Who Owns Women’s Bodies?
A Comparison of the Marketing of
Major League Soccer and North American Women’s Soccer
Alexander Lynn and Tarkpor Grupee
Table of Contents
I. Chapter I — Introduction
I. 3. Problem Statement
I. 4. Purpose and Significance of the Study
I. 7. Limitations
I. 9. Hypotheses
I. 11. Review of the Research Methods to be used
II. Chapter 2 — Literature Review
II. 1. Introduction to Chapter 2
II. 2. Theme A Failures (suffered by the MLS; and the past pro women’s leagues)
II. 3. Theme B Successes (MLS and NWSL)
II. 4. Theme C Marketing Strategies
II. 5. Summary of Chapter 2.
III. Chapter 3 Research Methods
III. 1. Content Analysis
III. 3. Subject Population Groupings
III. 4. Instrumentation/Design
IV Chapter 4 Findings
IV. 1.The Player’s Perspectives
IV. 2.The Fans Perspectives
IV. 3. Media Perspectives
IV. 4. Perspectives of Professional Marketers
IV. 5. Owners/Administrators/Executives/Stock Holders Perspectives
VI. 6. The Perspectives of Researchers, Analysts and Activists
V. Chapter 5 Conclusion
Chapter One — Introduction
Soccer (herein to be used interchangeably with football) is played in nearly every country in the world. While there is increased interest in Major League Soccer, the professional men’s football league in the United States, most fans of men’s football in this country follow the better-known European leagues such as La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany or English Premier League in England (Gibson, 2016). The question of why is it that football fans in the US are more attracted to leagues around the world, and what is it about MLS that is missing the mark of attracting home fans, is legitimate and heard from every quarter of those interested in North American football.
A different question comes up around women’s football. Women’s football in the United States has undergone major changes over the past three decades: In its first fifteen years of existence it was seldom seen or talked about. Then came the improbable run of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) at the 1999 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Women’s World Cup, which culminated with a title win over China. This event captured the attention of thousands of fans and also garnered the most media attention the women’s sport has ever received. Despite the USWNT’s rapid rise to stardom that saw them grace the covers of countless magazines and the appearance of its players on many television shows right after their World Cup win, examination of the effect of that summer in 1999 largely dwelled on it as a cultural phenomenon.
Problem Statement There are numerous indices by which marketing research theory could compare MSL to the women’s leagues. This study is using the gender divide, gender discrimination, as its operative comparative index. The large majority of studies, particularly into the economics, financial status, media attention to, and marketing of professional soccer in the US, have focused on the MLS. Today, this league is enjoying its highest level of popularity. Optimistic prognoses see the league, while still situating itself in the international arena, finally finding its place among “the big four” in the U.S. — NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. From a business standpoint everything is looking up. The NWSL is likewise at its peak in popularity. Yet, the women’s leagues, and currently the NWSL, have received far less attention, the financial status of the league is still uncertain, though it has gained some measure of strength over the last period — four years. The problem that this study is looking at is that women’s football is by many indices more popular than men’s in the United States. Given that popularity, the NWSL gets much less media attention, its players are paid a fraction of what the men are paid, the investment in the league is tenuous, and the way the NWSL is marketed is emblematic of the social construction of gender-generated biases. This essay wants to uncover the political economy of such, and look for the marketing, media coverage and, business policies which underlie this disparity.
Purpose and Significance of the Study The purpose of this study mirrors many others before it, with the additional focus on the economic and political system in which professional sports, football in the US, and the professional men’s and women’s teams find themselves in manifestly unequal economic and financial status. The value in uncovering the source of this disparity lies in the support it gives to the movement for equal rights, dignity and security of women, to supporting their role in society as agents of their own humanity. To the extent that sport, culture, football play a role in advancing ideals and values, to that degree is the findings of this study important. That such organized information has a derivative effect on marketing policies, investment strategies and media coverage over the long term, is part of the logic guiding this research.
Limitations At the heart of the problem, from the perspective of this analysis, is the sense among those who ultimately have the organizational power to determine marketing policy, and those who financially support professional football, that this inequality is somehow not a marketing and financial issue. To control for, in a social movement perspective, the non-support of a significant segment of the football-invested/engaged population is a built-in limitation to the proposals coming from the findings herein.
Hypotheses The difference in presentation of and reception of, “consumption” of, the male athletes in MLS, on one hand, and the female contributor to the sport in the NWSL, on the other, lies in a multidimensional — cultural, ideological, economic, political and social — divide between men and women generated by the social construction of gender. This role of the social construction of gender is prominently displayed in the marketing of the two leagues. The operative premise of this study is that the social construction of gender fuels a status quo in sports which at once mirrors that in society, and at the same time contributes to the generating of gender roles which ultimately disfigure the humanity of women. Black people were regarded by the dominant society as less than human in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement. The allowing of African Americans and other athletes of-Color into the major sports in the United States was accompanied by an advertising campaign and a marketing of the newly imaged sports which framed African Americans as humans (qualitatively more so than previous to this campaign); a marketing campaign which accepted, acknowledged, portrayed African Americans as human beings similar to White Americans. This study argues that while many superficial observers of the gender discrimination being examined here understand it to be about discrepancies in pay, the parallel to the life of African Americans in the US and the way it has changed shows that the issue is far more than pay differences, but incorporates every aspect of what it is to be female, and what it is to be treated as fully human.
For operational purposes, this study specifies six population groupings associated with men’s and women’s football in the US: the players, the fans, the owners and administrators of the teams, the professional marketers, the stock holders, and the researchers and activists of the movement for the liberation of and equal rights of women. In connection with the theoretical perspective presented above, the examination of the views and actions of these six population groupings developed for this study will result in four interrelated hypotheses, which generate each other in order, from one through four:
Hypothesis 1. The social construction of gender in the marketing of professional soccer in the US results in an-across-the-board discrimination against women.
Female players of football in the US, would-be women executives, fans who are deluged with gendered and sexualized images and otherwise stereotypes of women football players, each of these segments of the US population are affected by a marketing and media portrayal of women which supports the status quo in American culture of a stereotypically gendered role for women.
Hypothesis 2. It is the short term view of marketing which ignores the value of treating women equally, and as fully human.
Not paying attention to history — for example, ignoring the vast monetary gains which US professional sports organizations have made since African Americans and other athletes of-Color have been included as human beings — these marketers rely on the quick fix from imaging women as sex objects rather than as athletes skilled in the same way that men athletes are adjudged by their skill in their sport. In the long term, valuing women’s human contributions in football is not merely morally the right thing to do, but ultimately it makes economic and business good sense.
Hypothesis 3. The gendering of women in the marketing of US football does not take place in a social vacuum, but is instead directly derivative of major themes in U.S. society.
This study situates discrimination against women in sports, football in connection with other major defining trends in U.S. history. The social construction of race was institutionalized and part of government and law for most of the first two centuries of this country’s existence. African Americans were understood by the dominant culture to be a sub-species, and inferior biologically to White Americans. This biological foundation has since been wholly debunked. White supremacy and male supremacy are not merely parallel rivers in US history and life, but as social systems they comingle, and in some very important ways they are coincident systems. In this connection, the women’s movements have proven that gendering does not have a basis in biological differences between women and men, but is a social construct. In the same manner as has been taking place with the social construction of race, the social construction of gender can be deconstructed by the concerted, united social justice movement of humans in the US.
