Cost of women’s soccer in US excluding various ethnic groups

Dave Hannigan: Women's game on a high after World Cup win but only for a few

At the culmination of a raucous parade down the Canyon of Heroes last month, the victorious American women’s soccer team were welcomed to New York City Hall where Mayor Bill de Blasio awarded each of them a key to the Big Apple. At the ceremony, Megan Rapinoe, one of the co-captains, delivered a rousing speech heralding the diversity of the World Cup-winning squad, boasting its members were gay and straight, wore pink hair and purple hair, had tattoos and dreadlocks.

“We got white girls and black girls and everything in between!” said Rapinoe.

Except, as was quickly pointed out by many commentators, they didn’t really have anything in between. There were no Latinas in the squad, the glaring absence of Hispanic women not a good look for a team preaching inclusivity. Of course, it’s not the players’ fault, it’s something perhaps more easily explained by a subsequent comment made by Alex Morgan, another co-captain.

“Unfortunately, the pay-to-play model, I believe, is getting worse in soccer than when I played competitive soccer,” said Morgan, speaking at an event where Dick’s Sporting Goods pledged to make games more accessible to all kids. “It’s a very inexpensive sport and the fact that we’ve made youth soccer in the US more of a business than a grassroots sport is, I think, detrimental to the growth of the sport.”

Even amid all the Trump-trolling, that may have been the most radical comment to emerge from the omen’s World Cup, an acknowledgement by a key player that the system which produced the winning team is so deeply flawed it borders on sporting segregation. For an 11-year-old girl joining an elite soccer club in America, the annual cost now starts at $2000 and, depending on tournaments and camps, ends up around $5000. Every year. Ludicrous financial demands beyond most parents, they ensure an enormous chunk of the female demographic is excluded from the game at a very young age.

“We have alienated the Hispanic communities,” said Hope Solo, former American international and still the best goalkeeper the country has ever produced. “We have alienated our black communities. We have alienated the underrepresented communities, even rural communities, so soccer in America right now is a rich white-kid sport.”

Even allowing for progressive youth clubs offering financial aid to the cash-strapped parents of talented girls (a sentence that succinctly captures so much that is wrong), Solo’s assertions are backed up by the facts. More than one in three children playing soccer in America comes from a household with an annual income above $100,000 while just one in 10 are from homes earning less than $25,000.

Dr. Jen McGovern and Esther Wellman of Monmouth University surveyed the backgrounds of the squad that just retained the World Cup and discovered 69 per cent of the players grew up in towns with incomes above the national average. Using several different metrics, they established that middle and upper class women are over-represented in the American team, surely the only national XI in the world about which that can be said.

“Pay-to-play sports enable girls from wealthy families to have more sport opportunities at all levels while constraining the chances of girls from low-income families,” wrote McGovern and Wellman. “Further, due to the intersection of race and social class, women of colour are disproportionately left out of sporting opportunities.”

Between the inaugural 1991 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, just 14 women of colour played for the United States at senior level and Crystal Dunn was the only African-American starter on this summer’s team. Her father is a partner in a New York city law firm and she grew up in Rockville Centre, a Long Island town with an average house price of $600,000, where she recalls often being the only black player on teams.

“When I put on our US kit, I do it for my family and for my country,” wrote Dunn before the tournament. “But I understand now that I also do it for every single American girl out there who wants to see someone who looks like them - someone whose story reminds them of their own – when they watch their women’s national team.”

That there were four other African-Americans on the US roster in France is a positive sign but where are the Latinas going to come from? Just eight per cent of women who played college soccer (the proving ground for many future internationals) last season were Hispanic. A girl can’t aspire to be what she cannot see.

It’s worth noting too that, between 2015 and 2018, the number of American children of both sexes playing the game between the ages of six and 12 dropped 14 per cent, a startling fall-off many ascribe to the prohibitive cost and an uber-competitive environment where seven-year-olds can be cut from teams if they don’t measure up.

After every men’s World Cup, there is a rush by other countries to examine and pilfer from the culture and youth development programmes of the winners. Watching the Americans toy with Ireland at the Rose Bowl last Saturday night, there was no real sense of that. Sure, it might help if more Irish teens took up soccer scholarships and sampled the hot-house colleges environment here but a country that allows money to make its own talent pool unnecessarily shallow and exclusive remains an example of what to avoid.