Women’s game must address issues following World Cup party

VANCOUVER, British Columbia  —

After the party, there’s the cleanup and, unfortunately, that pesky hangover. With the 2015 Women’s World Cup having reached its thrilling conclusion, there’s now the inevitable question about what happens next for women’s soccer.

Like the aftermath of almost all the Women’s World Cups dating back to 1999, the main theme will wrap around this central schism: How come a women’s international soccer tournament can generate so much short-term interest and yet struggle to build sustainable opportunities for professional women to play and for fans to build supportive relationships?

It’s a question for the U.S. and also countries like Japan, Germany, Sweden, France and England, which also have women’s professional soccer leagues.

Just look at Japan after 2011. That earthquake-ravaged and tsunami-traumatized country was galvanized by the inspirational win by Homare Sawa and the rest of the Nadeshiko side. But the bounce from that momentous occasion hasn’t lasted.

"When we won the World Cup, people began to take notice of soccer in Asia. But the popularity has begun to decline. So I hope that by winning this World Cup we can make soccer a part of the Japanese culture, not just a fad," Japan midfielder Aya Miyama said on the eve of the Japan vs. U.S. final rematch.

The special-event nature of the World Cup seems to be addictive. Reports say that Fuji TV drew 9.3 million viewers to the Japan semifinal match against England.  

Those are incredible numbers, considering FOX reported that for the six U.S. women’s matches leading up to the final, the averaged viewership has been 5.3 million viewers. That is a 121 percent increase from the 2011 Women’s World Cup, when Abby Wambach’s thrilling header from Megan Rapinoe’s perfect cross vs. Brazil re-ignited interest in the women’s game. Tuesday’s semifinal win over Germany at times drew 12 million viewers to the FOX broadcast.

But will this time be different?

The 1999 Women’s World Cup thriller final at the Rose Bowl did not launch the U.S. women into a successful league, despite gallant efforts to capitalize on the popularity and prowess of Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and the rest of the "99ers." The Women’s United Soccer Association kicked off in 2001, two years after Brandi Chastain nailed the final penalty kick and U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry made her historic save. WUSA was launched in 2001 and lasted three years.

Next came the Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009, just months after the U.S. won another gold medal at the Olympic Summer Games in China. The WPS also lasted three years. In the U.S., the National Women’s Soccer League was launched in 2013, catapulted by the U.S. women’s national team’s surge during the 2011 Women’s World Cup, which they lost, and their gold-medal win in London during the 2012 Summer Games.

But how long can the NWSL hang on? Players like Christen Press prized her playing time in Sweden, and was part of a UEFA Champions League run there. Press have given voice to the idea that improving as a player was fostered in that overseas league. In this 2015 Women’s World Cup, about 13 percent of the players are members of the NWSL. However, the European league were far better represented, especially two French League teams; Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, which sent 14 and 12 players to the World Cup, respectively. To overlook the compelling nature of Champions League play would be to overlook a significant way in which the NWSL could have trouble retaining players.

In Portland, the Thorns draw a league-high 14,000 fans. But that isn’t translating to the rest of the league, where an average of 3,000 fans turn out to see Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, Sydney Leroux, Becky Sauerbrunn and others play in Kansas City, Houston, Rochester, NY, Seattle, New York City, Boston and Chicago.

This league is funded not just by U.S. Soccer, which is contributing millions for player salaries and staff. The soccer federations of Mexico and Canada are contributing to this league as a means of having a place for top players to train and play and build the game’s popularity.

With estimates that Canada Soccer contributes about $500,000 to the NWSL, the association’s long-term commitment to the NWSL was a topic of discussion this week in Vancouver. There’s concern that after the Olympics next summer in Rio, the association may re-think the way it wants to spend money and grow the women’s game.

"We’re going to sit down with (coach) John (Herdman) after next year and see what the best way is for that program to continue. Then we’ll re-evaluate that with Mexico and the United States," said Peter Montopoli, Canada Soccer’s general secretary.

Maybe some of this will change in the near future, now that FIFA is being brought its knees by a series of international investigations spearheaded by the U.S., which has charged FIFA officials with bribery and other counts of corruption. FIFA gains $4.5 billion from the men’s World Cup, but if a new era of leadership comes in and acknowledges the upside that women’s soccer could bring to the mix, perhaps more cash would flow to women’s soccer.

"I think people, FIFA included, can’t help but notice how popular this sport is. It’s like anything: there is always an evolution, there’s always a process to go through before equal footing is gained. I hate to say money is the driving factor in a lot of things, but this is a very popular sport. Sponsors understand it, the general public understands it, so hopefully the establishment takes note and understands that," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.