about the Women’s World Cup.
The usual ritual followed – mass condemnation, the deleting of the offending tweet and the obligatory apology from the offender.
Frankly, it was all a bit ridiculous.
Count me amongst those who couldn’t care less whether a male NFL reporter likes women’s soccer or not.
I’ve commented before how some in American soccer seem to view the growth of the sport as almost a liberal political project that includes converting (or perhaps just silencing?) the ‘heathens’ who have yet to be won over by the global game.
But I never saw the need for outrage when, every now and then, an American sports writer of a certain generation, pens a ‘soccer is boring and/or unAmerican’ column.
My feeling when I read those kind of columns isn’t outrage – it is more pity.
Soccer is one of the great sports, full of drama and excitement, with endless storylines, fascinating tactics and moments of individual genius. If, through accident of birth, conservatism or cultural deprivation, you haven’t had the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the game – it’s your loss.
And it really doesn’t matter. Soccer’s growth in North America isn’t dependent on ‘converting’ middle-aged newspaper columnists. The kids growing up playing the game, wearing Barcelona jerseys, playing FIFA video games and watching the game on television are the constituency that are changing the sporting landscape in America.
And I feel the same way about people who publicly declare their antipathy for women’s soccer (and women’s sport in general) – it’s your problem and you don’t know what you are missing.
There is one important caveat I should add here. If the tweet had come from an editor of a newspaper or a senior figure at a television network, someone in power, it would be a different matter. It is worth fighting over fair coverage of women’s sport in the media and we are still a long way from having women’s sport given the coverage it deserves in the media – preferably written by women.
But I don’t see the need to ‘convert’ Andy Benoit or for that matter any other male to the appeal of women’s soccer and women’s sport.
If men enjoy women’s sport – great. If they don’t, it shouldn’t be a major cause for concern. The sport doesn’t need men to thrive and it doesn’t need a male seal of approval to grow in popularity.
Women make up 50 percent of the world’s population and there is enormous potential for women’s sport to tap into that market and attract female fans who, may or may not, be fans of male versions of the sport.
Judging by the crowds in Canada at the Women’s World Cup, the sport is doing a pretty good job at attracting both sexes to come out to stadiums and it is particularly encouraging to see entire families present.
If the sports marketing companies are paying attention to this tournament, they will surely see the tremendous potential women’s soccer has to reach demographics not normally reached by male sport.
But the most encouraging aspect of all in this past few weeks has been the fact that the women’s game is getting better and better to watch.
It wasn’t all male chauvinism that lay behind the lack of interest of many in women’s soccer a couple of decades ago. The technical gap between the male and female game really was too big for many potential viewers and spectators – of both sexes.
But have you seen how Japan play?’ Have you checked out the skill of the French team or the precise power and speed of the Germans?
Those three teams are playing soccer which is exciting to watch, technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing. The chances are that one of those three will win the competition and if they do – expect women’s coaches around the world to be trying to emulate that successful passing and movement style of play.
Indeed, already, the criticism of the United States’ performances is based primarily around the lack of style and finesse of the team. Win or lose the title, you can expect the U.S. to be under some pressure to find a better, more elegant, way to play in the future.
Women’s soccer is benefitting from the same forces of globalization that other emerging parts of the game enjoy and it is interesting to see the relative strength of the game in the ‘new soccer markets’ of Asia and North America.
Coaches around the world now have unprecedented access to information, scouting reports and tactical studies, game film, thoughts of other coaches and the whole globalized knowledge network.
The cliche about there being ‘no easy games in soccer anymore’ has some truth to it because every country that chooses has the chance to import knowledge and, if they wish, the international personnel to impart it – and the women’s game is no exception.
It seems clear that the same process that has seen Asian teams start to become competitive on the global stage, is going to see women’s soccer spread well beyond the handful of ‘early adopters’ such as the North Europeans and North Americans. We saw a glimpse of that with the likes of Colombia at this World Cup.
So expect in four years time, at the next Women’s World Cup, to see better and better women’s teams from Asia, Africa and South and Central America – and with them more and more fans around the world tuning in to the women’s game.
Women’s soccer doesn’t need to guilt-trip people into watching or to cover itself in a veneer of political correctness in order to progress.
The sport is entertaining and exciting and has shown, with the impressive television ratings in various countries, that it has an appeal.
What it needs now is financial backing – people putting money into clubs to build the talent base and strengthen the week-to-week presence of the game.
We are starting to see that happen with MLS, Bundesliga and French clubs amongst the most prominent to take the lead.
Women’s soccer is on the rise and if you aren’t interested – well, you are the one who is missing out.
Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.
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