I remember it like it was yesterday. Donning red, white and blue face paint and in head-to-toe soccer kit, my 11-year-old self watched the U.S. play in the 1999 Women's World Cup opener from one of the last rows in Giants Stadium. Sixteen years later and still as enamored by the Beautiful Game, I cheered on that same team in the 2015 finale, but this time from the second row of BC Place.
After attending both historic moments, and the World Champions ticker tape parade, I reminisced on the weeks since the team hoisted up that World Cup trophy to claim its unprecedented third star. "This is not a once every four years (or 16) phenomenon anymore," I thought. "It’s a revolution." So, what's changed?
Top 5 reasons - 1999 vs. 2015
1) One player, one moment vs. one nation, one team
2) Team vs. individual promotions
3) Gender discrimination vs. discrimination of another kind
4) Inspiring girls vs. inspiring men, women, boys and girls
5) Fall vs. rise of professional league
One player, one moment vs. one nation, one team
In scorching 100-degree heat, 90,185 fans crowded inside the Rose Bowl, perched on the edge of their seats watching the heart-thumping drama. Any shot or miss could be the game-changer. Every moment of play mattered, all the way until the final whistle of double overtime. Then, there were the penalty kicks. As soon as Brandi Chastain's shot hit the back netting, without hesitation she whipped off her jersey and pumped her fists in elation. Her teammates piled on the love, and the biggest match in women's soccer quickly became a part of American history.
Contrast that to this year's edition of the Women's World Cup: the United States scored four goals within the first 16 minutes (including a hat trick from Carli Lloyd, the eventual Golden Ball and Silver Boot winner). Not only were the fans stunned by the result, the players were as well. For the remaining 74 minutes, it just needed to keep its composure and the lead. It coasted to a 5-2 result. The wild excitement for everyone came much sooner than in 1999 so when the game was finally called it was a little anticlimactic. However, what makes 2015 unique is that three players got on the scoreboard and when the game ended, there wasn't just one player to rush. Touting "One Nation. One Team." as the official U.S. Soccer slogan, it quickly became evident that the women unified American soccer supporters.
Team vs. individual promotions
Back in 1999, most promotions consisted of the entire team (or groups of players), like a packaged deal. Headliner Mia Hamm made it a point to include her teammates and to promote the sport through mainstream channels. Contrast that to now when it's reported that Alex Morgan makes over $1 million in endorsements alone with companies like Coca-Cola, GNC, Nationwide Insurance and Mondelez (Chips-Ahoy, Ritz and Trident). It's not easy traveling 23-deep for every photo shoot or appearance, especially when the players come from 12 states and play for nine different clubs. This gives them an opportunity to expand their reach individually but also as a collective.
The real reason for this change perhaps is that the team isn't trying to only push the wholesome girl-next door identity like it had before. That opens up the opportunity for these women to stay true to themselves with unique alliances. For instance, boutique lines Peau du Loup and Wild Fang dress several players in hip clothing and accessories. The diversity of player personalities can be leveraged for maximum reach. It’s especially important to continue this thrilling wave heading into next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.
Gender discrimination vs. discrimination of another kind
Gone are the days of "women can't play soccer" claims or "you play like a girl" as an intended dis. It was a societal message in 1999: yes women can. Now it’s a sports message: yes women can and we're damn good at it too. It’s no longer an issue of competition quality or fan interest; the conversation shifted from being women to being athletes.
However, the 2015ers were faced with ironically progressive discrimination. The women played on artificial turf, dealt with mediocre referees and received lower prize money. Despite numerous appeals, FIFA utilized artificial turf for the first time in a major tournament – its only explanation was to provide “optimum playing comfort and maximum safety for the players.” But every single men’s tournament has been played on natural grass and so will the upcoming 2018 edition.
Adequate training and frequent exposure to fast-paced, quality competition can elevate the experience level and accuracy of officiating.In an effort to empower, FIFA claims that women’s soccer is a cultural reflection so women should be refereeing women. Which is all well and good unless there’s a shortage of fair and experienced referees. Ever since the 1999 edition, all officials have been women for the women’s tournament but few have really stood out as high caliber decision-makers. Adequate training and frequent exposure to fast-paced, quality competition can elevate the accuracy of officiating. The argument that burgeoning women’s soccer programs can only grow through participation at the highest level suggests the same for refereeing.
The United States women received $2 million in prize money. That’s $6 million less than the United States men got for dropping out in the Round of 16 (and they have never won a World Cup, let alone three). But, back in 1999, there was no such thing as prize money. FIFA didn’t even start distributing it to women until the 2007 edition. And the figure doubled from 2011 to 2015 too. It may be slow but it’s still progress, and discriminatory.
Inspiring girls vs. inspiring men, women, boys and girls
For the first time in 55 years, a woman was honored during a New York City ticker tape parade in Manhattan. Out of 205 total held by NYC, the most recent was the first to celebrate an all-female sports team, of 23 women.
These women aren’t just heroines or pioneers, they are also champions, plain and simple. Society has now accepted them as athletes, rather than second-class citizen female athletes.
Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the crowd in front of City Hall at the conclusion of Canyon of Heroes: “You can see out there the love that the people of this city and the people of this country have for this team, and what they mean to all of us. You can see it in the faces of men and women, boys and girls. And it was just the purest deepest sense of admiration.”
With 25.4 million viewers tuning into the 2015 finale, USA versus Japan become the most-watched soccer match – male or female – in U.S. history. It’s clear that de Blasio’s sentiment resonated with American sports fans and pulsated across the country: One nation, one team.
Fall vs. rise of professional league
Sixteen years ago, the national team players used their World Cup triumph to leverage a professional league. Due to high demand, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) launched as the first women’s professional soccer league in the United States, in 2001. It only lasted three years. Now, we are in the third season of the WUSA's second successor, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). But this time, U.S., Canada and Mexico soccer federations subsidize part of the operating costs.
Now due to the World Cup buzz, NWSL clubs are selling out stadiums and getting airtime on Fox Sports and Time Warner. But, the league still has a long way to go to match its male counterpart Major League Soccer, who has enjoyed 21 years of existence with 10 successful expansion teams. That makes it hard to believe that in 1999, the women had the upper hand in the soccer market. So how will the powers that be leverage the recent progress for a sustainable solution? Check back in 16 years for a Top 5: 2015 vs. 2031.