On Sunday I tuned in to watch Brazil do what Brazil does best…Scoring goals.
Norway has one of the world’s better soccer programs, especially for a country of 3 million. Yet Brazil set them ablaze going up 3-0 by the first five minutes of the second half with one goal coming from the defensive skills of Brazil’s own attacking players, who shredded Norway’s defense. The Scandinavians tried to hold off Brazil’s rampant pressure throughout 90 minutes, but as always the yellow-clad South Americans dominated.
Gauging the speed and level of play, it hadn't occurred to me, really, that this was the Women’s World Cup, not to be confused with the “regular” World Cup that Spain’s men won last summer. Surely if you watched it on a flatscreen TV 20 feet away, or if you squinted, the only thing you’d miss were the player’s ponytails. Even then, for a minute the ponytails might just have you thinking you were watching Argentina’s longhaired prettyboys on the pitch.
Brazil's dominance Sunday shows that when the world’s best techniques are ingrained in the sports-culture, women can rise to the occasion and play as well as men. Depending on the sport, it’s reasonable even to see women perform better than men. Golf, tennis, and Olympic track are some examples.
We’ve all heard from professional and armchair pundits alike, the opinion that soccer will “never make it” in America. This attitude may be a football mentality, one that sees the NFL as every sport’s benchmark. Yet, largely uninformed, it goes hand in hand with the mentality that women’s sports are just a community pageant, and aren’t to be taken seriously. But it’s clear to some of us rabid sports fans that pundits wearing blinders willfully miss the big picture.
Part of what makes some dismiss women’s sports has to do with the relative failure of women’s professional team sports. For example, the WNBA is, it seems, little more than an off-season marketing and public relations arm of the NBA. Even basketball aficionados would say that the women’s game is not in the same galaxy as the men’s league, though it does extend the NBA’s brand even if there are few dunks and fewer fans at the game. Likewise, pro softball hasn’t really taken off. Chicago’s softball team, the Chicago Bandits, play in Rosemont and their chief rivals play in Akron, suburban Nashville, and unincorporated Melbourne, Florida.
Also, the WUSA, America’s first sponsor-backed women’s pro soccer league, couldn’t hold onto the momentum from the USA’s 1999 Women’s World Cup win. The league folded in 2003, ironically the same summer that the soccer film Bend It Like Beckham sang its praises.
But this all just underscored one thing I’ve been wondering about for years. That is: Are women’s athletics consumed differently than other sports? Or, do women, as professional athletes, captivate us through different sports?
Certainly tennis has had no shortage of stars, including Venus and Serena Williams, who have been racketing for silverware almost 15 years. The Williams sisters are ranked first and second in women’s tennis earnings, with Serena ranked 4th of all time among tennis athletes, which includes men. Though the game is bigger now, each has made more money playing tennis than John McEnroe, the tennis legend.
In golf, Annika Sörenstam lead the LPGA in all-time earnings. And since her 2008 departure the LPGA has cropped up a new generation of golfers from all over the globe. Plus, Olympic athletes like Lindsay Vonn tow the line for women in sports; while a non-Olympian like Gabrielle Reece made a huge career playing pro volleyball, which is not exactly the most organized or institutionalized of sports.
Try to tell me that Brazil's women play like "girls".
Outside the main circuit, the rapid fire growth of flat-track roller derby in America poses an interesting phenomenon. Roller derby started in the 1930s but its modern version cropped up in Austin, TX when some women formed a local league of four teams in 2001. From 2005 to now, this sport has seen growth into every major city with over a hundred leagues. Teams travel competing nationally and some internationally.
While roller derby runs like a professional production among amateur sports, as few (if any) rollers get paid to skate, it occupies an interesting space in the same nest as action sports. Sure, roller derby won't bump the football out of Monday Night Football or eclipse the TV ratings of Wimbledon, yet. But similarly, the X Games, the action sports version of the Super Bowl, gained legitimacy and large media exposure by catering to Gen X and Gen Y sports fans. Now this multisport event runs in both in the winter and summer, promoted and operated by ESPN. The X Games has its own stars like Shaun White and sponsors plugged in tightly, and women compete there too. It’s fair to say roller derby will get more visibility if bigger sponsors step in to make the economics of it work, since the sport’s subculture is strong.
Off the grass, the conversation about sports has changed too. We’ve become accustomed to the latest NFL sideline news being brought to us by the minds of Pam Oliver, Wendy Nix and Suzy Kolber. Likewise the latest from the Bears training camp comes locally from Peggy Kusinski; while other Chicago voices like Julie DeCaro and Tracy Swartz at RedEye keep us on our toes, if we’re listening.
Maybe it is true that women and sports are an integral pair, and that the athletes participate in a different but equally important role as men. Still, those wearing blinders to women’s presence in sports not only miss the action, but might also get hit in the face by it.
Andy Frye writes about sports and life here, and spouts brazen, militant pro-sports propaganda to the masses on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.
pic courtesy of Gil Leora ( www.gilleora.com ) and The Windy City Rollers.