Hypothesis 4. Confronting the gendering influence in the marketing of US football, towards the goal of eliminating it, is a component of the women’s rights movement in this country.
Addressing gender bias in academia and social research, and the reach of this attention, has included re-imaging marketing vision and strategy, first to uncover the role of the social construction of gender in traditional marketing theory, and then to resolve this bias with the proposition of a marketing which values equal rights of women and fully humanizing women in the images which this industry produces. This movement in academia reflects that of the women’s movement in society in general. The activism of women football players in the US in the same direction is at once a driver of the women’s movement and at the same time is inspired by this women’s movement. It is, in the final analysis, the players’ activism, the active support of the fans, ultimately this women’s rights movement as a whole which will deconstruct the social construction of gender in the marketing of women’s football in the US.
Review of the Research Methods to be used The principle method of research will be qualitative. Qualitative market research seeks out the opinions, prejudices, values and feelings of the subjects of the study — in this case the consumers, the fans, the marketing professionals, the owners, the players, and the social justice movement activists (Family Health International, 2016).
Inside this method is a specific form of qualitative research known as content analysis. Content analysis refers to a family of techniques for studying the “mute evidence” of texts and artifacts (Klaus, 2004, p. 413). In connection with the need to reproduce the views of the subject population, and given that this researcher will have much difficulty directly reaching the above-mentioned subjects — the consumers, the fans, the marketing professionals, the owners, the women’s rights activists, and the players — the views of such will be obtained indirectly, through documents, articles, court proceedings, press conference announcements, and news articles, both online and in print. Content analysis utilizes a set of manual or computer-assisted techniques for contextualized interpretations of these documents, and has as its target the production of valid and trustworthy inferences from such (Klaus). In short, the method being utilized for this study, content analysis, refers to the studying and/or retrieval of meaningful information from any of the following types of documents: written text, such as books and papers; oral text, such as speech and theatrical performance taken from tapes; iconic text, such as cartoons, drawings or paintings; text from audio-visual mediums, such as TV programs, movies, and videos; and hypertexts, that is, texts found on the Internet.
This study stands on the side of women’s equality. The views regarding the marketing strategies, salaries, media attention to, and financial investment in the women’s game, the players, the fan-base of women’s football — each of these will be examined. In content analysis they become the primary voice in the study. As such, the findings are drawn from the recommendations of those most invested in progress regarding the issue before us, or resolution of the stated problem — the role played by the social construction of gender in the discriminatory marketing of women’s football.
Chapter Two — Literature Review
Bob Ford, in his expose in the Philadelphia Enquirer (“History still not on side of women’s pro soccer in US,” 2015), uses the career of Christie Rampone as a prism through which to understand the rise, the successes, and the shortfalls, which underscore the prospects for women’s soccer in North America. In 1999, when Rampone was 24, she was a reserve for the US Women’s World Cup Team that competed in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Championship tournament. In 2015 she was again a reserve, now getting ready for retirement at age 40. In between she was a star player in three championship tournaments, a three-time gold medalist having won championship titles at the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics (McCalmont, 2015). That same stretch of time saw women’s soccer reach its apex in popularity and sustainability, and then suffer a precipitous fall. Ford cites two reasons for this rise and fall: (1) the lack of casual fans of women’s soccer in the US; and (2) FIFA, which besides being corrupt is also sexist — it does not support the women’s segment of the sport. The women’s leagues get four times less money for marketing and everything else associated with success than do the men’s leagues. It wasn’t until 2013 — that is, 109 years after FIFA’s founding — that, Lydia Nsekera, from Burundi, became the first woman to be seated on the federation’s 209-member executive committee. Julie Foudy, now an analyst with ESPN, says structural discrimination against women emanates from the top. “They come from cultures where women don’t play, or it’s even a joke,” she said. “Anytime you interact with them, the reality is that it’s not on their radar” (Mitchell, 2016). In 2015, for example, FIFA awarded the winners of the Women’s World Cup $2 million in prize money. This is a small fraction of the $35 million the German men were awarded after winning the men’s Cup in the summer before. Again, pay is one glaring area of discriminatory treatment. Working conditions which have been shown to be unsafe, with inferior, sometimes dangerous, practice fields, locker rooms and travel conditions have been included in the recent lawsuits filed by women against FIFA (2016). Overarching, from the perspective of the present study, is the media and marketing coverage, which not only results in phenomena such as grossly discriminatory pay differences, but cements a picture of women football athletes, as all other women athletes, as sexualized beings, not admired for their athletic accomplishments, but for their alleged role of gratifying men’s gendered needs for sexual stimulation, for well cooked meals, and for caretakers of their children.
Failures suffered by the MLS and women’s professional leagues in North America
MLS Among the most problematic issues impacting sustainability for MLS are the following:
The superstars featured are overwhelmingly players who are past their prime — their prime taking place in foreign leagues (Gibson, 2016). Their top players make a fraction of the salaries of the superstars in foreign leagues (McPherson, 2016).
US football fans have far less passion for the sport than do their counterparts internationally. “No one knows common household names. People haven’t heard of the majority of MLS teams [as opposed to] the Denver Broncos or Carolina Panthers in the NFL,” said English Premier League fan TJ Smith. “I see they are trying to grow, but they don’t have the raw passion like Europe does” (Quoted in Gibson). In this regard, an oft-cited deficiency is the relative newness of the league/sport. This is a built-in deficiency which cannot be blamed on the league or the fans. The league has been around for 23 years. This is an incomparably short time in comparison to many international leagues.
Women’s professional leagues A discussion of U.S. women’s soccer shortfalls is incomplete without mentioning player salaries. The salary cap for an entire NWSL franchise is $278,000 in 2016 (Wall Street Journal, 2016). Several professional men’s players make more than that tiny amount in a single week. To image this in another way, $278,000 can buy a team one of the world’s best men’s soccer players for seven days, or the same amount can buy an entire professional women’s soccer team for a full year. The obvious inequality aside for the moment, the average NWSL salary works out to around $17,000 per year. This is not a living wage. While each year NWSL salaries are rising, they are not keeping up with inflation.
Successes MLS: According to an article in the Economist (2016), MLS passed the NBA in ticket sales in 2015: MLS sold an average of 21,574 tickets per game. This places MLS third in most attended professional sport in the U.S. The NFL is #1 and Major League Baseball is #2.
McPherson (2016) found that “MLS is enjoying all-time highs in TV viewership, merchandise sales, digital audiences, and social media engagement. Plus, pro soccer is among the most popular spectator sports in the United States among young adults, according to the Luker on Trends ESPN Sports poll.” According to this article, published by Direct Response Marketing, there are as many as 70 million adult soccer fans in the United States today, up from 48 million ten years ago, making the jump the fastest of any sport in the US during that time.
According to MLS executives, its fan base will triple in the U.S. in the next couple of years (Direct Response Marketing).
Analysts attribute this success to marketing: In 2010, MLS built the National Sales Center (NSC) in Blaine, Minn. The program is a sort of “sales boot camp that tutors future MLS ticket sales reps through one of the top sales training curriculums in all of pro sports” (McPherson). The goal of this training facility, which by all accounts is being met, is to teach the basics of ticket sales in all selling venues, from phone, face-to-face, and game nights, to social media. In NSC’s own words, “Each session will be up to five months long. At the conclusion of most months, those trainees completing designated performance criteria will have the opportunity to interview for sales positions at MLS clubs” (National Sales Center, 2016).
