Every month, we’ll pose a question or make a statement about something in soccer that will be debated on by two individuals from the same walk of life. Be it a coach, player, general manager, the two will each give their side of the story, so to speak.
In this case, we’ve enlisted the help of two soccer journalists. In one corner, wearing a Mia Hamm replica jersey under his shirt and blue blazer ... Jere Longman, who covers international sport and the Olympics for the New York Times and whose extensive coverage of the 1999 Women’s World Cup turned into a book about the U.S. Women’s National Team entitled "The Girls of Summer." In the other corner, wearing a worn-out replica of the now infamous U.S. Men’s "denim star" jersey ... Steve Davis, a general columnist who’s also been covering soccer for The Dallas Morning-News for over a decade and has covered the last two Men’s World Cups.
This month’s question: What event had a greater impact on soccer in the United States: World Cup ‘94 or Women’s World Cup ‘99?
Jere Longman, pro-WWC99:
It is indisputable that the 1999 Women's World Cup had a greater impact on soccer in the United States than the 1994 men's World Cup.
The Women's World Cup produced an American champion, and the American public loves a winner. In three weeks, without benefit of lavish pre-game shows or newspaper special sections, the Women's World Cup built a galvanizing momentum. It went from almost zero on the public radar to a consuming moment that drew over 90,000 fans to the final match against China at the Rose Bowl and attracted 40 million television viewers. This was the largest television audience ever to watch a soccer game in the United States (and a larger audience than watched any game of that year's NBA Finals).
Until that fateful day of July 10, 1999, many casual fans had never seen a top-flight soccer game, male or female. I would argue that, until the Women's World Cup unfurled, many Americans - perhaps most of them - had no idea that the men's and women's national teams even existed.
For the first time, the majority of citizens realized that the United States could be dominant in a game whose power was centered in South America and Europe. Fans were engrossed not only by triumph, but by the fearless, joyful, skillful, collaborative way the American women played.
Nearly three decades after the passage of Title IX, women proved unalterably that they deserved equal opportunity on the playing field. Brandi Chastain's shirt-removing celebration will be remembered as one of the great iconic moments of American sports history. Only three other sports-related events of the entire decade acquired the significance of the Women's World Cup - the shattering of figure skating's porcelain myth in the clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan by associates of Tonya Harding, the O.J. Simpson trial and Mark McGwire's steroid-fueled home run chase.
Two years after the Women's World Cup, Mia Hamm and Chastain are still household names, part of the national lexicon. Michelle Akers, Briana Scurry, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly are widely recognized names as well. One of the largest MLS crowds of the current season came in doubleheaders in which Hamm's WUSA team also participated. [Editor’s note: the two D.C. United/Washington Freedom doubleheaders on 5/12/01 and 6/30/01 rank 5th and 9th on the MLS list for 2001 with crowds of 36,528 and 30,271, respectively]
Meanwhile, almost no one outside of the soccer tifosi can name a single member of the U.S. Men's National Team. Seven years after the 1994 World Cup, the men's team is still a stranger in a strange land, on the road even at home, running like a fugitive to fourth-rate cities like Columbus, Ohio, in search of any meager advantage in rooting interest.
Steve Davis, pro-WC94:
Back in the early 1990s, soccer was like the puny kid in junior high: lots of potential, plenty of good things ahead … but still the last one picked for the team and having some trouble fitting in.
World Cup 1994 changed all that. It was international soccer’s coming out party in the United States. A land that respects the big event, the colossal show, began to see soccer as a sport it could learn to like.
For soccer fans, it was their moment in the sun. More importantly in the big picture, Americans who wouldn’t know a corner kick from a corner market tuned in to see what the fuss was about. Until the United States wins a World Cup, nothing else will be more influential in elevating the sport’s domestic profile.
Momentum built slowly, then took off on July 4, 1994, when the Americans fell by a goal to Brazil in a surprise second-round appearance. America at large learned that a 1-0 result – second only to the dreaded scoreless draw in providing material and yuks for soccer bashers – could be thrilling with a valuable prize at stake. On the runway up to that historic match, American players mugged for national magazine covers and nightly newscasts. President Clinton was a poster boy for the novice fan.
World Cup ’94 helped upend an impatient, soccer-trashing media. Previously, leading media figures preferred ripping the sport to admitting they weren’t experts at it. That tired tact became harder to pull off when World Cup ’94 set a record for average attendance at 68,817.
Were Americans paying attention outside the stadiums? You bet. The Rose Bowl final drew a 12.4 national TV rating, walloping the paltry 2.2 rating for the final just four years earlier at Italia ’90. Financially, millions of dollars of surplus revenue became the nutrient to help soccer grow past its spindly roots here.
Outside the raw numbers, World Cup ’94 helped integrate soccer into American pop culture. The sport was granted its first real audience with corporate America (never to be underestimated in creating Americana.) Nike got on board immediately after the 1994 final, announcing a relationship with U.S. Soccer that continues to flourish today. David Letterman and Jay Leno chatted about traps and passes through June and July. Toss in a burger and some fries, and you don’t get more mainstream American than that.
Soccer still had a lot of growing to do after USA ’94. But without it, there would be no Major League Soccer. And without MLS and the legacy of 1994, corporate America, the media and the American public would not have provided Women’s World Cup ’99 the chance to be such a success.
Women’s World Cup ’99 was an important event for women’s sports and continued to elevate soccer’s profile in the 50 states. But the epochal days from five years prior marked soccer’s true launching pad as a sport America was ready to embrace.
"Center Circle" (October 2001, Inaugural Issue)
In this Inaugural Issue of U.S. Soccer's new monthly fan newsletter / e-zine, you'll find the items listed below. Some will return next month, others will be entirely fresh for November.
1) Armchair Midfielder (MLS Playoffs)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT defender Jeff Agoos)
3) At the Movies (w/ U-17 MNT defenders Chris Lancos and Gray Griffin)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT midfielder Julie Foudy)
5) Big Woman on Campus (w/ WNT/U-21 WNT midfielder Aleisha Cramer)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT forward Tiffeny Milbrett)
7) Mark That Calendar (2001 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup)
8) Point-Counterpoint (w/ journalists Jere Longman and Steve Davis)
9) From the Bleachers (w/ PHILIPS chant contest winner Randal Bird)
10) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (U.S. Open Cup history)