This was supposed to be the year of women’s sports. In 2019, over a billion people watched soccer's World Cup and hundreds of millions tuned in to the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in cricket. The players in the WNBA reached a historic collective bargaining agreement, and women’s college basketball continued to bring in big crowds. The National Women’s Soccer League got a major attendance boost following the World Cup, including a record of 25,218 fans at a Portland Thorns game. NCAA softball is now a revenue sport.
In 2019, over a billion people watched soccer's World Cup and hundreds of millions tuned in to the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in cricket.
According to the Deloitte Center for Technology, Media & Telecommunications’ “2020 Sports Industry Outlook,” “the rise of women’s sports” was at the top of their list of predictions earlier this year. “The momentum around women’s sports has also opened unparalleled opportunities for the creation of new professional leagues, franchises, corporate sponsorships and increased ticket sales,” the reports reads. “This groundswell could represent a tipping point for women’s sports, powered by the increasing exposure of teams and athletes."
And then COVID-19 happened and nearly all sports around the world were indefinitely suspended. We did not get to watch Sabrina Ionescu attempt to lead Oregon to an NCAA basketball title to cap an amazing college career. The Olympics were postponed for a year so no Team USA basketball or soccer — and no Simone Biles. Serena Williams will not be at Wimbledon seeking a 24th Grand Slam title. All of the momentum that had been gathering steadily for the past few years is now lost, and I am worried about it.
The year of women’s sports thriving has turned into the year of women’s sports survival. That women’s sports have historically and systematically been marginalized is not a revelation. Even Title IX, the federal law mandating equity in education, which has certainly made things better, has not resulted in equality. So, of course the impact of the fallout from COVID-19 will be unequal because the history of women’s sports is one of inequality.
Women’s soccer is a good example of all of this at once.
Late on May 1, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner ruled against a substantial portion of the U.S. women’s national team’s pay equity class action lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. He tossed their claims of unequal pay, saying they had voluntarily entered into a different collective bargaining agreement than the men’s team and “cannot now retroactively deem their CBA worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT's pay-to-play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure." The women had pointed that over the last five years (the time frame the lawsuit covered) they’ve had to win almost every single match they’ve played, while the men’s team has lost nearly all of theirs and still end up with roughly the same pay. That argument found no sympathy with the court.
This news about the U.S. women’s national team was demoralizing. They’ve been fighting U.S. Soccer for four years. While Klausner left active the part of the lawsuit about discriminatory travel conditions and unequal access to personnel and support services like medical care and training, the meat of the lawsuit is gone. The one silver lining is that U.S. Soccer has a new CEO and a new president, the second because someone had to go after U.S. Soccer filed blatantly misogynistic filings in defense of their case this year. Perhaps the new folks in charge will give the women’s national team the money and resources they clearly have earned.
The team is seeking to appeal the ruling. But it was really only the final blow in a rough week for women’s soccer globally.
The Guardian reported that “the president of the Haitian football federation has been accused of sexually abusing young female footballers at the country’s national training centre.” This comes on the heels of reports of sexual abuse and assault within the Afghanistan and Colombian soccer federations.
FIFPro, the global union for professional soccer players, released a major report titled ”Raising Our Game: Lifting Up Women’s Professional Football.” While the game is growing, FIFPro found that “short seasons and financial shortcomings are a burden for players,” and so has called for global minimum employment standards. In an earlier report in April that focused specifically on COVID-19’s impact on the women’s game, FIFPro warned, “The current situation is likely to present an almost existential threat to the women’s game if no specific considerations are given to protect the women’s football industry.”
Alongside this, the Fare Network, an organization that works to end inequality in soccer, reported that Latin American women’s soccer continues to struggle with serious cases of gender discrimination and harassment. And now, the organization says, “as the continent fights off the Coronavirus decisions being made by owners and administrators show that Fútbol Femenino is being given a low priority and in some cases seen as expendable.”
FIFA has promised that it will not reduce the funding it pledged for women’s soccer, but it also has a dismal record when it comes to supporting the women’s game. Even now, FIFA has not announced where the 2023 World Cup will be hosted and probably won’t announce a location until at least the fall. This means potential host cities will have almost no time to build facilities or update existing ones. By contrast, Qatar found out it was hosting the 2022 men’s World Cup back in 2010. Even before the pandemic, FIFA refused to prioritize the biggest women’s tournament in the world.
The legal setbacks for women’s soccer, the cancellation of women’s leagues, FIFA still not setting a World Cup location for 2023 — together they remind us that the fight for women’s sports is always uphill and always happening.
But that sad reality is what also gives me hope. Phaidra Knight, a former rugby player and foundation ambassador for the Women's Sports Foundation, recently told Forbes that she felt OK about women’s sports precisely because of how its institutions have fought to get where they are now, “There's an opportunity for women to come out of this thing strong,” she said. “[Women’s sports] are used to surviving off of bare minimum and making something out of nothing. It's just what we do. It's the nature of our existence as athletes.”
Women’s sport is good at innovation, at making something out of little and doing it well. It is also, collectively, a viable product; 2019 showed us that. And whenever sports resume, we need stakeholders — media, fans, organizations — to be loud, annoyingly so, about this. We can’t take our eyes off the ball.