NWLS In its 4th season of existence, the 2016 draft featured open victories, with three major international stars joining NWSL teams. This can be seen as a major success face-to-face with the league’s forbearers: Neither the WPS nor the Women’s United Soccer Association made it past their third seasons before collapsing (Waldron, 2016).
A second mark of progress is the deal the NWSL brokered with MLS pairing city franchises of the former with same city franchises of the latter. According to NWSL, NWSL has never viewed such partnerships as the key to financial success. Furthermore, this pairing does not guarantee a profitable outcome. However, according to president Plush, it does offer financial backing and stability. The best example is that of the pairing of the Portland Thorns with MLS’s Portland Timbers (Associated Press, 2016). The Thorns are the league’s most popular team. In 2015, the Portland NWSL franchise drew more than 15,000 fans per game. This was more than double the attendance of the next closest NWSL team.
Finally, according to Plush, League revenues, as of 2016, are up 29 percent, and attendance went up by 23 percent (Waldron, 2016). In 2015, only one franchise, the Western New York Flash, had a drop in attendance (2016).
Marketing strategies In the research study entitled “Feminist Theory and Marketing Thought: Towards a new Approach to Consumer Research,” Zukerman (et al, 1992) argues that the social construction of gender pervades marketing theory. While the president of FIFA’s suggestion that the women’s league players wear more sexually suggestive clothing was roundly decried, this analyst believes the comments to reflect, rather than cause, gender discrimination in the promotion of the game. The most oft-cited study of marketing and media coverage of the 1999 World Cup Championship, “Two Kicks Forward, One Kick Back: A Content Analysis of Media Discourses on the 1999 Women’s World Cup Soccer Championship,” (Christopherson, Janning, & McConnell, 2002), established that the event was a fertile “site for examining both the social construction of gender and the structure of contradiction surrounding women’s role in sport and society” (2002, p. 173). This research study undertook what they termed a content analysis of 576 American newspaper articles reporting on this event. Zukerman, et al, examined the media promotion or construction of certain gender ideologies, how (in other words, from what perspective) these gender ideologies contributed to the popularity of the event. (1992). They cite this lack of study/coverage as proof of gender discriminatory practices in the teaching of marketing theory (Zukerman, et al). That was in 1992. Since then, there has been a plethora of research conducted precisely on this subject, from which this study draws much of its material. Women’s rights activists, the academy as well, and maybe most prominently, the players themselves in their protests and court suits have been determinately addressing the issue. It is in this atmosphere of increasing concern from those most adversely affected by the discrimination that Henderson (2105) maintains marketing professionals are still not paying appropriate attention to the marketing of professional women’s soccer through feminist themes (2015).
Zuckerman (et al) proposes that little systematic study has been conducted to establish how feminist themes — for example, inequity in resources, rules and coverage, embrace of motherhood, family values, and role models while shunning the “other,” “and building of a consumption community through the promotion of ideal heteronormative femininity” — had been used to promote the USWNT, either before or during that successful tournament, in the face of voluminous evidence supporting such themes appearing anecdotally (2002). They cite this lack of study/coverage as proof of gender discriminatory practices in the teaching of marketing theory (Zukerman, et al).
Comparing the relative successes and failures of marketing strategies of the two leagues reveals gender discrimination as the source of some, if not the vast majority, of the disparity. It is not here being proposed, however, that MLS is to blame for the discrimination against women. On the other hand, some feminist marketing theorists argue that the promotion of NWSL by MLS is a transcendent marketing strategy (Murhdal, 2010), one which breaks with the gender-discriminatory norm in marketing, one which aids in the resolution of the gender divide, and one which would in the long term benefit MLS.
Again referring to Murhdal (2010), the contention that the role which gendering plays in the social, technical and physical environment in which women’s professional soccer is developing in the United States is a marketing issue. The tension between the bottom-line and the views which maintain that financial stability depends upon reinforcing gender-biased presentations of women athletes, is countered by the efforts of women soccer players and their fans to overcome what they understand as an obstacle to their success as athletes, as professionals, as women, and ultimately as humans. This is a marketing issue raised by feminist marketing theory.
Feminist marketing theorists maintain that mass media proclivities drive marketing, and are at the same time driven by the priorities and focus of marketers and advertisers. Kane and Greendorfer offer, apropos of the role of media:
The mass media have been used [by marketers and advertisers] as one means of resisting ideological change, as media practices, production, content and messages continue to perpetuate notions of sexual difference, gender difference, and gender hierarchy (1994, 40).
The above-quoted study then cites organized efforts on the part of women effecting media in the opposite direction, over the past ten years, they maintain:
The media have transformed the meanings of women’s physicality — women becoming active agents with and of their own bodies and women using their bodies in skilled, physical activity — to commodification, sexuality and femininity (40).
Summary of Literature Review National Scope According to The United States Sports Academy, the nation-wide reality has been one of gender bias in American sports (Person, 2010). This study cites lack of opportunity, lack of administrative positions and lack of coverage in women’s sports as the foundation stones of a discriminatory practice.
In a content analysis research study conducted in 2014, Cranmer and Brann established that the media reifies frames that subtly enforce sex differences, in a way that reduces women athletes’ athleticism. They found that marketing at once draws from media patterns which promote a de-emphasis on female athleticism, sexualize female athletes, and deny sport content (2014, p.3), and at the same time marketers and advertiser’s focus on these gendered patterns drives media choices in the same direction. Professional marketers are at once consumers of the mass media, and at the same time determiners of the priorities of the same.
In a study conducted by Fink and Kensicki for the journal Mass Communication & Society (2002), the researchers found that Sports Illustrated, in the large majority of their images (pictures, illustrations) of successful women athletes, the frames were of stereotypical traditions of femininity which eclipsed the women athletes’ athletic ability. These researchers found that “this generally inoffensive [sic] status-quo approach has been continued in order to maintain marketability to advertisers and to sports readers in general” (p. 5). Gear offered photos of NWSL star, Brandi Chastain , which were used in an add which features this highly successful US woman football player holding two soccer balls in front of her breasts and one in front of her crotch (see p. 31–32).
Women’s Football Each of the above gendered biases are manifest in the way women’s football is received in the United States. Endorsements by PUMA, Nike and others have been challenged by their dependence upon sexualizing the women players in their ads (Murhdal). In the words of Murhdal, “the game-day experience for fans” is heavily determined by investors and stadium owners who promote gender-biased roles for women, and who believe their profits are tied to their gender-biased presentations. The success or failure of women’s professional soccer in the US, feminist marketing theory studies conclude, depends very much upon the struggle between the fight for dignity for women athletes, on one hand, and the profit motive linked to gender discrimination, on the other. In the description of Sartore and Cunningham (2010. p. 482)
In general, women who exude confidence, competence, and fortitude risk [compromising] their femininity and (hetero) sexual desirability. Amid such discourse, women who act too masculine (e.g., strong and authoritative) and those who succeed in male dominated contexts are perceived as violating socially constructed gender norms and thus risk social rejection, negativity, and stigmatization.
It is precisely this socially constructed gender norm, colluded in and fortified by traditional marketing, which must be changed.
