Women’s Professional Soccer: Competition Meets Camaraderie in an Undervalued Community

Left to right: The cast of The Wolves in rehearsal, Isa Arciniegas and Aurora Real De Asua, Soccer Skill Building Coach Katie Berkopec.

On crisp autumn nights at Chicago’s Toyota Park, fans cheer on a professional soccer team. The crowd size, however, depends on which team is on the field. More than 17,000 fans typically pack in to support the Chicago Fire. But attendance for the Chicago Red Stars hovers around only 3,000. The difference? The Red Stars’ players are women.

It’s no secret that there’s a major discrepancy in men’s and women’s athletics across every major sport. Analysts often claim that the problem is a “chicken-and-egg” scenario: there’s less of an audience for women’s professional sports, so there’s less television and media coverage. However, without that coverage, women’s teams have greater difficulty attracting fans. A 2014 report showed that ESPN’s flagship program SportsCenter covered women’s sports for two percent of airtime. That’s not only for soccer, but every sport combined. When many sports fans and news outlets mourned the U.S. Men’s National team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, social media users were quick to point out not only had the U.S. Women’s team won their last World Cup, but were also on track for another successful showing in 2019.

Media coverage is far from the only imbalance between men’s and women’s teams. Though the U.S. Women’s team negotiated a sizable increase in base pay for players last year, the new deal does not guarantee equal pay with the U.S. Men’s team, and without sponsorship deals, soccer is still rarely perceived as a viable career for most women—even those competing at the World Cup or Olympic level. Players in the 10-team National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) saw a pay raise last year, when the league minimum doubled to $15,000. Teams, however, often subsidize players’ costs of living by placing them with a host family. By comparison, professional male athletes are rarely asked to live in somebody else’s house because their salary can’t cover rent.

The inequality in professional soccer doesn’t start at the professional level. Across all sports at the collegiate level, female students receive 63,000 less opportunities than their male counterparts and $183 million less in NCAA scholarships. So when a college scout shows up to watch the high school soccer players in The Wolves, the girls are competing for significantly more limited opportunities, financial and otherwise.

That said, if The Wolves players make it to the NWSL, they will probably have encountered their teammates and rivals alike many times throughout their adolescence. Elite girls’ soccer is a small world, where top players face each other year after year on club teams, at national tournaments and on the youth national team, becoming well acquainted. So despite the high level of competition, a deeply rooted sense of camaraderie exists, and soccer is a source of lifelong friendship for many of the women who play at that level.

Current players do believe career opportunities are improving by coaching or playing internationally during the off-season. Soccer allows them to see the world while doing what they love. Hopefully, the world will soon start to see them.