The story of women’s soccer did not begin in the Rose Bowl in 1999 — it just exploded there. But despite the increased attention paid to the international game and the opportunities provided women who want to play in college, opportunities to play professionally in the U.S. and elsewhere have been limited, to say the least.

In his book Beyond Bend It Like Beckham: The Global Phenomenon of Women’s Soccer, Timothy Grainey discussed these circumstances and much more.

When Title IX was enacted in 1972, only 28 high schools in the U.S had girls’ soccer teams. Today, there are more than 8,000 American high schools with girls’ teams. On this week’s Only A Game, Grainey told Bill Littlefield that while all women’s sports have seen growth in the last 40 years, none has exploded as dramatically as soccer. One reason: it’s a relatively inexpensive sport.

“It was a sport where you could have 20 or 22 athletes on, so it would help that imbalance of the numbers that football by definition with their 60-80 squad members sort of takes out of whack,” Grainey said. “With some good coaches, both men and women coaches coming out, some of them very young getting their start, colleges were able to compete very quickly.” Some schools, including Nebraska and Arizona, established women’s soccer programs even thought they didn’t have a men’s team.

However, some countries that celebrate men’s soccer have not embraced women’s soccer. Because of that, American women are traveling overseas to help promote the women’s game, among them Lianne Sanderson and Joanna Lohman, who spent a month in India earlier this year conducting soccer camps.

“There, 12, 13-year-olds in those situations, typically the female gets married or is forced marry,” Grainey told Only A Game. “So they’re trying to show that there’s other options. There’s other career paths, other choices that you have as a woman. And in a lot of those countries, those aren’t clearly defined.”

With the collapse of the Women’s Professional Soccer league earlier this year, players in the U.S. are struggling to figure out what’s next. The main issue: money — how to run a league without spending a million dollars a year on each team.

“There’s two semipro or amateur leagues now that are trying to do that,” Grainey said, “trying to have a top-tier division where they can pay a little bit of money and import some top quality players in a budget of $200,000 to $500,00 a year.”


Bill’s thoughts on Beyond Bend It Like Beckham: The Global Phenomenon of Women’s Soccer

Beyond Bend It Like Beckham went to press before the second incarnation of women’s pro soccer in this country went dark, but had it been otherwise, author Timothy Grainey still would have been optimistic. He’s a believer in the phenomenon of the women’s game. He celebrates the progress the game has made in Canada, Australia, and on college campuses and in semi-pro leagues in the U.S. He draws a connection between the “historically egalitarian cultures and liberal attitudes toward equal rights” in the Scandinavian countries and the high quality of the women’s teams in those nations. He also delights in the fact that in Mexico, Brazil (where women’s soccer was against the law until 1979), and various other countries where female soccer players used to be regarded as freaks, they have gained some respect.

Of course “some respect” is not nearly enough. “What women want,” Grainey writes, “is gender equity and fairness so the sport can reach its potential around the world.” Forty years after the passage of Title IX, it seems a humble enough goal.