How is a comparison of the relative success of the MLS to NWSL a marketing question? How does the way the two leagues are marketed face-to-face with each other, the character and content of the marketing efforts themselves, the specific strategies, investment towards such, and the perspectives underlying such — how are these a matter of marketing theory and practice? The answer lies in the connections between promotion, gender, media and culture: Today, sport is increasing its ubiquitous presence in the international media — newspapers, TV, the local and national news of most countries, and internet are each featuring exponentially more sports-related items than ever before, often pushing aside coverage of political, environmental and other cultural issues (Miller, et al, 2002). Cable and satellite networks are at the same time constructing a global expansion for sports-related goods. These goods are penetrating new markets daily. The social construction of gender is either being promoted or challenged in each of these venues. The social construction of gender is through and through a marketing issue.
Chapter Three — Research Methods
This study endeavors to utilize the opinions, experiences, the principles guiding their behavior, the interpretation of such, and the analyses of the subjects of the study in determining the results, the findings, and the conclusions of this study. Because this researcher does not have direct access to these subjects — the players, the administrators of US men’s and women’s football, the fan-base, the marketers, the media representatives, the team owners and executives — content analysis is the method of research being used to obtain these views, principles and experiences. The method of content analysis enables the researcher to include large amounts of textual information in a systematical identification of their properties and guiding principles. This textual information must be categorized so as to provide a meaningful reading of the content under examination. For example, grouping anecdotal remarks made by sport executives regarding the place of women in sports enables the researcher to identify, of these anecdotes, patterns, mores and trends to a statistically significant extent, and to then draw theoretical conclusions regarding policy emanating from these same executives. These theoretical conclusions can then be tested for their validity by examining the policies.
According to Weber (1990), “In political analysis, these variables [the anecdotes] could be political scandals, the impact of public opinion polls, sudden events in external politics, inflation…” (p. 12). Each of these type of data, type of textual content, are used in this study of the social construction of gender, and its impact on a discriminatory marketing of women’s football in the US.
This method of written information collection has been, for another example, used to capture the underlying logic observed in electoral campaigns “by focusing on the repetition and innovation of themes sustained in party broadcasts.” (Lipset, 1990). According to researchers who use the method of content analysis, there is no empirical reality outside articulations of meaning. The interpretation given by the subjects, in this case the football players, the media voices, the fans themselves, the owners, are the raw data of the study. Again, in the understanding of those who use this method, “Reality is an outcome of power struggles that unify ideas of social structure as a result of contingent interventions” (Hodder, 1994, p.15). The present study has found much of its supporting data in other studies which also use the method of content analysis.
By using this method of research, this researcher hopes to contribute to the voices who favor equality for women, not merely in pay, but full social, cultural and political equality, which would transform the relationships between males and females across the board. In this connection, this study hopes to play the role of influential contributor, and the method of content analysis makes such possible.
Design In accordance with the method of content analysis, chapter four will group all the available information on the subject under examination into the following categories: The perspectives of the players; the perspectives of the fans; media perspectives; the perspectives of professional marketers; the perspectives of owners; the perspectives of stock holders; and, the perspectives of researchers, analysts and activists. For each of these groups, this analyst will uncover a dominant or at least a significant trend in opinion regarding the overarching issues raised in this study — sexualized marketing of women, gender bias among FIFA leadership, protest and fight back of women players, lack of support for the women’s league in the US, the actual greater popularity of the NWSL as compared to MLS, vast discrepancy in pay, vast discrepancy in financial support between the two leagues, the way football fans in the US understand the role of gender in the presentation of the sport to them, and the sense of how profits are affected by gender bias. Ultimately, this analyst will seek to draw conclusions from these to determine the cumulative impact on the hypothesis of this study, that the social construction of gender depresses the women’s league to a second class citizenship, undermines the popularity and success of the sport in the US, and devalues the latter.
Chapter Four — Findings
The perspectives of the players In March 2016, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing US Soccer of employment discrimination (Schama, 2016). The US women’s players have a range of opinions regarding the social construction of gender and the resulting discrimination which this marketing tool facilitates. From the perspective of this study, the law suits waged by the players is a telescopic lens through which to the 360 degrees of responses.
In her 2014 study entitled “Negotiating Gender in Professional Soccer: An Analysis of Female Footballers in the United States,” Elsa Kristiansen examined what she called “one group of stakeholders,” elite Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and NWSL soccer players, for their sense of the role of gender in US professional soccer programs. This qualitative analysis concentrated on three themes. 1. The participants’ perceptions of role models and its relationship to their socialization as soccer players. 2. Media images of women soccer players, or, put another way, the invisibility of the women soccer players. 3. The sexualization of elite women’s bodies and their experience of “compulsory heterosexuality.” Kristiansen found that the women athletes used “stereotypical notions of masculinity to increase their legitimacy as elite athletes,” while at the same time they devalued the abilities of women coaches by resort to the use of stereotypical ideas of femininity (2014).
The purpose of this study was to analytically understand how the athletes themselves understood and presented their soccer practice. For instance, were they progressively kicking forward or simply kicking around gender? The interviewees were given room before the analytic frame was applied. Data that illustrate the athletes’ perceptions of gender dynamics are the main focus of this study and provide the structure for this manuscript.
Female coaches have not played football at this high level of sport, yet, and I prefer to be coached by someone that has played at this elite level themselves… I guess I demand a lot from a coach, but my technical skills due to great coaching have always been my strength, and I think that is a weakness with many [female] coaches.
And the female coaches, they simply don’t get the game as the men do, for them it is all about follow the ball [stated negatively]. They know the theory in the book, but they are unable to use it once they get on the field. Even more, when they are unable to discuss the tactic that just took place in front of them, then I give up.
Of the nine WPS teams, seven had male head coaches, two had female. Four of the eight elite women soccer players interviewed said they preferred a coach who had expertise in elite professional soccer to one who does not. Kristiansen interpreted this language as coding for preferring the man coach over the woman coach. This is similar to the African American court defendant who prefers the White lawyer to the Black lawyer, citing the “innate” superior ability of the White lawyer. Missing that the opportunity to become an elite coach or elite lawyer has been denied the women in the first case and African Americans in the second, the former is called internalized sexism, the latter internalized racism.
Most WPS and NWSL teams were/are managed by a majority male staff. In this regard, Knoppers and Anthonissen interviewed NWSL players who felt that the images of male authorities/coaches reinforced gender stereotypes and “reconstruct regimes of inequality” (2003).
One top footballer interviewed by Kristiansen, Melissa, witnessed that her value as an elite football player was “never about performance first in female sport. It is always about the hot-factor… They might mention performance, but it is an afterthought” (2014). On the other hand, Melissa felt that by focusing on the beauty and gracefulness of the women players, the sport would gain in popularity, “it might be more interesting to watch, and in turn it would generate income, revenues, and a sustainable league” (2014, p.17). In this Melissa is in sync with the “enlightened” view of advertisers who promote the social construction of gender in marketing.
Wilma stated without hesitation that soccer in the US is a more girlish sport compared to European countries where soccer was gender coded as boyish. “There are millions of girls out there”, noted Wilma. “From little girls, to older girls, to us, there are millions that play soccer. I think women’s soccer is girlish in the US”. She contrasted the feminine gender identity of soccer in the US with American football, which she argued was “totally the men’s sport”. In Wilma’s view the traditional gender coding of soccer as a masculine activity is challenged by the large number of girls and women playing soccer in the US.
