Last Saturday afternoon, an estimated 40 million viewers watched the U.S. win the Women’s World Cup on ABC— the most watched soccer game ever broadcast in the States and one that, if stats told the story, reveals Americans’ true appreciation for the game.
But in soccer, stats have always been overrated. And while there’s no argument that this team will be the inspiration to a whole new generation of female athletes— a major achievement in its own right— if you think mainstream America embraced the U.S. women because of their soccer skills, then we’ve got an MLS franchise we’d like to sell to ya.
The U.S. 11 won the “hearts of America” because (a) they were women and (b) goalkeeper Briana Scurry aside, they were white. Very white. This wasn’t America’s team; it was middle America’s team. And club mascot David Letterman wasn’t slobbering over his “babes” just because they were cuties— they were the same type of cuties he remembered from back in Indiana.
The team was reflected in the crowds that watched them—
hundreds of thousands of Caucasian preteens and their parents provided the screaming power for the U.S. Which is fine. Both men’s and women’s soccer in this country have long had their roots in the suburbs.
But the true reason soccer became an overnight success is that the U.S. was winning. From jingoistic New York Post coverage to President Clinton attending two games, the message was clear: Soccer can succeed only as long as the U.S. is No. 1.
But isn’t that always the case? The real question is whether the U.S. victory can translate into long-term support for women’s soccer, and, indeed, for men’s soccer as well. There can be little doubt that thousands of young girls will be inspired to join a team, but where does that really leave soccer as a major media sport? At best, the WWC proved soccer is a great game for women— but that’s precisely what American-
football-loving men have been snickering about all along.
Disturbingly, the Women’s World Cup failed even to register with the most consolidated group of soccer fans in the U.S.— Latinos. In 1998, 1.7 million people watched Univision’s coverage of the World Cup Final, and the network gets consistently better figures than ESPN for its coverage of the MLS. But despite this solid soccer base, Univision carried not one WWC game, even though both Mexico and Brazil were represented.
Part of the reason can be attributed to interest in the ongoing Copa America, the South American men’s soccer championship. But Univision isn’t showing those games either; they are on Pay Per View.
The real reason is probably more straightforward. While the majority of Latino fans, brought up on a steady diet of soccer and machismo, are willing to lower their standards to entertain MLS, they just don’t consider women’s soccer to be fútbol. Despite Mia’s magic and Michelle Aker’s cojones, it’s going to take more than the American Pie champs to convince them otherwise.
It ain’t news that a 57-year-old cancer patient might want to retire at the end of his contract. What would be news is if Joe Torre went out on his own terms, and with no hard feelings. If he does so, he’ll be the first Yankee manager in history to leave with a joyous (as opposed to relieved) smile on his face. We all know the fates of Yankee skippers in the Steinbrenner years, but in the pre-George days, managers didn’t fare much better. From the great Joe McCarthy (whose battles with owner Larry MacPhail led to stomach problems that not only drove him out of Yankee Stadium, but prompted him to sign on with the hated Boston Red Sox) to Casey Stengel (forced out in 1960, he quipped, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again”) to Ralph Houk (who resigned in 1973 after telling his players that if he didn’t quit he’d have to punch out the Boss),there hasn’t been an amicable parting from the Bronx dugout. The least acrimonious departure in Yankee managerial history? That of Miller Huggins, who died at the age of 50 just before the end of the 1929 season.
Contributors: Matthew Yeomans, Allen St. John, Howard Z. Unger, Paula Hunt
Sports Intern: Joshua D. Gaynor
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman