This Week’s Challenge: Be The Change

Like most people, I absolutely loved watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team win the Women’s World Cup last Sunday. The athletes played hard, had fun, and put together a great performance. More unforgettably, they were raw, passionate, and human. For example, take Abby Wambach. That woman has given everything to women’s soccer. Yet she was willing to take on a lesser role when she was asked because it benefitted her team. It’s the greatest sacrifice an athlete can make, and it wasn’t lost on the USWNT. My heart nearly melted when Carli Lloyd handed Abby the captain’s armband late in the World Cup final. And it felt Abby’s excitement as she rushed the stands to celebrate with her wife after the win.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with that game. Another 25,399,999 other Americans tuned in to watch the USWNT win the World Cup last Sunday. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were plastered with score updates, hashtag chains, and pictures of friends still rocking their 4th of July finest as they cheered on the women.

Come Monday, though, my social media feeds turned negative. Focus shifted from the amazing win to the pathetic prize gap. It’s a legitimate concern. Why does the USWNT, World Cup champions, receive $2 million from FIFA while the men’s 2014 champion is awarded $35 million? How is this fair? How can we allow a terribly corrupt FIFA to get away with this?

But here’s the thing: We not only allow it, we drive it.

We create the terribly pathetic pay gaps between male and female athletes. Every day, we make decisions that allow organizations like FIFA to justifiably sustain this tremendous disparity.

When I graduated college, I stayed at West Point to work in the athletic department for a few months. I had two primary duties as an athletic department intern: working with women’s basketball, and working football game day operations. I went into the position a little unsettled and annoyed. Why wasn’t my role with women’s basketball valuable enough on its own? Why did I have to contribute so many weekends to football when none of the football interns had to work at women’s basketball games?

But within a few weeks, I understood. College athletics is just as much a business as a pastime. Professional and international sports are no different. And guess what? In the collegiate world, very few teams turn a profit. The ones that do—at most schools, this primarily includes football and men’s basketball—essentially fund the other sports. Therefore, it was important for me to contribute to football, because it allowed the athletes I supported to continue playing the game they loved. Fundamentally, sports are a business. And believe it or not, it responds to consumers and their demands.

In our eyes, the 24.5 million Americans who watched the Women’s World Cup final set a record. It showed that we demand women’s soccer in the U.S. It certainly surpassed the 18.2 million who watched the U.S. Men play Portugal in Brazil last year, and shattered the 2011 Women’s record of 18 million viewers during the World Cup final.

FIFA’s eyes, that’s nothing. Because in 2014, the Men’s World Cup averaged 188 million views per game. In 2014, the 18.2 Americans who tuned in to a group play men’s game. The USWNT opener against Australia in 2015? It only drew 3.3 million American viewers. Where did the other 22 million fans come from?

So here’s my question: If our behavior as consumers drives how athletes are paid, why do we only choose to support women’s sports when it’s convenient and high-profile?

Think about it.

What if every person who posted, tweeted, or otherwise shared an article about the USWNT pay gap had watched that first group play game?

What if we paid $75 to sit court-side at a WNBA game instead of shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars to see NBA games?

What if the college kids who flock to football games also sponsored a student spirit section at the Monday night women’s volleyball game?

What if you watched the LPGA final on Fox tonight instead tuning in to the PGA’s John Deere Classic?

I’m not saying that FIFA and all the other sports organizations, leagues, and associations don’t need to make changes.

But what if we changed their minds?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Happy Sunday!

-Erin