Another of the elite US women’s players interviewed by Kristiansen, Wilma, maintained adamantly that soccer in the US is a more “girlish” sport when compared to other countries, in which she said it is more machismo-identified. In the US “There are millions of girls out there, from little girls, to older girls, to us, there are millions of girls who play soccer” in this country (p.18). She compared this alleged feminine identity of US soccer to American football which she said was a 100% male sport. In this elite US woman soccer player’s view, the gendering of soccer gives her a sense of pride in what she does, and distinguishes it from the male counterparts in US sports.
A number of women soccer players interviewed for various studies spoke to the issue of the tom boy image, i.e., the moniker that is attached to some very good women athletes, to girls who excel in sports or do not identify with being sexualized effeminately, and with girls who love girls (also called in this culture, Lesbians). Scranton, et al (1999), in their study entitled “Is it still a Man’s Game?” of the opinions of top women footballers internationally regarding the marketing of football, offer that “self-identifying as tomboys reinforces and reproduces, rather than challenges, the power relations and binary oppositions of masculine/feminine and men’s sports/women’s sports” (1999). Grace, one of the top NWSL players interviewed by Kristiansen, insisted that to the extent that some people still view soccer as the domain of men, to that degree is the tomboy moniker reserved for women who excel in soccer (2014, p20).
In reaction to some of the respondents, Kristiansen observes that female elite footballers become targets for media and marketing interest and scrutiny of their sexuality when these players transgress what is determined by the male dominated media to be gender appropriate. “Once female athletes adopt physical and social traits that are traditionally associated with heterosexual sport masculinity, their sexual orientation comes into question” (23). Grace said she jealously keeps upfront her role as a mother and her heterosexual orientation: “I am known to be an aggressive player, so I guess it helps to focus on my role as a mother and wife” (22). In other words, her aggressive play is more easily digestible if she can combine it with being “pretty” (hetero) and with being a mother.
Hope Solo is an elite athlete, at the very pinnacle world-wide of her craft. Regarding the US women’s law suit against US Soccer, the American arm of FIFA, Solo explained that “It’s scary to step up to your employer, but at some point you have to put your foot down” (Schama, 2016). To place this image inside the picture which this study is framing, the reader is invited to imagine Michael Jordan being “afraid to step up to his employer.” Becky Sauerbrunn, a co-plaintiff in the suit, is possibly closer to the latter frame when she insists that, “Women shouldn’t go into negotiations thinking that they should just be happy with what’s given to them. If you feel like you’re owed more, then fight for it. Don’t be timid or feel like you cannot be aggressive. Men don’t worry about that when they are negotiating…” (Schama).
As the previous varied testimony from women players shows, it is impossible to place all women in one or two boxes. Some of the players are adamant that they will not be treated like sex objects. Others do not see a link between “traditional” capitalist marketing strategies, on one hand — such which use misogynist images to promote women’s sport — and their low pay, on the other. Megan Rapinoe argues that women should be treated just as the market would treat anyone else: “Invest in something that has already shown promise. Last year was a big year? Use that: Make it bigger.” If African Americans had cut off their freedom movement at the prospect that “Last year was a good year for cotton; we are marketable slaves; invest in us,” chattel slavery would still be in effect.
Carli Lloyd is a co-captain of the United States women’s national team. Her position regarding the men’s league is one that crosses the boundary between the woman who are fighting for full human rights and those who want a raise up from $17,000 to $$20,000, when she says that, “Our beef is not with the men’s national team; we love those guys, and we support those guys. It’s with the Federation, and its history of treating us as if we should be happy that we are professional players and not working in the kitchen or scrubbing the locker room floors” (quoted in “Why I’m Fighting for Equal Pay,” New York Times, 2016).
In her April 10, 2016 New York Times editorial, Lloyd explained that,
“The United States women’s national team is the most successful team in the history of U.S. Soccer. We’ve won three World Cups and will try to win our fifth Olympic gold medal this summer in Brazil. When we captured the Women’s World Cup title in Canada in July, we drew the highest American television rating for soccer in history and, according to a financial report published by U.S. Soccer last month, helped generate $17.7 million in profit for the federation.”
The perspectives of the fans One of the most common complaints made by women friends of mine, by the women who I have sought out to interview regarding these subjects, and the opinions referenced by the researchers this study has consulted and relied upon, is of the contradictory demands which ubiquitous biased gendering projects onto women athletes, football players in particular. On one hand, women repeatedly point out that, “In order to be valued for our athletic skills, we must perform in what are presented as male ways — strong, muscle-bound, powerful… On the other hand, these ‘male’ characteristics, when we achieve them in our athletic performance, detract from our femininity, which, independently of the rest of our lives, is the real reason-to-be of a female athlete — to excite, through our beauty, gracefulness and charm, sexual chemistry in men…” “How can we satisfy both of these standards at the same time?” The second most oft-referred-to complaint, received as the “the military model,” is that gendering women football players from the perspective of male supremacist culture ipso facto determines that there are generally two types of women: whores — male-like in their ways; and “good girls,” graceful, sedated, they know their place — barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. The reference to the military is another important parallel which is internally related to sports culture. The incidence of rape in the US military is at an all-time high today — “40 % of female veterans report having been raped while in the military”… by male members of the US military (Sadler, 2015). The “good girls” get raped, and those who “give it up without a fight”… are whores.
Since endeavoring to undertake this project (four months ago) this analyst has been carrying around in his bag the Gear photos of NWSL star Brandi Chastain posing naked with soccer balls covering those parts of her body which are associated with sexuality (p.32). Before showing them these photos, I have asked the men in my life — friends, relatives, classmates, and literally passersby in the street — the following questions:
“Do you watch women’s professional sports?” The large majority of men I have encountered have answered “No.” Of the minority who answered, “Yes,” the first mention is of the WNBA, second is “Serena.” “She’s foine!” (fine, sexy). In most cases here, tennis does not even get mentioned; the answer is simply “Serena.” This reference belies most of the feminist critiques which highlight the contradiction between feminine/sexual attraction, on one hand, and masculine attributes of athleticism — strong, brute force, on the other. Serena is deemed to combine these, this in a period of the marketing of women’s body parts in which, alongside the wafe, the wafer-thin models, large round butts are now also “in.” Serena, according to the new marketing standards which seem to have very affectively entered the male consensus regarding beauty, combines both power and grace. (That this is wholly related to the marketing of body parts is proven by the fact that large round butts have not been deemed attractive in Western culture from time immemorial; it has been merely for the last twenty years that this has become the case…)
Third was women’s soccer. I then show these men (whether or not they follow any women’s sports) the pictures of Brandi Chastain (p.32) and Danica Patrick (p,31). To these images in most cases this researcher got reactions directly related to the level of sexual attraction to the nude woman depicted. There was a range from “She’s not that sexy,” to ”Wow, she’s nice…” Most of the men I encountered did not otherwise know Chastain, that she is one of the greatest women footballers in the world. They had never heard of her.
I then asked each of them (unless I knew them well and knew the answer to the question already) “What is something you are very good at?” Whatever their answer, I followed this question with another: “Imagine you have been given an award for your skill in this field.” In some cases, the men I spoke with did have awards for their expertise in something. “Now, imagine that Sports Illustrated has taken a picture of you naked, with you holding the plaque you won in front of your penis, and they place this picture on the front cover of their next issue — how would you feel about that?” I got a range of reactions, from horror to hilarious laughter. Not one man who I have spoken with has responded that he would be OK with this presentation of his body to the world.
