FIFA World Cup 2019

When I realized I was going to be able to attend the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this year, I was excited for several reasons. One of them was the opportunity to compare atmospheres between this World Cup and the men’s in Brazil in 2014. One some level, that is why I enjoy traveling. The more experience I collect, the more context I have, which means I can make better comparisons and, hopefully, arrive at a more accurate understanding of reality.

I went out of my way to go to the men’s tournament when it was in Brazil, and I was rooting for Brazil to win (they had never not won when hosting), because the sport is practically a religion there and I wanted to witness an entire country living and dying, match by match. I was in Brazil for 19 days, moving city to city to follow the knockout rounds, whereas this year I was in Paris for 10 days during the group stage, so ultimately I realized my comparison had less foundation than I anticipated.

I went to the women’s tournament this summer partly because it was convenient — I was going to be in Europe — but I also thought France would be a good showcase. France’s national team had the second-best odds of winning (by the way, women’s national teams weren’t ranked by FIFA until 2003!), and it’s a convenient location for other top teams’ fans to travel to (Germany, England, France, Netherlands, Sweden all ranked in the top 10 coming in).

Walking down the street in Paris during the group stage, you would not be able to tell the tournament was happening (much less that France was hosting!). TVs in bars were showing men’s soccer, or rugby, there was no sign of international fans/jerseys.. there was a FIFA Fan Zone set up in Les Halles, but it was dead every time I went there, even when a game was being played in Parc de Princes. On the plus side, my taxi driver was listening to the opening match on the radio, and one of my tour guides told me he had tickets to the semifinal, anticipating a France vs. USA showdown. As it advanced toward the knockout rounds, the environment started to build, but I left before seeing any real energy in the city around the tournament.

Like 2014, I didn’t buy tickets ahead of time, but I noted that the sales process was much different in 2019. If you wanted to buy tickets to a USA match in the group stage, you were forced to buy a package of three matches, two of them not involving the USA. This seemed to be an attempt to build attendance at some of the less popular matches, so it made sense to me (especially since the three-match deal was still super-affordable!). A friend of mine who had bought the three-match deal wasn’t going to be in town for the first game, so my first FIFA World Cup match was South Africa vs. China. The environment was uninspiring, stadium less-than-half filled. My one takeaway was that South Africa seemed to be poorly organized/coached. Unfulfilled potential. It was funny, a few days later, seeing this article about “lazy tropes“. Deadspin excoriates the commentators for inferring an African team (Nigeria) is athletic but needed more discipline/tactics in a loss to Germany. I do think it’s problematic to group Nigeria in with “African countries”, as Nigeria has consistently been the best team on the continent, but at the same time, Nigeria has drawn headlines for failing to pay their women’s team bonuses owed them, so I think it’s fair to infer they are not investing in infrastructure (like proper training and coaching) as much as they could/should be. Not too long after Nigeria’s loss to Germany, the final eight teams were established: seven European countries and the USA. Huh. It is what is is, I suppose.

I think it’s clearly true that the USA Women are good internationally because we have better development and more opportunities for female soccer players than other countries, and our talent pool dominates from that point. It’s the same reason why our male team hasn’t had success.. we’re fairly new to the idea of wanting (in a lukewarm “we want to be good at everything” way, not anywhere close to the obsession elsewhere) to do well internationally at men’s soccer, and we’re not very good at it (yet), compared to everyone else.  The USA takes women’s soccer more seriously* than any other country, and “more seriously than any other country” is still not good enough for our USWNT.

On equal pay. From what I’ve observed, employers do everything they can to pay their employees as little as possible and still get the results they want. Male athletes have been down this road, and over the decades have fought and organized their way into getting bigger shares of their market value (their market value has increased, dare I say, exponentially over that time period as well). It’s not over, either, you still see plenty of stories about minor league baseball players making less than minimum wage, or college basketball players playing for “free”. How much is LeBron James really worth to the Lakers franchise?? (Hint: it’s wayyyy more than the “maximum salary” the team is “allowed” to pay him). In a way, comparing current men and women’s athletes’ salaries is somewhat like comparing current U.S. labor standards with a country that’s significantly behind us in the process. Would it work to jump in and instantaneously raise the minimum wage in Qatar without the infrastructure to support it? Is that controversial? I’ve never voiced that opinion before. Point is, the fight for “fair” pay is a building process, and it’s difficult to build the thirteenth story if you didn’t spend time on the foundation. P.S. if you didn’t click the link, you should have. I couldn’t find a credible U.S. news source, but ~1,400 workers have died in Qatar building the World Cup stadiums for 2022. That should be controversial.

*When I was in England a few weeks ago, I decided to ask a random dude at a pub (who had been talking about what a big football fan he was) what he thought about the England Women’s National Football Team. He knew nothing about them, and not only did he not care to learn, he outright said women’s soccer was worthless, because the men are so much better. That’s just one person, so calm down, Lionesses fans — I mainly found it interesting he made zero attempt to sugarcoat his opinion. I suspect it’s more common/acceptable for men in non-U.S. countries to express similar opinions (or maybe I just have a pro-women friend group?). The No. 2-ranked Germany women’s team created this advertisement entering the tournament this year.

Flash forward to the USA vs. Chile match, and it was a totally different environment. Big crowds, packed stadium, (almost) everything I was hoping for. It was more family-friendly than the massively rowdy crowds I experienced in Brazil, but all the same it was a huge improvement over what I had seen up to that point. By all accounts, the USA vs. France quarterfinal was a big deal. On the whole, FIFA says they “allocated” over a million tickets, television ratings are the highest ever, and the USWNT just set the record for Nike jersey sales in a single year. That seems positive.

Economics tries to explain everything through supply and demand, and I tend to rely on markets to understand how things work. It’s still tricky, though. There was an economist named J.B. Say (a Frenchman!) who argued, controversially, that supply creates its own demand.  This is a big reason why I support more coverage and attention for women’s athletics.. it’s tough to argue there isn’t demand to watch women’s soccer, for example, when it’s not being supplied in the first place. It’s silly to think we’re ever going to convince that guy in the pub to watch women’s soccer, much less prefer it to men’s soccer, but there are so many people who would tune in, given the chance! Like I said, the crowd at the USA vs. Chile match was radically different than what I saw in Brazil. More families, more girls, less beer, less hostility toward opposing fans. There is a market, and it’s not the same as men’s sports. I’ve been in touch with friends in England who  were following their team and the tournament very closely, and the viewing numbers back that up. That’s why I think things like what time it’s on, what channel it’s on, and what it’s up against, all matter, when evaluating the demand (and why I get annoyed by things like the Gold Cup final being the same day as the FIFA Women’s World Cup final…).

It’s been fun to get a feel for the FIFA World Cup 2019 and where women’s soccer is at, internationally. The USA is leading the growth of the event, with the most fans and the most spirit and just all-around support for our players and team. It’s funny to think about how much of that enthusiasm (and therefore, progress) is rooted in the fact our team is really good, but hey, winning covers a multitude of sins. With FIFA saying they plan on expanding the women’s tournament to include more teams, and double the prize money by 2023, the comparison I should be making is not between 2014 and 2019, but rather between 2019 and 2023, 2027, 2031, 2035…

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