Days before the United States women's national team traveled to Canada for the 2015 Women's World Cup, head coach Jill Ellis was so taken aback by the amount of press at the team's media day in New York City that she later called it a "circus." But not so long ago, the same sort of attention was unthinkable.
During the first-ever Women's World Cup in 1991, just two American reporters made it to China. Five years later, women's soccer were a new addition at the Summer Olympics that were held in Atlanta. "NBC did such a poor job," says Tony DiCicco, a U.S. assistant coach at the 1991 Women's World Cup and head coach of the national team from 1994 to 1999. "None of the soccer was televised. They said they were going to televise the final and didn't.
"To my team, NBC stood for No Bloody Coverage."
And when the media finally did deign to notice the sport? Boosterish rah-rah, patronizing feel-good and straight-up sexist leering reigned. Maybe it was simply a different era. Perhaps it was a foolhardy attempt to appeal to men. Whatever the reason, the players were "girls," puffery took the place of tactical analysis and clickbait-y galleries of the hottest Women's World Cup players were the norm. Who can forget David Letterman—this guy!—repeatedly referring to members of the 1999 world champion U.S. national team as "soccer mamas" and "babe city?"
Thankfully, coverage of the women's game has turned a corner—both in quantity and quality. Yes, a sad throwback photo gallery on the Men's Fitness website has collected almost 15,000 social media shares. And yes, the New York Post gleefully reprinted a nude picture of American player Ali Krieger from ESPN The Magazine's upcoming "Body Issue" on its front page last week. However, that sort of attention has become increasingly rare, and feels increasingly archaic. In its place, the main story at the current Women's World Cup has been ... soccer.
What a concept.
What are we talking about when we now talk about Team USA? We're debating whether legendary 35-year-old striker Abby Wambach should still be in the squad's lineup, a conundrum that has produced a rash of think pieces and allowed FOX Sports to fill many hours of airtime. We're arguing over Ellis' formation and play choices: are they appropriate, iffy or downright outdated in a rapidly-evolving women's game?
In short, we're talking about the same stuff we talk about during the men's World Cup. Winning and losing. How to achieve the former. Whom to blame for the latter. (If you're a sports fan or just someone who enjoys talk radio and/or posting comments online, that part is especially important). And all of that is progress. A real step forward.
It's one thing for tactical nuts and bolts to keep all manner of writers busy. After all, that's a soccer writer's job. But it's quite another for the same X's and O's to dominate fan chatter—for the rest of us to second-guess Ellis, thinking we have a better understanding of how to press Germany, of how to get the most out of Lauren Holiday's attacking talents, of how to get Carli Lloyd further up the field, and how to properly utilize Tobin Heath and Heather O'Reilly on the flanks.
Ten years ago—maybe even five years ago—none of this would have come up. Just ask Julie Foudy, an ESPN analyst and member of the national team from 1987 to 2004.
"I was just having a conversation with Abby [Wambach] a couple of days ago, actually, and she was saying, 'I think it's great. It shows that people care and that people pay attention. They're covering us like athletes,'" Foudy says. "And I couldn't agree more. We begged for it back in the day."
The German philosopher Aurthur Schopenhauer once noted that every great scientific truth passes through three stages: ridicule, violent opposition and ultimate acceptance as self-evident. The discourse around women's soccer has undergone a similar metamorphosis—at first it was nonexistent; then it was pandering; finally, it's utterly normal. Stick-to-sports, This is SportsCenter normal, even.
Indeed, the surest measure of how far women's soccer conversation has come isn't the absence of bikini galleries; it's how a handful of juicy off-field stories haven't distracted from the games themselves. Consider ESPN's pre-tournament revelation that U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was much more aggressor than victim in her domestic abuse case from a year ago. Or take the lingering resentment about this being the first World Cup played—by either men or women—on artificial turf, which comes after a sex discrimination lawsuit by a band of leading women's players went nowhere, and after FIFA rejected one company's offer to convert the turf to grass for free.
In previous years, stories like these would have sucked up much—if not all—of the available media oxygen. Not now. Today, they feel like side stories. Interesting, but not essential. The game has become the thing.
"It's more like hardcore sports fans talking formations and personnel and tactics," says DiCicco, a Women's World Cup TV analyst for FOX Sports. "And it shows a growth in the game. It's a great testament to women and their brand of soccer."
Foudy concurs. Until recently, she would be asked to simplify her commentary and analysis, the better to play to a casual audience. "And now," she says, "I'm on SportsCenter giving a debate of whether we should be playing a three-front or a two-front. You can drill down in a way we've never done before."
This sort of coverage—and the audience appetite for real soccer scrutiny that fuels it—is the clearest sign that things have changed, and for the better. The American women may be surrounded by what Ellis calls a "circus," but they're no longer treated like one. "As an athlete, and especially as a female athlete, one of the things you want most is you want people to respect for being an athlete," says Foudy. "And with that comes the good and the bad—the criticism and dissecting. I think it's all a very positive step we've seen in this World Cup."