The reactions of women to these images are “markedly” different all along the line. Donna (not her real name) said, “Oh my God, that poor woman. Why did she do that? That’s really disgusting.” To the image of Danica Patrick she said, “That’s worse because of that macabre clothing from medieval Europe, that S&M/B&D clothing… but, now that I think about it, that American flag tattooed on her back, above her bikini bottom, ties it all together — S&M and B&D are as American as apple pie.” Referring again to Chastain, she went on to say,
I don’t know why she would do that. In the second picture [where she is bent over with the soccer ball covering her crotch] she has this ‘grin and bear it’ expression on her face. She looks like she’s being raped. Maybe this is a metaphor — ‘in order for women’s soccer to gain popularity, to get the media attention it deserves, for us to make the money we deserve, we have to grin and bare [sic] …rape…’”
Curdina, an athlete, and an ardent fan of women’s football world-wide, had reactions to the pictures of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (31), Danica Patrick and Brandi Chastain which at first glance seem to be opposite to Donna’s reactions (above) to the expression on Chastain’s face. Both Donna and Curdina are horrified, but for opposite reasons:
My tactile reaction — all of these pictures are sexual titillation.
All of these pictures are offensive to me, because they objectify women using pin-up pictures and the allure of attractive women who are available for every male desire, but the one that is most disturbing to me is Brandi Chastain’s nude body, laughing and absolutely delighted to show herself except her private parts — titillation — to get male and female attention. “Don’t I have a great body?” Women play into this sexist marketing too, internalized sexism is deep among women. They [corporate marketers] couldn’t do this kind of marketing if women didn’t collude with it. The woman in the skimpy bikini is not aimed at a women’s audience but a male audience.
The first one [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] is also problematic because it centralizes male power, the male is the one to please; successful sportsmen attract all the sexy women who will kiss you and do anything sexual you desire. These are each examples of systemic and specifically institutional sexism.
I should say the first picture [Earnhardt] is not only about sexism but male supremacist power; a successful man has women flocking to him ready to put out.
Another tactile reaction is revulsion at the 3rd picture [Chastain]. The other 2 are so commonplace, tons of products in the world use women’s and girl’s bodies to market them. I and other women are desensitized to them. If asked, we can decry the objectification of women’s bodies, but there is not an immediate tactile reaction. But the Chastain picture is outright prostitution.
Owusu, an avid footballer who regards himself, and is regarded by others, as on the level of a semi-professional, responded to the pictures of Patrick and Chastain by pointing out that, “Women’s bodies are always used to sell sex. As a society this is a basic value — women’s bodies are for men’s pleasure. People get upset when they see a woman breast feeding her baby in public. This cuts two ways: (1) This act is ‘protested’ because the scene is sexualized; this is common in a society where rape, sexual molestation of children, incest and other acts of violence against women and children are part of the daily norm. (2) To the extent that women’s breasts are solely sexual organs, from the male supremacist perspective, the woman who breast feeds her baby in public is being sexually exhibitionist. To this same degree are women footballers expected to pose nude for promotion of the sport. This is the bottom-line reason-to-be for a woman’s body. This [latter image] is not exhibitionism; it’s not pornography. It’s good marketing.”
Media perspectives In their content analysis of the coverage of the 1999 Women’s World Cup by six of the largest newspapers (by volume of readership) in the country, Christopherson (et al, 2002) found that at least the commentary of 576 articles, but in most cases in the specific focus of the articles, the subject of the soccer players as women was introduced. When covering men’s sports, there is no commentary on the players as men. African American analysts have for scores of years documented how in instances of mainstream/dominant culture media coverage of certain types of events, such as crime for example — victims and perpetrators — the news will announce the nationality of the victim or perpetrator if they are Black, while be silent about the nationality if the subject is White American. Far from trying to hide the White victims or perpetrators from public scrutiny, this practice has been proven to be a reflex from the white supremacist understanding that if the nationality is not mentioned it is taken for granted that the subject is from the “normal humans” population, that is, White people. Likewise with men and women: when speaking about US footballers, commentators spend no time talking about men as men because it is taken for granted that sport, football, etc., is the territory of normal humans, that is, men. In the course of the last 40 years this practice with regard to White people vs People of Color has been reduced drastically. Not so for women in sports. Indeed, women’s football in the US has been shown to be very current fertile ground for what is largely a past practice in the case of African Americans.
Researchers of media coverage of women’s football have discovered four ways to present gender bias: (1) “…[C]ommentators on CNN and ESPN sports programs have been found to be more likely to refer to the families and dating situations of female athletes than their male counterparts” (Eastman and Billings, 2000). (2) When referring to women football players, commentators tend to undermine or neutralize words which convey images of power or strength.
(3) The stories about women athletes emphasize images of grace, balance and aesthetics — in women’s ice-skating and gymnastics, generally, but when covering football, this manifest focus on gracefulness takes up a significant amount of space vis a vis the almost non-existent coverage of aesthetics for men footballers (2000).
(4) Women’s past lives unrelated to sports are disproportionately thrown in gratuitously.
In the survey of 576 articles on women’s football (Christopherson, et al) fully 31% of the articles referred to the sex appeal/body parts of the subjects, while 8% spoke of how much the women were being paid. There is a built-in limitation to this statistic as a finding vis a vis their male counterparts. Given that the vast majority of commentators of US men’s football are men, were any of them to make reference of the sex appeal/sexual body parts of their subjects, they would stand the overwhelmingly substantial risk of being “outed” as Gay — yet another intermingling of social ills, this time of hetero supremacy and male supremacy.
Again from Christopherson’s (et al, p.179) 576 articles;
Interestingly, many articles expressed the idea that the players [US Women’s Cup team] were good role models or promoted women’s empowerment because of their sex appeal…. Focusing on women’s sex appeal is often done in a way that clearly objectifies women, but in this case it was frequently used to explain why the women’s team was popular, or, ironically, to demonstrate advances in gender equality. The message was clear: women as sex objects leads to women’s empowerment. Articles commented directly about the team’s (hetero) sex appeal as a reason for its success and popularity with the general public.
In this example, the sexualizing of women football players, the purport of which is generally understood to be in the service of male “needs,” is now turned into a moral cause for the advancement of women. Wright and Clarke (1998) address the hetero aspect of this form of social gendering when they point out that when “attributes suggesting hegemonically masculine characteristics are used with individual women, these are usually countered by references that clearly indicate the heterosexual credentials of the women” (p. 238), by either referencing her physical credentials, her feminine behavior, or by gratuitously inserting mention of her husband and children.
