Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How (and maybe why) the U.S. women’s national team made millions of fans, including this guy | Marcus Hayes

For the first time in a long time, a team captured my interest and my heart.

Rose Lavelle celebrates her goal with Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe (right) during Sunday's final in Lyon.
Rose Lavelle celebrates her goal with Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe (right) during Sunday's final in Lyon.Read moreFrancisco Seco / AP

OK, I’m in. In for life.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team, with its skill and its talent and its professionalism, made me the kind of fan I haven’t been since Doc and the Sixers.

To be clear: They don’t need me. I need them.

I am sure I am not alone in this realization. I am sure there are millions of men like me, but millions of women, too; casual sports fans, or even non-sports fans. We already doted on Delran native Carli Lloyd, but over the last month we invested deeply in Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath and the marvelous Megan Rapinoe (it’s rah-PEA-no), and in their gritty supporting cast, and we fell in love with the idea of the team and with the spirit of the team and our lives are a little better.

I don’t watch sports. For free. I’ve covered dozens of big-time events -- Super Bowl and World Series, Stanley Cups and Olympics, Masters and U.S. Opens, but this is maybe the fifth sporting event I’ve watched start-to-finish without being paid to do so. Why?

None of those events captured my soul like this run to a fourth Cup. I have been completely fixated.

How fixated? Well, when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George landed with the Clippers early Saturday morning, all I cared about was whether Christen Press, my choice, would start in the final over Rapinoe. For the record, Rapinoe scored the winning goal Sunday, won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s leading scorer, and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player; my horrible record as a prognosticator remains intact.

Why this fixation? Because they play beautifully, and they play relentlessly; but also, because they play authentically and speak authentically. And, unlike the men, they don’t dive all the time. The women have fewer drama queens. Go figure.

More than anything, though, these women represent more than sport. They represent progress, and -- in this divided and progressively regressive world -- they represent hope. And they know it.

Nike’s “I believe" commercial, which ran just minutes after their 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday, gave me chills I haven’t felt since Apple smashed the Big Brother screen.

“We’ll keep fighting not just to make history, but to change it.”

As the ad said: This team wins. Everyone wins.

All of this makes me feel good. Maybe it makes you feel good, too.

If this comes off as patronizing, so be it. The team didn’t court me, but I hope it will have me.

As a man immersed in sports by both vocation and choice, women’s sports has often been satellite to the more mainstream endeavors; read, men’s endeavors. I’d watch women’s golf (partly because I have a golf problem), and, reluctantly, softball, volleyball and tennis. But certainly not soccer. I played the game, and I’ll occasionally peek at men’s soccer on TV, but this team made a difference for me.

It wasn’t just me, either. The No. 1 article on on Sunday morning before the game began detailed how to watch or stream it, and it collected twice the traffic of the No. 2 story. ESPN announced Saturday that it will televise 14 National Women’s Soccer League Games in 2019, including the playoffs.

The U.S. semifinal against England on Tuesday averaged 7.03 million viewers, the third-largest U.S. soccer audience regardless of gender since the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

Hundreds of thousands of fans attended World Cup watch parties Sunday, from Philly to Boston to Bethlehem, Pa.

This personal reset button came out of nowhere, but there’s something exhilarating about watching strong, confident women develop a game over a 20-year span. This edition of women’s soccer is its pinnacle.

Trust me: This has nothing to do with me being an American and therefore rooting for Americans. In fact, I enjoy perverse pleasure watching would-be powerhouses from the United States struggle. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for the whiny Ryder Cup teams America has fielded, and the men’s national basketball Dream Teams have seemed ridiculous since the 1992 Summer Olympics. Go, Angola.

For me, and maybe for you, this runs deeper than the women’s soccer team. On Friday, I was delighted (as Twitter convulsed) when 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff’s unlikely Wimbledon run pre-empted coverage of a tense Novak Djokovic match already in progress. Both survived, as did the sport.

Certainly, this phenomenon goes beyond sports. The two most intriguing Democratic presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, are women, and third-most intriguing, Pete Buttigieg, is a gay veteran. I’m not endorsing any of the three, but their dynamic and well-presented messages make us think and give us hope.

Rapinoe, of course, is both gay and a woman, and fabulous, and headstrong, and violet-haired, and, as the outspoken captain of the team, an absolute beacon of hope -- and, for many, a distillation of what America can be. I’m totally endorsing her.

Also: great teeth.

Perhaps the candidacies of women like Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton helped pave the way to this day. There are now seven women assistant NBA basketball coaches, and there is a building wave of women in positions of power in all major sports front offices. It’s not a finish, but it’s a good start.

And let’s take a moment to thank Billie Jean King, who not only led the charge for equal pay for women’s professional tennis players (a route the national team soccer players have sued to follow) but who also once gave me a tennis lesson in the lobby of a Princeton hotel.

I’ve written a lot about women’s sports, and about women in sports. I’m sure that, at times, I have been condescending; maybe even low-key sexist. That experience doesn’t make me an expert. It does, however, give me a better toehold when I consider this thrilling phenomenon.

I’m happy that the USWNT won in the way I’m happy that Major League Baseball gave Odubel Herrera a suitable suspension (85 games) on Friday; the way I’m happy that Jeffrey Epstein got arrested in New Jersey on Saturday. Maybe my tracking the #MeToo movement, as it cleans up some of the garbage in our society, was as large a catalyst as the #USWNT. I don’t know. I do know this:

It’s a fun wave to ride.

Climb aboard.