Soccer pioneers recall the first Women’s World Cup

Female soccer players have made great strides since the quadrennial tournament was first held in 1991. But the fight for equality continues.

Female soccer players are riding a wave of attention and accolades this summer, as fans around the world have been tuning into the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The contest reached its climax Sunday, as the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated the Netherlands 2-0 to win the championship title.

But sports historians and players who competed in the first Women’s World Cup, held in China in 1991, say things were very different then.

Millions of American girls have grown up playing soccer to the cheers of parents and peers. But 28 years ago, playing pro soccer wasn't a promising career path for women. (See pictures of FIFA fans from around the world.)

“It wasn't popular; it wasn’t the right thing to do,” says Carin Jennings Gabarra, the 1991 tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “People would always ask, ‘Are you that soccer player?’ and I would say, ‘No, I don't do that,’ and hide the fact that I had this athletic side to me, because that wasn't the cool thing and the acceptable thing.”

Glaring disparities between men's and women's teams were a given, so taken for granted it “wasn’t even a thought,” says 1991 midfielder Shannon Higgins-Cirovski.

“I can remember being in France and the youth boys’ team was on this big luxurious bus, staying in a hotel down the road, and we're at a farmhouse with this little tiny bus,” she says. “It was complete and total gender discrimination.”

In those days women players often wore hand-me-down uniforms from the men’s team, slept in cockroach-infested hotel rooms, and were paid as little as $10 a day. The rules required that they play with a smaller, lighter ball than the men’s team.

“We supposedly couldn't handle it,” Higgins-Cirovski says. “I think the tail end of it, they didn’t really want it to be the same as the men’s game.”

The U.S. women’s team won the 1991 World Cup, beating Norway 2 to 1. But their victory attracted scant attention back home.

“It wasn’t covered in the United States anywhere close to the extent it was internationally,” says Eileen Narcotta-Welp, an associate professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. “When they came back, there was really no press, no media, there to greet them.”

Tennis greats lead the way

In their struggle to gain recognition and equal treatment, the trailblazers in women’s soccer drew inspiration from tennis great Billie Jean King, whose famous “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973 set a new precedent for women in sports.

In the early 1970s, King and a group of eight other women tennis players called the Houston Nine split from the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) to protest unequal prize money. At the time, women tennis players received 20 to 50 percent of the men’s prize money for tournament victories.

Rather than boycott the game, the Houston Nine formed their own tour. The start-up was less stable than the USLTA, but it gained media attention and sponsorship from Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand marketed to women. The group formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. Threatened by this rival group, the USLTA invited the women back—this time offering them equal prize money.

But the gains made by female tennis players wouldn’t transfer to women’s soccer anytime soon. While girls who aspire to soccer stardom now have plenty of role models in players like Alex Morgan, the third-youngest player to score more than 100 goals in her career, the financial field has yet to be leveled.

Today tennis superstar Serena Williams is the only woman who appears on Forbes’ top 100 list of The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes. The list includes a dozen male soccer players (including the top three earners), but not a single female soccer star. This despite the fact that U.S. women players today are often outperforming men on the field and at the ticket booth.

In the 28 years since the inception of the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team has won four of eight world championships. In contrast, throughout the tournament’s entire 89-year existence, the U.S. men’s team has yet to win a World Cup. (Here's how technology helps athletes push the limits.)

Moreover, while U.S. men’s games used to generate much more in ticket sales than women’s, the gap has all but disappeared in recent years. “From 2016 to 2018, women’s games generated about $50.8 million in revenue compared with $49.9 million for the men,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

The earning power of women players is also seen in product sales. Sports gear maker Nike reports that the U.S. women’s jersey is now “the No. 1 soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold on in one season.”

Yet financial restrictions by FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) have disadvantaged the women’s game. Until recently, women played for $15 million in prize money. This was doubled to $30 million in October 2018, but the number is still a far cry from the men’s prize of $400 million.

Other ongoing disparities include media coverage and an imbalance between male and female coaches.

Women’s sports receive only four percent of all sports media coverage, despite female athletes accounting for 40 percent of all sports participants, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. And while a third of the 24 teams competing in the Women’s World Cup are coached by women, none of the 32 men’s teams have a female coach. (See the 2,500-year history of stadiums in 10 drawings.)

The battle for equality now shifts from the soccer pitch to the District Court of Central California, where the U.S. women are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for violating the Equal Pay Act.

The suit asks the USSF for damages and to implement equal pay between the men’s and women’s teams going forward. It also addresses inequalities in travel accommodations and playing conditions, such as whether a field is grass or artificial turf, says Jeffrey L. Kessler, co-executive chairman of Winston & Strawn, who will be representing the women.

USSF currently negotiates separate wages with the men’s and women’s teams through collective bargaining agreements. The USSF pays male players based on their success throughout the season, while giving the women a flat starting rate. Thus, the men’s salaries can reach greater heights, while the women have a smaller, guaranteed pay. Because those agreements are not made public, it can be difficult to tally up exactly what the pay discrepancy is.

Kessler has worked on groundbreaking sports cases in the past. In 2007, he helped the Women’s Tennis Benefit Association access equal prize money for Grand Slam tournaments. He says his latest clients are optimistic about their chances in court.

“I think they expect to win the lawsuit," Kessler says. "If the women win, it will be a great day for everyone."

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