Scarves Up: Why Celebrity Endorsements Are A Step Back For Gender Equality In Sport

After Tuesday night’s disaster, many eyes are now on the US Women’s National Team and the road to France 2019. The quick transition of focus from the men’s side was assisted by the USMNT themselves, having sat on the pitch for a full 90 minutes while an already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago squad played around them. Just as the USMNT draws much of their roster from MLS (their choices are another story), the women’s side draws heavily from the National Women’s Soccer League, the athletes of which put on exciting shows week after week.

Ahead of the NWSL playoff push, Lifetime – the broadcasting network of the NWSL – released a TV spot they presumably hoped would make the women’s game more visible and attractive to their viewers. Branded as a PSA, the ad features celebrities talking about the athletes and role models of the NWSL and promoting gender equality in sport.

This sounds fantastic right? Julia Roberts, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Beckham, among others, speaking about girls and their dreams while passing a soccer ball to one another. Yet something is missing from this #PassTheBall campaign.

Soccer.

Selling Sport

There are actually two versions of the ad and, in one, the celebs are joined by athletes Carli Lloyd and Ashlyn Harris, but the two uniformed players combine for just nine seconds of the sixty second ad and we see the ball touch a boot just once. How strange that an ad promoting the viability of female athletes and the bright futures of young dreamers should showcase so few athletes and athletic moments, instead focusing on celebrities who say they know girls with dreams.

Kevin McCauley of SBNation compared the all-celebrity spot to an ad put out by the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to boost ticket sales. That thirty second TV spot features the league’s athletes – you might want to sit down for this – training and playing basketball.

(Side note: The ad prominently features clips of Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx, 2017 league champions.)

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

The WNBA and the NWSL

The comparison of the NWSL to the WNBA is an organic one. The WNBA played its first season in 1997, just one year after the US Women’s Basketball Team (the nation’s first) won gold at the Atlanta Olympics. That Olympic squad, led by Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, proved that women could play good basketball (They went 52-0 leading up to the Games and finished 60-0.) and that America would watch them.

The first years of the WNBA were watched closely by another group of female athletes and their advocates, all hoping to launch their own league.

The 1999 Women’s World Cup

Much as the 1996 Olympic Games served as a test of America’s interest in women’s basketball, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, just the third held for women, was a measuring stick for the viability of a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. Even if the home team had lost that dramatic final, American fans proved they were intrigued by the women’s game, proved they would come out in numbers to watch. But it could easily have gone quite differently.

The US women won the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, but few people back home even knew they existed, yet alone that they were good. They shared the news with their families via fax and a sponsor bought ad space in newspapers to publicize the win. So how much coverage could they expect when the 1999 Cup came to American soil?

In the years leading up to the event, in between training sessions and tune-up games, the players themselves acted as their own publicists. While organizers handed out World Cup fliers and swag at soccer events across the country, the players made personal appearances and speaking engagements. Jere Longman chronicled their struggle in the New York Times and, later, in his book Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World. If you haven’t already, read it now.

The final was the epitome of athleticism. In front of over 90,000 fans, the Americans and Chinese gutted out ninety minutes of regulation followed by two fifteen minute sudden death overtime periods. Still scoreless, the match went to a shootout. A packed Rose Bowl was held hostage by the goalless game, under an intense sun. In homes and bars across America, sudden fans witnessed their first televised women’s soccer match (you can watch the match in its entirety here). A massive save by American keeper Briana Scurry gave Brandi Chastain the opportunity to score the winner. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain (and Nike sports bras) were suddenly household names. And their success launched an opportunity for countless other aspiring players.

National Stars in a League of Their Own

Organized, professional women’s soccer began play in 2001, but like its national predecessor, received little coverage until it partnered with A+E Networks ahead of the 2017 season. Viewers can now watch WNT stars like Carli Lloyd, Sydney Leroux, and Tobin Heath compete in their club colors on a fairly regular basis, not just once or twice per year, and with the same competitive drive they exhibit in the Red, White and Blue.

So with all this talent on tap, why does Lifetime need screen celebrities to sell the NWSL? Why not use the action?

I would be remiss to not include any soccer action in a piece bashing an ad’s lack of soccer action so while you ponder that question, check out these highlight reels of the semi-final matches in which the Portland Thorns demolish the Orlando Pride and the North Carolina Courage beat out the Chicago Red Stars to advance to the final.

The likely answer: Ratings.

Conclusion

The average Lifetime viewer is more likely to seize the proverbial soccer ball if she (yes, it could be a he, but based on Lifetime’s other content, I’m going with she) has seen it thrown by Julia Roberts before it appears in the channel listings. The average viewer is also more likely to recognize David Beckham (though I imagine this recognition coming in the form of ‘Hey, isn’t that the guy who plays soccer?’) than she is to recognize Carli Lloyd.

The average soccer fan, even the most casual type who watches a single WNT game every other year, is likely to recognize Carli Lloyd and probably doesn’t need a silver screen celeb to vouch for Lloyd’s athletic ability. The fan would prefer some hype, maybe a compilation of those highlights we just watched.

Now you are asking, where am I going with this? Why did I bother to unpack this stuff just to compare Beckham and Lloyd, just to relive 1999?

Lifetime dropped the ball. It’s time for American soccer fans to pick it up. And rather than chucking the ball at Bruce Arena or Sunil Gulati, why not pass it to the players?

The athletes of the NWSL work just as hard as the men of the MLS, and for less money (I know, that’s a different story, but, Ahem!, Norway). How about we give the NWSL the same attention we give the MLS? Do you think we will see a PSA from Harrison Ford and Stephen Colbert talking about their sons’ dreams ahead of the MLS Playoffs? Probably not. We’ll see hype videos of insane golazos, massive blocks and fans screaming their heads off for their clubs. We can ask for the same of NWSL and its partners.

I #PassTheBall to the fans in the hope that a Public Service Announcement won’t be needed to advertise that women can and do play championship soccer.

Scarves up! – to women’s soccer growing on its own merit.

 

***Don’t forget to tune in to Lifetime on Saturday, October 14 at 3:30 CT as the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage battle it out in the 2017 Championship. For details, see the last quarter of a second of either PSA linked above.

Author: Bridget McDowell

Graduated from Bethany Lutheran College (Mankato, MN) in 2012 with a B.A. in English. Proud MNUFC fan and Dark Cloud, self-professed soccer junkie and avid kayaker. If something fun is happening outside, I'll probably be there.

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