Question of the Week: Does Women’s Soccer Have a Fan Problem?
Over the past week, a debate has sprouted over sports fandom. On Thursday, a Twitter firestorm raged over the writers/founders of the website While The Men Watch being invited to offer commentary on CBC during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with most commenting focusing on their lack of serious supportership of hockey or sports in general. On Sunday, the author of Happy Go Snarky put out a screed to the Atlanta soccer community decrying their lack of support for the W-League defending champion Silverbacks in light of their support for a VERY BAD Atlanta Beat team last season (a team that won ONE game out of 18 in WPS in 2011). The debate over whether her call-out was just aimed at her local situation or could be extrapolated to the women’s soccer supporters community in general (with the focus of such being the backers of the USWNT), combined with the Thursday piece, brought me to ponder whether there is a fan problem in women’s soccer, such that fans aren’t really backers of the game itself but rather are “fangirls” of specific players. Has women’s soccer supporter culture evolved in the decade or so since the US won the Women’s World cup in 1999 and launched WUSA in 2001, or is it the same with just new faces, voices, and platforms to profess it? Moreso, if that is the case, does it hurt the “brand” of women’s soccer in the US at a time when the professional game has suffered the folding of a second top-level league in less than 10 years?
In my opinion, there are three types of women’s soccer fans in the U.S. The ones that love the game… anything and everything that has to do with women’s soccer. These are the fans that head down to the local high school fields to watch a cross-town rivalry. The ones that will get in their cars and drive 2 hours to catch an NAIA match. The ones that are devoted to growing the sport we know and love. The second type of women’s soccer fans are the ones that love their team, generally their team being the USWNT. They’ll buy their jerseys (even if they’re ugly), support their WPS teams (RIP), and buy every issue of ESPN The Magazine or Sports Illustrated with Hope, Alex, or Abby gracing its pages. These fans are important, because they are the ones blowing up Twitter and Facebook, demanding that games get streamed if not on TV, and pack sold-out stadiums during friendly matches. And finally, there are the women’s soccer fans that could really care less but have jumped on the bandwagon. They know who Hope Solo is, and they think Alex Morgan is hot, but if you asked who the back line consisted of they wouldn’t have a clue. Of course, it would be great to have those second and third groups of fans converting to the diehards, but do we really want to call out and question the fans that are helping women’s soccer get noticed? Maybe someday… but I don’t think that day is today.
The game of women’s soccer has evolved tremendously since 1999. I’d like to think that women’s soccer supporter culture has changed as well. As Becca mentioned, there are many types of fans and those groups of fans probably existed since the days of WUSA. Yet, unlike post-1999 years of pro women’s soccer, today, soccer fans have many social media platforms that allow them to follow their favorite athletes, teams, and support the sport. I am uncomfortable with judging and labeling groups of fans as “fangirls” or “crazy.” I also am not sure how we can define “die-hard” fans. What I do know is that the sport we love and the existing women’s soccer leagues we follow need a lot of support, and all groups of fans should be welcomed. They all help support the sport in their own ways whether it is by buying season tickets or watching games online and buying merchandise. I am not as concerned with answering the question on what kind of women’s soccer fans do we want coming out to support US Soccer. Instead, I think two pressing questions stakeholders and fans alike should consider are (1) what “brand” of women’s soccer, realistically, do we want in the US? (2) What does it take to get fans to come out to the game? If there’s a drop in attendance for teams like Atlanta Silverbacks, then why? I don’t claim to know the whole situation for the Silverbacks, but I would simply be cautious of holding fans accountable for the success of women’s soccer alone.
An hit on the head one of the key elements for the rise numerically of the current women’s soccer support base, that being social media. It has taken a fandom that used to be visible only at games or similar events into a 24/7 occurrence. I view the evolution (or lack thereof) of women’s soccer fandom from the perspective of sports business and the non-soccer fan, and I compare what exists currently to two other forms of supportership/fandom: other sports and pop culture. Women’s soccer fandom (in general) is more akin to the latter than the former. Perhaps that is due to the lack of opportunities that existed following the demise of WUSA, thus the new rise of the USWNT and the birth of WPS tapped into the next generation of the same fans that were there for the 99ers and WUSA, which is not sustainable in the long-term. Perhaps it also is due to the average age of the women’s soccer fan versus that of other women’s professional sports or the brief history of the sport in this country (MLS had a similar issue I feel until the focus of the brand returned to the game on the field and long-time soccer communities were added to the league). In any case, when the public face of women’s soccer fandom is still the same (by and large) in 2012 as it was in 2000 and the most public expressions of support for the sport and its players are indistinguishable from those for Justin Bieber or the Kardashians or Lady Gaga or the newest movie star, it doesn’t translate confidence in boardrooms to attach itself to the product or business. Can this change over time? Sure, if and when those fans end up in places of influence in the business community and can merge their fandom with the ability to actually put some skin into the business side of women’s soccer through advertising, corporate sponsorship, large-scale ticket purchasing, or even investment in a club or franchise. Therefore, to answer the questions posed, I say 1) yes in some respects, no in others, and perhaps there has been a slight devolution over the past decade brought about by the 24/7 nature of it; and 2) it can hurt the brand by limiting the sport’s ability to attract the sustainable resources necessary for long-term operation and growth because the fan base doesn’t look like that of other sports fandoms and thus cannot be banked upon to remain supportive of the product over time, and it can hurt the ability to attract new fans because of the lack of “seriousness” that seems to emanate from portions of the fan base. In ten years, might things have grown and women’s soccer supporters groups begin to look similar to that on the men’s side, or like fans of the WNBA or WTA or LPGA? I’d like to hope so.