States of happiness

Will the home triumph at the 1999 women's World Cup be a real breakthrough for football in the USA, or just a one-off? Ethan Zindler weighs up the evidence

With no goals scored, the women’s World Cup final at the Pasadena Rose Bowl had delivered as ignominious a conclusion as the men’s final at the same venue in 1994. Yet none of the ecstatic 90,000 red, white, and blue supporters seemed troubled by the injustices of penalties. The tournament was over. But America’s love affair with its soccer divas was just getting started.

The following morning, a wire service photo of win­ning scorer Brandi Chastain on her knees with mus­cles rippling in the sun graced the front pages of Sunday papers nationwide. Queens of the World! proclaimed the Or­lando Sentinel in a four-column, above the fold headline. Soccer is Cool and US Wo­men Rule, de­clared the Sunday Record of Stockton, Cal­ifornia. The Miami Herald was more suc­cinct: “U-S-A! U-S-A! Champions!”

Over the next ten days, the squad enjoyed a victory tour of the States that read like a tourist’s dream itinerary: Disney Land in LA, the White House in Washington, the Kennedy Space Centre in Flo­rida, a Springsteen concert in New Jersey, Rockefeller Plaza in New York. At each stop, they were greeted by hoards of screaming pre-teen girls accompanied by beaming and equally ex­cited “soccer moms”.

Before this summer’s love affair with Team USA, soccer as a live spectacle has enjoyed only fleeting successes in this country – despite the fact millions of suburban kids play the game. World Cup ’94 was to have served as a springboard for a successful top-flight professional league. But now in its fourth year, Major League Soccer continues to flounder, featuring football that on its best nights resembles Millwall v Blackpool. More worrisome are the league’s anaemic attendance figures.

In three weeks, the wo­men’s team may have done more to main­s­tream the sport in Amer­ica than Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, Brad Friedel, Bora Milutinovic, Alan Rothenberg, and the rest of the male-dominated “US soccer establishment” could muster over ten years. A total of 650,000 tickets were sold over the three week tournament and over 40 million tuned in for the final (significantly more than bothered to watch the National Basketball Association finals a week earlier).

Much of that interest can be attributed to the fact that, unlike our men’s squad, our women actually know how to win. Needless to say, America loves winners. But the euphoria surrounding the team is not just a result of its victories.The female players appeal to many because they appear untainted by the com­mercialism that defines big-time baseball, basketball, or hockey. Most have toiled for years on salaries of $20,000-$40,000 paid by the US Soccer Federation. At the outset of World Cup ’99, only a handful had product endorsement deals.

The US women are also a genuinely charming bunch off the pitch. All are college educated. Most are articulate. None, it seems, have yet memorized the clichés of professional athlete-speak.

They are also, on the whole, an attractive group of young women, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by male supporters. During a recent appearance on the David Letterman talk show, Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm (the team’s star striker) endured a barrage of degrading and offensive references to their bare legs. But neither player batted an eye.

Due in part to such passive appearances, feminists have accused the team of promoting themselves as sex objects to boost their viability on the endorsement market. Months before she removed her shirt at the Rose Bowl, Chastain posed in a men’s magazine with nothing more than a soccer ball, a move she was forced to defend in numerous interviews “‘I’m proud of my body,’’ she told the New York Times, ‘’I have bigger biceps and shoulders than my dad. I’m not going to hide it.” Her point being that young women should take pride in their bodies, regardless of soc­ietal norms.

But success has bred new challenges that are sure to threaten the immaculate images of the female players and test the loyalty of their fans. Several years ago, the national team squabbled with the USSF over compensation but at that time the players had little notoriety and even less leverage. On July 10th, the same day the World Cup final was staged, their collective agreement with the federation expired – and, thanks to their victory, their star value skyrocketed.

For winning the Cup, each US player was to have received a paltry $12,500 bonus from the federation. In an effort to avert a public relations disaster and engender good will as contract renewal negotiations began, the USSF upped it to $50,000 apiece. Discussions are underway between the team’s leaders and the federation with an Autumn fixture conflict posing an obstacle to an agreement. Independent of the federation, the team have signed up to a ten-city indoor arena tour of the US, while the USSF has begun to book the squad into a series of overseas friendlies.

Since the Cup’s conclusion, advertisers have app­roached many on the team with lucrative endorsement offers. Already, keeper Briana Scurry has signed a major agreement with Pepsi and negotiations between Wheaties and the entire team are ongoing. In a sign of how women athletes are affecting the sporting goods industry, Nike is mass producing tens of thousands of the replica black bra Brandi Chastain revealed in Pasadena in expectation of a short-term bonanza.

A high-profile contract dispute might remind Ame­r­icans that these women play soccer for a living, not just for fun. A heavy saturation of ads featuring Team USA’s stars endorsing soda, cereal, and sports bras might lead the public to forget what made these ath­letes unique in the first place. But given how long the women’s team has toiled in the shadows they have every right to enjoy their moment in the sun – and milk it for all they can.

From WSC 151 September 1999. What was happening this month