U.S. World Cup triumph should level playing field for women's sports

Story highlights

  • Women's World Cup final had largest U.S. audience ever for a soccer match
  • U.S. women's team will get $2 million, while U.S. men's team got $9 million after losing in round of 16
  • Wallace: I hope the women's victory will lead to more attention for women's soccer

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)As my family and I cheered and high-fived throughout the Women's World Cup final Sunday night, I found myself more than once walking out of the TV room and pumping my fists in the air when I was alone.

I wasn't cheering for Carli Lloyd's unbelievable hat trick, with three goals in the first 16 minutes of the game, or the amazing career of Abby Wambach, who has scored more international goals (183) than any other woman or man in soccer history.
I was cheering that my girls, ages 7 and 9, soccer players themselves, were watching American women soar to incredible heights.
    I was cheering about the role models on display: From Lloyd and Wambach, to Kelley O'Hara (she's a favorite in our household for obvious reasons) to Alex Morgan, soccer star and author of the best-selling book series, "The Kicks," about a 12-year-old girl who loves to play soccer. (My younger daughter has already read two books in Morgan's series.)
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    I was cheering that my gals -- in that moment -- viewed Lloyd, Morgan, O'Hara, Wambach and the rest of the magical American women's team the same way they viewed Tom Brady in the Super Bowl or LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Derek Jeter taking the field in his last games at Yankee Stadium.
    The athletes -- women and men -- were no different in their eyes. And that was a beautiful thing to experience as a mother who wants her girls to grow up believing women can do anything men can.
    But I also wondered whether the women's remarkable victory will lead to more attention for women's soccer, which is often overshadowed by the men who play the sport.
    Maybe, just maybe, it will, especially when you consider the massive ratings for Sunday's final, the largest U.S. audience for any soccer game -- men's or women's, according to CNNMoney.
    More than 25 million viewers watched the World Cup Final on Fox, while another 1.27 million viewers watched on Spanish language network Telemundo, for a combined audience of 26.7 million. That's more than the 26.5 million people in the United States who watched the men's World Cup final between Germany and Argentina last year.
    To put these numbers into perspective, more people watched the American women's soccer final than all but one game of the recent "record-setting" NBA Finals on ABC, according to a report in Forbes.
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    "That is huge because it has long been an argument as to why female athletes get paid so much less than their male counterparts, but I think this game proves there is a massive viewing audience who will indeed watch women compete," said Michele Yulo, founder and creator of the girl empowerment blog Princess Free Zone.
    And yet, women's soccer still doesn't get even close to the money and respect the men get.
    My Facebook news feed was filled with disgust about the financial disparities.
    CNN Money noted how the victorious American women's team will get $2 million in winnings from FIFA, the international body that oversees the World Cup, while the American men's team got $9 million for placing 11th.
    "Absolutely disgusting," wrote educational psychologist and consultant Lori Day, author of a book on mother-daughter book clubs, on Facebook. Day also noted how Wambach, the highest scorer in men's and women's soccer history, made $190,000 in 2014, while U.S. men's team captain Clint Dempsey made $6.7 million, according to the New Republic.
    Is this a good place to mention that the U.S. men's team has never won a World Cup title and the American women have now won it three times?
    The financial prizes are not the only signs of the dramatically different respect for the men's and women's programs. In this year's World Cup, FIFA forced the women to play all their games on artificial turf and not grass, which the men always play on. Artificial turf increases the risk of injury and can make it feel 20 to 30 degrees hotter on the field, female players argued.
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    A group of leading players from around the world filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in a Canadian court over the issue. FIFA has since said the women will play on grass in 2019.
    "When we sort of peel back the layers a bit, the fact that these women are still playing on artificial turf or did for this World Cup ... and the fact that the prize money is just a fraction of what the men get, I think that is indicative of unfortunately the second-class status that girls and women's sports still face," said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics for the National Women's Law Center.
    Who can forget the embatted FIFA president Sepp Blatter saying that women should play in more "feminine clothes" such as "tighter shorts," or a FIFA article just last week on Alex Morgan that called her a "talented goalscorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match."
    A few months back, during the NCAA basketball tournaments informally known as March Madness, I wrote a story wondering what it would take for women's sports to get the same attention, money and buzz that men get.
    At that time, I talked with Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time 1984 Olympic gold medalist in swimming, who has devoted her career to the advancement of girls and women in sports.
    "The coupling of sexism and sport, having this be an exclusionary practice, is still a strong one," she said, noting how more than 40 years after the enactment of Title IX, a law requiring that schools receiving federal funds provide equal access to sports to men and women, there are still huge disparities.
    Just before the women's quarterfinal match against China in the World Cup, a new report was released showing how big the gaps are in high school when it comes to sports teams for girls and boys.
    The report, a state-by-state ranking by the National Women's Law Center, found that 28% of co-ed public high schools with interscholastic sports programs have what are considered to be large gender disparities in access to team sports -- meaning that the percentage of students who are girls is not close to equal to the share of women on sports teams.
    Chaudhry of the National Women's Law Center hopes the U.S. women's soccer victory, with its massive ratings, will lead to more schools giving more chances for girls and young women to play soccer or whatever other sport they choose.
    "I hope that it does in fact spur more opportunities for girls and women at every level and put to rest some of these stereotypes or arguments that girls aren't interested in sports and people aren't interested in watching women play sports," she said.
    She also said she hopes the inequalities faced by elite female athletes, especially when it comes to money, will "reignite the discussion about how far we still have to go to really level the playing field for girls and women."
    In an interview with CNN, Abby Wambach talked about some of the criticism the U.S. women's team faced for its less than stellar performance at times during the tournament.
    "We want to be treated like the men," she said referring to the criticism. We can take it, just like the guys can, she said.
    Maybe after her and her teammates' record-breaking victory, they will move that much closer to getting their wish.
    What do you think it will take for women's soccer to get the same attention, money and buzz as men's soccer? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.