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The Policy Implications of the Soccer World Champions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
July 28, 2019 

The 2019 United States Women’s National Team did not just win its country’s fourth World Cup, but also seized the cultural and political moment throughout its soccer triumph in France this summer. A tournament that started with a global controversy over the team’s ecstatic celebrations in its 13 goal win in the opening game ended with thousands ecstatically celebrating the team in a New York City ticker-tape parade. The intersection of sports and politics is as old as sport itself, but the intense activism and discourse around this particular team at this particular moment resonated within the partisan divide. Now that the 23 victors are back in the United States with the trophy in hand, policy questions and political opportunities linger before a policy window closes on this agenda.

The issues on the minds of the world champions certainly extend far beyond gender equality and sports-related policies. At least temporarily Co-Captain Megan Rapinoe has emerged as one of President Trump’s most prominent critics, particularly as it relates to overcoming discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. For the Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination her endorsement could be significant in the open and crowded field. Where this soccer squad has reframed the dialogue and refocused attention the most is around the governmental directives related to the sport itself.

The 1999 United States Women’s National Team not only won the World Cup, but also did so before record crowds in stadiums across the United States. This was not just a proud moment for the team, but also the leaders who championed Title IX. In bringing equality to women’s sports at the scholastic level the United States earned the trophies to prove that its policies supported the greatest societal environment for female athletic development and its related empowerment. While other countries have followed this lead and fostered a rise in talent in women’s sports across the globe, the United States has maintained its edge as the proud pioneer.

As the 2019 team has publicly proclaimed and filed in a lawsuit, everything is not yet equal at the professional level with the United States Men’s National Team. The women continue to pursue pay parity with a men’s team that failed to even qualify among the 32 teams for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With the economy-wide pay gap between women and men as a constant subject of debate, the very specific case of these two small teams is not in and of itself central to overcoming gender inequality in the American workplace, but it does have a symbolic resonance for those pushing for a fair and performance based pay structure across industries.

One area where policymakers could intervene is in the lack of financially-competitive professional sports leagues for women. In addition to the opportunity to earn more money during their time on national team duty, men’s soccer players can sign extremely lucrative contracts with professional clubs. Men’s professional teams earn far greater revenues than women’s professional teams in soccer and other sports and thus, can spend more money on salaries. Whether it’s through public financing of stadiums or other mechanisms, however, localities subsidize men’s professional sports teams even in the most profitable of sports and markets.

This public support should provide a justification for governmental action to develop women’s professional sports. If cities, counties and states are going to use taxpayer money to build for-profit sports teams fancy new stadiums, the jurisdictions could require access to the women’s teams. Speed and skill are not the only reason fans flock to sporting contests. Over 40,000 people show up to watch 10 to 12 year old boys and girls in Little League World Series games in Williamsport, Pennsylvania because organizers make it a big event. Atlanta United far outdraws far superior soccer clubs in other countries by hosting games in a world class stadium.  Providing more women’s teams the chance to entertain in state-of-the-art facilities that encourage spectators would not only benefit those teams and athletes, but also increase utilization of stadiums as public resources.

At the Federal level the United States has already acted to root out corruption among officials at FIFA, world soccer’s governing body and organizer of the World Cup. It is also time to push FIFA to better support the women’s game across the globe. While a 4 year cycle has been successful in making the men’s World Cup the most prominent global sporting championship, a women’s World Cup every 2 years might assist in allowing for greater financial incentives for the players and national federations. It is one of many options that FIFA could consider for growing the game for players of all genders around the world.

 Sports remain an important part of our society and our future. Participation provides exercise and useful social interaction in a world that is increasingly stationary and isolated. Fandom provides unity and camaraderie in a world that is increasingly fragmented and divided. Here’s to hoping we’re all celebrating more world championships and a fairer and more just sporting world again soon.

Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is an analyst and author in Atlanta, Georgia. He is on Twitter @Deitchman.


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