Fans Love Women's Soccer. They Don't Love FIFA.
The Women's World Cup is in full swing in Canada -- Team USA won Group D and advanced to the elimination round with a 1-0 victory over Nigeria. Moreover, ratings in the U.S. have been strong. Tuesday's match garnered 5 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched women's soccer match in history. That's good news to those of us who think women's soccer -- and women's sports in general -- tend to get the short shrift from fans, media and sponsors. But that's not so good for those erroneously conflating women's soccer with scandal-laden FIFA.
The Globe and Mail's Grant Robertson has written an article rightly stating that the mounting pressure on sponsors to act against FIFA will fall on deaf ears as long as fans continue to watch soccer. It's along the lines of the countless think pieces last fall by people wondering if they could continue to watch football without feeling guilty for indirectly condoning Ray Rice. These are all fair discussions -- we're all partly to blame for the money machines that are global soccer and American football despite the rampant corruption we know or suspect.
But the problem I have with Robertson's piece is using women's soccer as his prime example of this dilemma. The argument implies that fans of the women's tournament are abetting FIFA itself, helping ensure that the corrupt body will keep its corporate sponsors. "People are not turning in their tickets to the Women’s World Cup, or saying they're not going to watch the matches on TV. At the end of the day, the sponsors will follow the fans," Jim Andrews, senior vice president at sports marketing firm IEG, told Robertson. "Until the consumers say we’re not going to support the sport because of what's going on, the sponsors will follow the fans."
I understand that that the Women's World Cup is the biggest soccer event currently taking place, but it doesn't sit well with me that he's drawing a false equivalency between support for women's soccer and support for FIFA -- especially since FIFA has hardly shown support for women's soccer at all. Women in FIFA are treated as second-class citizens, relegated to artificial turf on the pitch for this World Cup and largely excluded from the FIFA boardroom. It didn't elect a female board member until 2013, and the one women who held any real power, anti-bribery expert Alexandra Wrage, quit after FIFA refused to implement her suggestions to clean up the organization.
With women excluded from executive positions, they can't really be blamed for FIFA's corruption. And with FIFA's poor treatment of women's soccer, you can't really argue that the women's game has gained much from the fruits of those dirty dealings. That people are finally starting to take notice of the women's game isn't a testament to FIFA -- it's a reflection of the growing movement of women's soccer supporters to gain exposure and credibility for the sport, not to mention how much better the U.S. women are than the U.S. men.
If your goal is to push FIFA reform through the threat of sponsor withdrawals, there are much bigger fish to fry than the women's game. Fox Sports, which is airing all Women's World Cup matches live, estimates the tournament will raise $30 million in ad revenue. By comparison, last year's men's tournament in Brazil generated $525 million in U.S. ad revenue alone.
It's disingenuous to wag your finger at those fans who are actually, finally watching women's soccer. It's also telling that there's no mention in Robertson's piece of the fans who have continued to watch men's events throughout FIFA's ongoing controversy, from the UEFA Champions League Final to the ongoing Copa America.
If you're going to argue that watching soccer, as Malcolm Gladwell describes watching football, "is not a morally neutral act," that's fine. But don't rest that argument on a sector of the sport that has been historically disenfranchised by the very governing body you wish to subvert. Calls for fans and sponsors to demand accountability from FIFA are warranted, but leave the Women's World Cup out of it.
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