The perspectives of professional marketers Marketing analyst Hellen Oti-Yeboah, in her article entitled “Marketing Lessons from The US Women’s Soccer Team,” puts forward what the present study characterizes as the traditional “address-no-controversy” version of marketing when she extols the US World Women’s Soccer team’s “emotionally compelling commercial” tagged “America has a score to settle.” She says this marketing device capitalizes on inspiring US fans, and helps “eliminate the melancholy that fans felt after the [men’s loss], with hopeful enthusiasm and excitement for the possibilities of evening the score” (2015). This proposition regarding marketing remarkably avoids addressing the substance of the dominant way of presenting women’s soccer, a substance which is smothering the female half of the sport. Another article by Oti-Yeboah, “Equal Pay Day, April 12: Let’s Speak Up” (2016), underscores the contradictions seen throughout the present study, where women are at once called upon to be the loving care-givers, and at the same time need to be strong enough to demand to be treated as humans beyond gender stereotyping:
As women we often tend to play the understanding-nurturing role, even at the workplace. So we sometimes justify why it’s okay for us not to be paid more or at least just us much us our male counterparts. While the nurturing nature of women is part of what makes most women excellent mothers, it is also what sometimes stops us from speaking up and asking for what we deserve.
The contradiction between these two testimonies is emblematic of the role which marketing plays in keeping women’s soccer in a position of second-class citizenship. Oti-Yeboah has a small online blog called MarketingWorld.com which represents her small marketing firm. She does not work for the giant corporations who presently determine the content of marketing for US women’s football. Until people like Oti-Yeboah are part of a united movement for equality and social justice, her admonitions regarding women “standing up,” will sound like a whisper.
Speaking to the above–mentioned need for a women’s movement perspective to “speak up!” referred to by Oti-Yeboah, Fink (et al, 2002), explained that corporate marketers co-opt feminist marketing theory, and in their turn prostitute its content to serve the primary goal of profit-making. Referencing NBC’s portrayal of the “Year of the Woman” in sports (1996), they point out that:
This marketability of feminism was further explored within NBC’s handling of the 1996 Olympics… [T]he substantial market forces at work and importance of American female viewership to the monetary success of NBC’s venture marshaled a rhetoric of equality to magnify profits, and yet did so by continuing to replicate traditional gender ideologies (Fink, et al, 6; emphasis added).
Speaking of this NBC-created “Year of the Woman” in sport campaign, Andrews (1998) concurred:
Predictably, NBC’s primetime coverage focused on the predetermined hyper-femininity of gymnasts such as Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceneau, and Kerry Strug… Of course there is nothing inherently feminine about these sporting activities, or any other activity for that matter. However, all of them have long been culturally coded as signifying the type of vulnerable, aesthetic, and hetero-sexualized embodied femininity around which NBC chose to center its Olympic reality (p.12).
It is the corporate marketing of women’s soccer which promotes the “culture code,” and is interested in maintaining the status quo for women’s soccer in the US. They “marshal a rhetoric of equality” while actually promoting inequality and subjugation.
The perspectives of owners, administrators, executives and stockholders Four months after the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup, Republicans in the US Senate blocked a resolution enjoining the sport’s international administrator, FIFA, to pay men and women equally. While this blocked bill may have been a symbolic measure, nevertheless, its proposal and the blocking of the proposal belie the perspective that says these issues, the pay of women athletes, the marketing of gender biased images which support such discriminatory pay, are not social and political issues, but merely about “culture and entertainment.” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee made this clear in his statement of objection to the bill:
We have a budget to pass. We have a debt crisis to fix. We have an education system that needs reform… That’s what the United States Senate ought to be spending time on, rather than offering opinions and resolutions about a private international entity and how they should award prizes (quoted in Davidson, 2015).
This Republican US Senator is acting, ipso facto, as a political representative of FIFA. This is the same Senator who found the time to introduce a resolution declaring June 20th “American Eagle Day.”
David Whitley, of Orlando Sentinel, after making “jokes” about how he likes women as long as they “dress real pretty and bring my coffee on demand,” followed Senator Alexander’s lead by referencing what he claims are the vastly lower revenues of women’s soccer. He made the argument that lower pay isn’t about discrimination; it’s about capitalism. Whitley concluded: “In the real world, the free market speaks. And when the question is why women soccer players don’t make as much as men, the answer is sad, but simple. They’re not worth it” (Davidson).
The fact is that the free market isn’t free of human behavior and gender assumptions.
Decisions are made every day in leagues, media outlets and corner offices that reinforce women’s soccer’s second-class status and limit the sport’s value. There is a strong case to be made that women players aren’t worth less because the fans or market have decided as such, but because men like Whitley have (2015).
Let us take a look at the element of sponsorship: The Women’s World Cup generated $17 million in sponsorship revenue for Fox’s U.S. broadcast. Last year’s men’s tournament brought in $529 million for ESPN. This could be understood as proof that the women’s game is inherently worth less than 3% of the men’s. What it really means is that executives, corporate men, from sponsors, marketers, advertisers, broadcasters and FIFA simply think that to be the case, underestimating the potential demand for women’s soccer (Harris, 2015).
In an article entitled, “Soccer’s sexist political economy: Women’s soccer players are paid poorly because of a patriarchal funding model — not because their game is inferior,” published by the magazine, Jacobin (2015), Zach Zill has a concurrent interpretation of the reason for the monetary gap. This article is quoted here at length because of its broad overview and clarity:
The key thing to understand is that FIFA agrees on a price with the sponsors and TV broadcasters that’s based on their (i.e. their mostly male top executives’) perceptions of the value of the WWC. Those perceptions are tainted by sexist assumptions, primary among them being that 1) there is less of a market for women’s soccer and 2) that the women’s game is of a lower quality. Therefore, all parties agree to prices for sponsorships and TV rights that are far below those for the men’s tournament. The TV broadcasters then go on to sell ad spots for the games that again, are valued much less than the equivalent ad spots would be for a men’s game.
This sexism, built directly into the economics of women’s soccer, leads to several results: the sponsors and broadcasters, having paid less for their rights, don’t market the WWC as aggressively as they do the men’s tourney. Additionally, different companies sponsor the women’s tournament, often makers of specialty products sold exclusively to women, such as Tampax (Zill, 2015).
The broadcasters, in these circumstances, simply do not promote women’s soccer as aggressively to fans. When the media attention in the US surrounding the men’s World Cup is compared to that of the women’s, it is easily seen that the executives and the marketers they employ don’t expect the women to garner as much interest. Sports economist David Berri explained, “If the ‘free market’ is driving coverage, why doesn’t the coverage match the interest?” (Ourand, 2013).
Many react with derision at the notion that soccer executives would ever leave perfectly good money on the table. Did these same type of executives “leave good money on the table” when excluding African Americans from pro sports? In fact, yes! This is exactly what happened:
U.S. television ratings for the Women’s World Cup final blew every other soccer match out of the water, including the 2014 men’s final between Germany and Argentina. Sponsors should be kicking themselves for undervaluing the tournament and failing to capitalize on the exposure to the 24.5 million people who tuned into Fox to watch the U.S. defeat Japan (Ourand, 2013).
Berri, quoted above, identified an even more stark demonstration of this phenomenon: the difference in attitude regarding men’s Major League Soccer and the Women’s National Basketball Association. “The WNBA gets better TV ratings than the MLS. But the MLS is believed to be a league that is doing well. WNBA is thought to be struggling” (Ourand).
Berri explains this corporate attitude:
Perceptions of gender are driving the behavior of the participants in the market. And that is influencing the results we see. So yes, women’s soccer generates much less revenue than men’s, but that’s not a fact that disproves sexism in the pay gap. Quite the contrary (quoted in Ourand).
