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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Women's soccer no longer obscure? Let's hope not

Written by Amy Nakamoto
Executive Director

As I watched the brilliant match between Japan and the U.S. on Sunday, I had oscillating emotions of pride, fear, sheer joy, and shock.

I am a fan of the women’s game. I never stopped being a fan since 1999. I never even stopped being a fan since the storied 1991 team.

Even in my utter heartbreak from the result on Sunday, I feel a sense of optimism that what we were all a part of that day MAY endure in some substantial way . . .

I feel incredibly proud, and I guess relieved, that the level of play displayed was of the highest caliber, men or women, that I’ve seen in a long time. The technical ability, speed of play, strength of tackles, and tactical sharpness of both teams had to impress even the biggest detractors of women’s soccer.

I am relieved because Sunday’s game unveiled to the world what us fans have known for years: that women’s soccer is a force, it’s worthy of attention, and those women should be DONE trying to prove themselves for the game’s sake or for the sake of every girl who will follow in their footsteps.

As the game’s popularity has waxed and waned since 1999, I have seen the collective effort of passionate players, owners, coaches and general managers try to make two professional leagues work in the US — the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), which crippled after three seasons and the loss of millions, and still-operating Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS).

The Washington Freedom of the WUSA and WPS played in the DC area through the 2010 season. On that roster, among many other U.S. and international stars, were Abby Wambach, Homare Sawa (Japan), Lisa DeVanna (Australia) and Sonia Bompastor (France). These four displayed some of the best skill during this year’s World Cup and were their countries’ stars. (USA),

The Freedom, with all of this star power, averaged less than 5,000 fans per game in two seasons.

Even more incredibly, the breathtaking and utterly jaw-dropping play of Marta (five-time FIFA player of the year) has been displayed on two teams (the L.A. Sol and FC Gold Pride) that were not able to support enough of a fan base to sustain their existence.

Are you kidding me?

To market WPS, players and teams had great attitudes and strategies that involved numerous local player appearances, volunteering in the community, working with clubs, and in our case, Wambach judging the DC SCORES Poetry Slam!. These women cared so much about making the league and the game popular, they weren’t picky in how their ‘stardom’ was used as, sadly, they were relatively obscure in the larger landscape of professional sports, let alone soccer.

Whatever the measure we take from Sunday — which, with 13.5 million viewers in the U.S., was the highest-rated ESPN soccer game EVER, men’s or women’s, and set a world record for Tweets per second (7,196) — my hope for the sport is that we have crossed a line, reached a tipping point.

I wait with bated breath, hoping these U.S. (and international) athletes will no longer be obscure.
For the first time in my life, I want a group of athletes to be ‘unavailable’ — unavailable because they don’t have to be their own promoters; unavailable because they are garnering so much attention that they must discriminate in their commitments and endorsements; and unavailable because they are busy playing in a thriving league that does not have to reduce the number of franchises or games played just to prevent owners and sponsors from losing significant investments into the game.

There is an intensity to these moments and weeks after the World Cup for me that almost mirrors the intensity of the WWC championship — I read all of the promising articles and I’m twisting, willing, wanting this popularity to push the women’s game out of obscurity, just the way I was willing and wanting to push the U.S. to victory on Sunday.

I can only hope for a different result for the game at-large.

Amy Nakamoto was a four-year varsity soccer player at N.C. State and coached the women's soccer team at Bryn Mawr College for three seasons.

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