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For us US women’s soccer fans, there are a couple historical moments that stand out: Brandi Chastain falling to her knees and ripping off her jersey when the United States won the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final in 1999; Team USA goalie Hope Solo’s iconic and viral save to get the win over Japan in the 2012 Olympics; and off-field, but just as legendary, the 2022 equal-pay agreement that finally guaranteed female soccer stars equal pay till 2028.
Having played soccer during my formative years and in close association with the sport my whole life, I’ve always loved the game. But unfortunately, the same admiration hasn’t reigned true for the rest of America when it comes to professional soccer. In particular, women’s soccer, and women’s sports in general, has a history of being looked at as less than — less exciting, less athletic, less competitive, and less beloved by fans — than men’s sports.
Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. This is in part due to these athletes’ prowess, but also thanks to some of the biggest players in pop culture: celebrities. And it’s just what the US Women’s National Team needs as we head into the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The momentum around soccer, in general, is not new, but growing: 2020 was a big year, as we saw Brittany Matthew Mahomes, wife of Kansas Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, invest in the Kansas City National Women’s Soccer League, as well as Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney take over at English football club, Wrexham AFC (and an entire documentary detailing the process).
The following year, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expanded to Los Angeles (hi, Angel City Football Club) thanks to A-list investors like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner, Gabrielle Union, and America Ferrera. Naomi Osaka also joined as an investor in the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage in 2021. And more recently, in April 2022, Reese Witherspoon and husband Jim Toth joined to back Nashville Soccer Club’s ownership group.
With so many celebrities getting involved, and popular celeb sightings at recent games (think: the Kardashians in March 2023 at the Paris Saint-Germain game, not to mention Kim’s viral jersey) — it’s inspiring Americans to seek out soccer, and women’s soccer especially.
Following the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, CNN reported that, in the US, soccer was officially more popular than ever. And according to a November 2022 report by Samba TV, a television analytics firm, viewership for women’s sports reached record levels of popularity last year, up by a striking 453 percent for the National Women’s Soccer League Championship Game. Younger generations seem to be leading soccer fandom, with more than half of soccer fans under age 45, as reported by Morning Consult.
Argentinian Lionel Messi, a player but a celebrity in his own right, was thrust into the US consciousness during last year’s men’s World Cup, where his team took home the trophy in an edge-of-your-seat match. His recent trade to Inter Miami — which sparked huge interest in the Miami football club, and surged ticket prices through the roof — is a quite literal example of how soccer culture seems to finally be arriving in America.
You can’t mention the rise of interest in soccer without one specific television show: Apple TV’s Emmy-winning “Ted Lasso“. Chronicling the journey of a British soccer team managed by an American football coach, Americans gained insight into how tied non-American cities are to soccer clubs. Seen as part of the city’s DNA, people in European, African, and Australian countries are raised in these clubs and idolize hero players from a very young age. That is simply not part of the culture in America. But hopefully, that’s starting to change as more people obsess over “Ted Lasso” and celebrities continue to give the game the press it deserves.
Whether we like it or not, celebrities, TV, and movies play a huge part in steering our collective attention and culture (just look at the way “Barbie” movie mania has taken hold), and their increased interest in soccer helping to nudge us toward the pitch.
We asked a few friends to help with this year’s World Cup roster announcement 🤩
— U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (@USWNT) June 21, 2023
Heading into the Women’s World Cup, which kicked off on July 20, it seems that US Soccer knew that, and used it to their advantage. On June 21, they announced the USWNT World Cup roster with a celeb-studded video that included Issa Rae, Taylor Swift, Blake Lively, and Megan Thee Stallion. All 23 players were given their own spotlight, featuring a different celebrity reviewing — or, really, gushing about — each player’s skill set and generally expressing their enthusiasm over seeing the team on the field.
Whether the celebrity attention is the natural result of decades’ worth of athletic excellence, a concerted marketing campaign, or both, it’s working: Nielsen reports that global excitement for the Women’s World Cup is up significantly from 2019. All this momentum is priming the US to rally behind the USWNT, who won the World Cup in 2015 and 2019, as they gear up to make a three-peat.
These athletes deserve all this support and more, having had a history-making impact both on the field and off, battling for equal pay and fair treatment, and against systemic abuse that has ripple effects far outside athletics. The increased US attention on soccer will only help to give these athletes the spotlight and resources they deserve, and it’s coming just in time for them to take the world stage.
Taking soccer seriously in the US — in a country with the best women’s soccer team in the world — could be the shift needed to ultimately take more women athletes seriously. And all this will hopefully encourage a generation of young girls to see themselves playing at the highest level of the sport, repositioning what they see as possible. Yes, it’s about soccer — but it’s so much bigger than that.