US Soccer, instead of standing by its players, waged a lawsuit against them. It should have demanded only the best facilities and conditions for athletes who devote their lives to the chance to play in the Women’s World Cup. The United States has the capacity and fields to host a world cup on grass. US Soccer should have opposed FIFA’s decision. US Soccer should have volunteered to host games on grass or at the very least paid to have grass put down in Canadian stadiums. Instead they fought against a lawsuit.
Players suffered further indignities at the Women’s World Cup. In stark contrast to men’s tournaments, teams that played against each other were forced to share hotels before and after the games, hurting teams preparation for the next games. This is not an anomaly. When traveling to the 2012 Olympics, the Japanese women’s team flew coach while the men’s team flew first class on the same flight. The women’s team were the reigning World Cup champions at the time and were favored to win gold at the Olympic Games. The men’s team was neither (Ourand).
The massive underfunding of the women’s leagues when compared to the man’s comes at a time when women’s soccer is more popular than ever. Record numbers of people both attended the most recent World Cup tournament as well as watched it on TV. To the extent that FIFA is organized around the principal of maximizing profits for their sponsors, to that degree do the corporate sponsors and FIFA believe that the women’s game generates less revenue.
Using the logic of the profit motive in its most short sited appropriation of the principle, these arguments might make sense. For those who love the game of soccer, these arguments are doi not make sense. For those who favor a social order in which women are treated with respect and dignity, these arguments do not make sense. The fact that a record number of people watched this year’s Women’s World Cup Final belies the theory that the women’s game is unpopular. Millions of ordinary Americans would watch women athletes on a regular basis if the games were offered to them to watch. Serena Williams and the women’s section of pro tennis have certainly proven this — for almost a decade, women’s pro tennis has been more popular than men’s.
The perspectives of researchers, analysts and activists In surveying various human rights and social justice movements, mass people’s organized efforts to change their conditions for the better, and looking at the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in particular, the record shows that when the people most affected by the presenting issues begin to take leadership in the movement, it is then that the movement begins to achieve the desired results. It is in this connection that the voices and actions of the players themselves, and their supporters among the football fan-base and women’s rights base, are the most important indicator of the direction and power of the movement.
In March 2016, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca (Becky) Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing US Soccer of employment discrimination.
In March 2016, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca (Becky) Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing US Soccer of employment discrimination.
The feminists in academia and in the social services and human services sectors have provided valuable information in exposing the negative reality which the social construction of gender in US professional football marketing has created for women and against the creation of a truly human cultural phenomenon in men’s and women’s football. The resulting gender divide has been inspected, dissected, and inventoried by the theorists of the women’s movement. There is no doubt that the players have been influenced by this research, and by the literature coming from the political activist community inside the women’s rights movement. At this moment in time, it is the players themselves, those most affected by the discriminatory and dehumanizing gender biased marketing of pro soccer, who are taking the lead in organized actions. The history of social movements shows that this is the key to progress.
In 2015, more than twenty-five million people in the United States watched the US women’s team defeat Japan to win the World Cup Championship — this was the largest-ever television audience to watch a broadcast of any football game, men’s or women’s. After this same victory in 1999, the women could be said to have “gone back to their place” in society — “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.” Not so, after this 2015 victory. In fact, while the game was being played the legal team for the US women’s lawsuit against FIFA was hard at work developing their appeal.
The story covering the 2015 victory in the New Yorker magazine unfolds a very different picture from that of 1999:
The women are making two different appeals, one aimed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the case was filed, and one aimed at the public. One argument is economic and grounded in employment law. The other is about social justice (Thomas, 2016).
The players went public because, in the words of their attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, they feel an obligation to speak for women in the workplace. “It’s about doing the right thing, the fair thing. It’s about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, no matter their gender” (quoted in Thomas, 2016). When the players themselves act on the principle that this is about more than their own pay, but is in fact about women’s rights in general, it is at this point that the power of their protest is exponentially magnified. To turn this issue into a human rights campaign is to directly address the role of the way women are marketed, and the harm this discriminatory and dehumanizing marketing has on the sport, and on the culture of which it is a part.
Indeed, in Carli Lloyd’s memoirs ( Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) she directly addresses the broad affect their lawsuit has. She speaks to the US Soccer marketing department, which she says never did enough to promote her, nor did they do enough to promote the team.
An article entitled, “Women’s World Cup Exposes Rampant FIFA Sexism,” reporting on the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (Reilly, 2015), had a subtitle “Organize to Fight Back.” Indeed, a story about what is normally entertainment is the grist of a human rights campaign. The elite players objected to discriminatory treatment regarding their playing conditions. “A group led by Abby Wambach of the United States and Marta of Brazil filed a lawsuit against FIFA and Canada Soccer alleging that the playing conditions were discriminatory. “No other World Cup, or major tournament has ever been played on turf.”
Typically, FIFA simply denied the discriminatory treatment, and refused to answer the lawsuit. After much negotiation, the players decided to drop the lawsuit. But, Abby Wambach insisted,
I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields, and the tremendous public support we received during the effort, marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports (Reilly, 2015).
This presentation is made, not by a political activist, nor a feminist professor. It is made by a women football player. She is calling for the presentation of women’s sport to reflect dignity, respect, equality and fairness across gender lines.
Chapter Five — Conclusion
A built-in debunking of social stereotyping is evidenced in the testimony of dozens of women in this study: Far from there being one box (or two) in which to drop all women and their views, there are 360 degrees of views on the subject of marketing documented here. Some of the elite players believe that by going along with the gender roles as they are prescribed by corporate male supremacist marketing, they will eventually be granted improvements in pay and working conditions. Some top US women’s soccer players think that posing nude with soccer balls in front of their private parts is the most effective way of marketing the sport.
As a qualitative study which did not rely on surveys with a statistically significant sample size, the findings here are more in keeping with the painting of a picture — one which reveals highs and lows, but evinces a clear direction in the flow of events. The most recent history since the 1990’s shows clear gains made by women’s soccer. This history shows that in comparison with the men, the women have an excellent product. The history shows, furthermore, that the women are not competing against the men; they are more interested in being valued as extremely skilled and successful athletes.
Taking the range of differences into account, the social movement regarding the marketing of women’s soccer is going clearly in the direction of a mass people’s campaign. This campaign for equal rights and for dignity and respect for the women’s contribution to the art form, women’s football in the US, is replacing or superseding the corporate marketing model which would have some of the players going home after their masculine-like athletic feats, and taking of their shoes, so that they can take care of the babies, and get busy with the pots and pans in the kitchen. This corporate marketing model, which would have another section of these athletes pose nude or wear sexually suggestive soccer outfits while on the field, is becomimg part of the past.
The evidence provided in this study shows that, far from going back to the kitchen (this researcher sees nothing wrong with the kitchen, so long as men and women are spending equal time there…), the US women’s footballers have social support. The women’s movement as a whole, and its supporters in the society at large, is increasingly taking up for women pro soccer players, is seeing common ground with these fantastic athletes, and is merging the other major social issues of our time with the fight for equality and human rights of US women’s soccer players.
Finally, the fact that the women players themselves have not only, in earnest, taken up for their own cause, but have openly linked it to wider human rights issues; that they not only have taken the lead on issues such as equal rights for equal pay, but have done so for all women and all people rather than merely for their team; the fact that they have identified themselves as being part of a people’s movement for human rights in general; each of these together have been shown historically to be the threshold of major success in their efforts at changing their conditions for the better.
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