Will men be the winners once again?

The most discussed action of the World Cup was Chastain's triumphant removal of her shirt
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THINK SOCCER, and what do you see in your mind's eye? New lads joining with New Labour ministers to support their tribal loyalties. Fanatically chanting away team fans shepherded by mounted police from station to stadium and back again. All set against the grey, drizzly British weather. Well, think again.

Think a sunlit stadium in glorious Technicolor surrounded by acres of car parks; think the leafy streets and clean air of prosperous suburbia. Think iced tea and smiling good manners. Above all, think Girls. This is the face of soccer in the US, and it was illustrated in all its washed and brushed urbanity at the weekend, when the United States beat China to retain the women's World Cup in front of a capacity crowd at the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

The success of the US women and the soccer-mania (hardly too strong a word) that their progress through the competition generated in the white middle-class strongholds of suburban America illustrated the phenomenal rise of women's soccer. No fewer than 100,000 girls started playing soccer between 1990 and 1997, and the pace has accelerated since then. More than 650,000 tickets were sold for the 32 tournament matches, and there were more than 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl last Saturday, some of whom paid touts many times the face value of their tickets for admission. The television audience was estimated at 40 million, a record for any soccer game, men's or women's, screened in the US. No fewer than 19 companies stumped up more than $6m in sponsorship.

In the wake of this national, sporting and commercial triumph, America's never-reticent commentators have crowded the airwaves and newspaper columns to say what it all means. A favourite view, especially among women, is that it heralds the breakthrough of women's team sports into the US big time, with the money, the contracts and the television time, to match.

Margaret Carlson in Time magazine compared the US performance to the breakthrough in politics by the female presidential candidate, Elizabeth Dole. Women's sports, said USA Today, have taken "a giant leap"; the match was a "defining moment for women's sports", signifying their "arrival". Only a very few, male, commentators dared to suggest that the women's soccer-fest might be a one-day, media-hyped wonder.

Hyped or real, the success of women's soccer may be more significant for what it says about the state of the nation than it does about the future - glorious or not - of women's team sports. The racial make-up of the winning team and the fans - mostly white - showed just how segregated today's America remains. Only suburban schools in pleasant suburbs - populated overwhelmingly by white Americans - have the space and money for sports fields. Black children by and large play basketball; even baseball is on the decline in city schools, because there is no space for the diamond-pitches and no money to maintain the ones that exist.

That soccer became a girls' game was a direct product of the long-standing male domination of team sports in the US and the belated attempt to redress the balance. Until very recently, the pattern in schools and colleges was that boys played sports, girls cheered them on. When in 1972, a federal order, Title IX, required public funds to be equalised across boys' and girls' sports, soccer was one sport where girls could take the field. The prospects (and the money) were all in basketball, baseball, American football and ice-hockey, and the men had them sewn up.

The effects of Title IX, a by-product of the women's movement that drew broader support from the clear inequities of sports funding, have been impressive. Before 1972, one girl participated in school and college sport for every 27 boys. Now, that figure is one to three. On some college campuses, there are complaints from men who have seen teams in traditional male sports disbanded, coaches laid off for lack of funds and overgenerous subsidies, as they see it, for women's "fringe" sports, some of which are not even taken up.

Money may not be everything. But for all the men's complaints, Title IX has brought a sharp increase in girls' participation in sport that contrasts favourably with the decline in Britain, where the squeeze on extracurricular activities and the sell-off of playing fields have contributed to a precipitate fall in school sport that has disproportionately affected girls. Nonetheless, the exponential growth of women's sport in the US, combined with the outburst of enthusiasm for women's soccer, do not mean that women's team sports are on the threshold of the big time, however much American sports and social commentators would like that to be so.

To be sure, the social and ethnic composition of the soccer constituency makes the sport a sure bet for advertisers. Those "soccer moms" you heard so much about during the past two US presidential elections - family-orientated women who also work, and spend much of their spare time ferrying their children to safe and improving activities in their four-wheel drive mega- cars - do not just have votes, they have money, and they are very willing to spend it. The World Cup Final attracted abundant advertising for a set of high-margin products associated with this income group. Chevrolet Suburban cars, expensive sportswear, pills and potions for "women's" ailments, to name but a few. The desirability of this audience, just stuffed with ABC1s, guarantees that women's soccer will continue to attract sponsors, and that its popularity - fuelled by commercial money - will grow.

But professional sport in the US, even more than elsewhere, is driven by celebrities. Girls' and women's soccer has made team spirit the supreme rule, which is one reason why the genteel middle class likes it so much. "We are like sisters," said one member of the winning side. But the advent of celebrities could lose the sport just the sort of fans the advertisers love so much - any hint of personal exhibitionism is deployed by its fans.

Which brings us, like it or not, to the small matter of sex. The women's sports that attract most money on this side of the Atlantic are individual sports, such as ice-skating and gymnastics, where "cuteness" counts. The most reported, discussed and photographed action of the World Cup final was not any heroic sporting manoeuvre, but Brandi Chastain's triumphant removal of her shirt after she clinched the US victory in the penalty shoot-out. If women's soccer does turn professional, more such moments may be demanded.

Even if it jazzes up its act, some are doubtful whether the structure of the game of soccer is really suited to prime time television. An uninterrupted 45 minutes, followed by extra time if needed (and, only then, the drama of a shoot-out), is deemed to offer too few opportunities for commercial breaks. Big-money team sports such as basketball, American football and ice-hockey allow for multiple "time-outs" - short rest periods that can be taken at a time of a side's choosing, and have become a tactical tool of the end game. Time-outs can expand the last five minutes of game time into a tension-filled half-hour peppered with commercials.

Even if women's soccer were to make the big breakthrough, there are compelling reasons why the longer-term beneficiary, if any, would be the game of soccer rather than women's team sports in general. If serious money makes its way into soccer, men are likely to follow. Interest in men's soccer is already growing, and will continue to do so, fostered in part by the steadily increasing clout of Hispanic Americans for whom soccer is a passion. And once soccer is established as a man's game, we will start to hear the familiar litany of "faster, stronger, more exciting" that is recited to justify men's higher pay and glitzier promotions.

The experience of women's professional basketball is instructive. More than a year after it came into being, the women's league - arguably the real breakthrough for women's team sports in the United States - remains solvent, but a sideshow, thoroughly outshone by the superstar-studded, all-male National Basketball Association.

This may be as good as it gets for women's team sports: a radical and praiseworthy advance on three decades ago, but hardly the equality with men that advocates of women's sport are hailing in the afterglow of the US soccer squad's World Cup victory.