I spend a lot of time thinking about women’s soccer. It’s part of the job when you are someone who writes about women’s soccer.
I think about fans and the community around women’s soccer a lot too. It’s a community that is as diverse as it is dedicated. As adaptable as it is aggressive in its willingness to proselytize the good world of women’s soccer.
Women’s soccer and its fans have struggled during modern history due to a delightfully toxic mix of negligence from those charged with growing the game and being ignored by those who have the ability to invest in the teams that make up different leagues around the world or national teams. To be very clear the game has not struggled because the players are poor at playing soccer or because people have an inherent disinterest in women’s sports.
Fans have been pushed off and pushed away because of lack of access or lack of care taken with treating them with any kind of respect. And the ones who have survived that shuttering of fans have been left with the memory of a bitter taste in their mouth.
There are flavors of fan in women’s soccer like there are for just about any sport. We talk often in the extremes when it comes to fans or we talk about the most passionate fans without talking about the others. We hold up and praise the diehards, we often bash the casual fans for not being diehards and we disparage the social media fans as not being good enough.
When we talk about women’s soccer fans as a whole we talk about how they are rabid. Ever hungry for more. More access to games, more access to merchandise, more access to the sport they love, more devoted to the players whose jerseys they wear – if and when they can find them, and if they come in their size – on their backs. And honestly all women’s soccer fans share a hunger for more. Because over and over we have seen if you give women’s soccer fans even an inch they will pay you for the suggestion and one day there will be a foot. And, if you give them a foot, they will prepay for the full mile for themselves and all of their friends. They will fly across the world for the national teams they love, they will spend hours on public transport getting to games, they will go above and beyond for the sport and the players.
But there are limits. The very first pro women’s soccer game played in the US after the USWNT played in and won the World Cup in France saw just over 1,800 fans show up. And while the two-win Sky Blue FC and the somewhat boring Utah Royals FC are not the marquee showpieces for the league right now, it does sum up the limits of the fan base. A fan base that cares about the quality of organizations, and has a long memory when they have been mistreated or forsaken. But they also have an endless willingness to forgive, to show up, to support teams and players if just the bare minimum is shown in terms of effort.
If you boil the fans of women’s soccer down as far as you can get you can find three general forms left. The diehards are the type that can tell you who scored in the third place game for the USWNT back in 1995 or the play leading up to Tobin Heath’s free kick in the 2013 NWSL Championship game. The casuals usually can tell you the current happenings in the sport, but may stumble on the history or push the sport aside as life gets in the way. The social fan – nope, I refuse to use “stan” here even if you are all thinking it – says Megan Rapinoe is their favorite person in the media right now, have a shirt with her face on it and think her goals in the World Cup were amazing but it’s a love that is as fleeting as a viral video.
The social fans can turn in to casual fans and the casuals to diehards if they are given a chance. If they are given a reason to go from supporting just the national team, which has been around for 30 plus years, to supporting an NWSL team that may or may not be there in five years or three years or even next year. It is easier to invest your time, your social media posts, or money for a jersey or a ticket into a player like Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe because the USWNT isn’t going anywhere. The national team might break your heart, but it isn’t being disbanded anytime soon. And fans can shift between all of these stages from time to time. Pushed away by overzealous diehards or pulled in by the ones that understand how to speak their language so to speak. There are other types of fans, shades that bleed from one color to another like the lines between red and orange and yellow bleed together on a canvas.
Right now women’s soccer in the US, and really around the world, is at a crossroads in terms of how they draw people in. Not just the diehard fans and not just the social fans, but how do teams draw in the mass of casual fans and get them to give a damn long term? How do you turn someone who has a general idea of what is going on and make them passionate a year from now, five years from now when there are so many others sports and so much other entertainment in the world?
That is the billion dollar question, right? The men’s side has figured that out by and large around the world. They have multi billion dollar clubs. They have transfer fees that make MLB contracts look like chump change. They have full stadiums and professional accommodations.
The answer to all of this might be as simple as investment spent to raise the tides and to lift all the boats up. It likely is more complex than that as oversight and accountability have to come into play after all the negligence we’ve seen over the years has rotted the core in places.
The biggest asset that women’s soccer has right now is the players who play the sport, but the second is the fans who will be there in one form or another as long as there are balls to kick into nets and defenders trying their hardest to stop that from happening. The fans have shown in one form or another they will show up, show out, retweet, talk about and be there when the Yanks come marching in or the Riveters march to Providence Park. Given half of a half of a chance they always will.