The most talented female athletes have even less choice.
In the 28 years since winning the very first Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team has dominated the game on the global stage, taking home four Women's World Cups in all, including the 2019 title captured this month in a 2-0 victory over The Netherlands.
The U.S. men haven’t come close to the women’s success. Not only have the men never won a World Cup, they even failed to qualify for the most recent men’s World Cup in 2018.
To deduce why U.S. women’s soccer dominates on the world stage while the men’s game continues to falter, you might just have to go back to the beginning, to the time when future world-class players — female and male — first start showing athletic promise.
“Soccer was never really been part of the national lexicon. It's always been kind of this underground, kind of foreign game,” says Eileen Narcotta-Welp, an assistant professor of sport management at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Not only has it been a foreign game, but it's been seen as a less masculine state. So if a child has to choose, or their parents have to choose, which sport a child is going to go into, ultimately it's going to be basketball, baseball, [or] football.”
The world in general views soccer — or “football” as it is called practically everywhere in the world except the United States — as an extremely male-oriented, overtly masculine game. However, in the United States, more traditional U.S. sports like baseball, basketball, and American football are more likely to be viewed as “macho” activities.
So while little American boys were pursuing other sports, a combination of events laid the foundation for the popularity of girls’ soccer in the U.S.
One of them was the 1972 passage of the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits federally funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex. The law applies to high school and college athletics.
Many schools quickly embraced soccer for women because they could field up to 35 players per team, a sizable number that helped close the gender gap in their athletic programs.
Additionally, the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team has captured the imagination of young female athletes-in-the-making. Over time, they've watched and admired soccer icons of yester-year, like Brandi Chastain, and current superstars like Meghan Rapinoe, and are inspired to emulate them and their success.
Aside from cultural and societal expectations, there are practical financial considerations that help explain why America’s best female athletes might choose to pursue soccer while top male athletes look to basketball, baseball or football.
“Those are also three sports that you can make a living off of,” Narcotta-Welp points out. “If you are a kid that is extremely talented, extremely athletic, and you are a boy...you know that professionally, if you want to play professional sports and succeed, that they're pretty much three areas in which you're gonna be able to succeed.”
The most talented female athletes have even less choice. Their opportunities to play professionally and make a living out of it basically come down to soccer or basketball.
“They're not getting huge exorbitant salaries, but it is kind of the one pathway for young women to play professionally,” Narcotta-Welp says. “For men, you have so many other options that are much more lucrative and probably more culturally acceptable in terms of the idea of masculinity that it would make sense for them to be steered in one of those three directions versus soccer.”