I saw the future of women’s sports last week at the Washington Spirit/Chicago Red Stars match. It didn’t look like I thought it would.
Generally, we think about Title IX, Serena Williams winning more Grand Slams than any other tennis player in the open era, or a fair wages lawsuit for the US Women’s Hockey Team. It’s these big changes on the national level that draw our attention.
But those big changes take years, and they start in small moments: when athletes refuse to settle for less than their worth. When a girl gets her shin guards signed by her favorite player. With a youth team that gets the chance to play on a real pitch at halftime of a professional match. And sometimes it looks like a swarm of little girls jumping after a ball that is hit out of play as if they were mid-thirties single women at a bouquet toss. It’s moments like these that get girls excited about playing sports, and which help them find their confidence.
And the NWSL is full of these moments. Meaning this league will help form the future of women’s sports one little fan at a time. Here are the five reasons why:
Something To Aspire To
Every adult female sports fan can see the differences between men’s leagues and women’s. It’s right there in the coverage and availability. Our games are heavy on social media, and come streaming on your computer or phone through an app. Every once in awhile we get lucky and Sam Kerr does Sam Kerr-like things and makes it on ESPN’s Top Ten. We get super pumped for that. But when kids watch, all they see is sports giants doing amazing things. They see these women fight hard for 90 minutes and do things that no one thought were possible. They see a life that they want to work hard to achieve for themselves one day. To them, the stage is plenty big. It may look small to our eyes, but it’s ginormous in theirs.
They Are Connected
Every kid wants to meet their hero, or to have a special moment at a professional game. These are opportunities that are easily achievable for the NWSL. That’s in part because the league focuses on producing a family atmosphere for the matches. They promote female youth soccer and they give these girls opportunities to be a part of all the excitement. They get to walk out onto the pitch before the match. They have the opportunity to play on the field at halftime. And they get to meet some of their idols after the game. And let me tell you, nothing is more heartwarming than seeing a kid struggle between having their favorite midfielder sign her shin guard or jersey. Not many other leagues allow the fans this experience on such a regular basis. No other league is this tangible to its fans. It can be life changing to a kid trying to find their passion in the world.
In a world where most of the female representation in the media comes from pop stars and super models, it can be difficult for a girl to find a good model of what it looks like to be a strong woman. But for every Kylie, or Miley, or Taylor, there is a Tobin Heath, or a Marta, or a Casey Short. You can be a girl from anywhere, with any background, of any color, or race, or sexual orientation and still feel like you belong in this league. For virtually anyone growing up in America today, there is someone in this league that that you can identify with. And these players are setting good examples, too. They are active in the community, stand up for they care about, and fight for what they deserve. This league embraces its players for their talents, and in turn, the players embrace their individuality. And isn’t that what we want for the next generation – to feel completely comfortable to say and be exactly who they are? The NWSL, and its players, champion that notion.
Women Helping Women For The Common Goal
In order for women’s sports to keep growing, it’s going to have to be a team effort. A league and a sport is not built on the back on an individual – no one person can carry that weight. But when women band together big things happen. Like when the US Women’s National Team demanded their fair pay after winning their third World Cup. Or when 81 players from 13 different countries sued FIFA on the grounds of gender discrimination to play on grass. Even though they lost, it still sent a powerful message to every young female fan out there – women banding together are a force to be reckoned with. But that force doesn’t always have to look like lawsuits, especially when it comes to the NWSL. Sometimes the force is female players rooting on other female players. Sometimes it’s an underdog team coming together. Sometimes it is a rivalry between two sides that is intense, but also based on respect on respect for each other’s talents and the game. But no matter what form it takes, this kind of force is a great thing for the youth to see. It sets the example for the next generation of athletes. And the NWSL promotes it.
The League Is Attainable For Everyone
Along with the league being diverse demographically, the league is also attainable for just about anyone. Most of the games are streamed live for free on go90, and others are available on a channel accessible to anyone with even the most basic cable package. Ticket prices to go see the matches live are relatively cheap – generally costing about $20-25 for general admission. And the league is growing, which means that new teams will show up, lessening the geographic distance for a lot of new fans. Sure, the more the league grows, some of the advantages discussed here will grow a little more distant. But right now, the NWSL is in the sweet spot–widely available and easily accessible to anyone who wants to join the party. Its young fans have an opportunity to watch, and learn, and feel as though they are part of a sport regardless of where they grew up or how much money they have in their pockets. Young female athletes don’t get that luxury with the WNBA or Tennis or Hockey. But the NWSL helps to ensure that the beautiful game can be enjoyed by all. And for that, they will put a bigger stamp on the future of women’s sports than most – both in popularity and in acclaim.
The growth of women’s sports doesn’t just lie in the current players’ hands. It lies in the excitement of its young fans. It resides in the girl who is in awe of the Australian that seems to beat the odds and can always find the back of the net when her team is down. It lives in the hearts and the nerves of the young goalkeeper watching her idol stand on her line during PKs in a tournament final. It’s in the girl who wears her Lloyd jersey to a pickup game after school. The NWSL knows this. It can see the excitement on their faces and it knows that giving these young girls the opportunities to connect with this league on such an intimate level will not only help produce a stronger fan base, but also the future of the sport. So to the other leagues, I would encourage them to take note. The NWSL is doing it right. They are really caring about their youth fan base. And in turn, they are caring about their future.