The contrast couldn’t have been starker.
Just 206 days ago, in a steaming stadium in Lyon, France, packed with almost 60,000 spectators, the United States women’s national team lifted its second consecutive Women’s World Cup. Some 20 million Americans watched the game on TV or streamed it. The women came home to an adoring nation, went on an extended media tour and enjoyed the spoils of its triumph.
On Tuesday, the Americans played in their first competitive game since adding a fourth star to their jerseys – their opener of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying tournament, against Haiti. They did so in a stadium in Houston that might well have had less than a thousand people in it. The game aired on FOX Sports 2, a channel not available to almost half of the U.S. households that still have cable TV. And there was very little promotion behind it, if any at all.
The world champions prevailed 4-0. A 76-second Christen Press opening goal – on the service from Lynn Williams, who had lost her shoe on the play – should have been offset by a Haiti equalizer from a corner kick that was inexplicably disallowed. But after Haiti held firm for an hour, Williams, Lindsey Horan and Carli Lloyd put the game away.
But an entirely predictable, albeit surprisingly hard-fought, victory against the world’s 68th-ranked team is entirely beside the point here. Because the complete failure to turn these matches into a marketable event, properly distributed and available to a large audience, is dispiriting. The USA’s opener was played in front of a crowd that might as well have consisted only of friends and family. And it was relegated to a little-watched channel because FOX Sports 1 was apparently already committed to airing the Iowa State-Baylor women’s college basketball game.
During this tournament, at least one American game will be shown on FOX Soccer Plus, a channel that’s a remnant from another time when FOX had lots of soccer rights. Those are gone now. But the premium channel created for the overflow of games – now appearing to mostly show rugby – was somehow never euthanized. Most will struggle to find it on their TVs, if they get the channel at all.
So why the terrible distribution and placement for these games? Why the lack of marketing to drive ticket sales?
Blame CONCACAF. There is no actual excuse for failing to draw more people to a competitive U.S. women’s national team game.
As for the TV piece, CONCACAF didn’t agree to a deal with FOX to air this tournament until Monday. The event was bundled with the men’s Olympic qualifying tournament as well as two editions of the Gold Cup – the continental men’s national team championship – and three seasons of the men’s CONCACAF Champions League club competition.
And by rolling it into a deal for a bunch of men’s events, CONCACAF relegated one of the few competitive tournaments the most popular women’s team in North America plays to an afterthought.
It reveals CONCACAF’s priorities that it allowed negotiations to drag on until the eve of the game, while Spanish-language rights for the women’s qualifiers weren’t announced until Tuesday, two hours before the opener between Costa Rica and Panama.
This, after all, is the organization that scheduled its showpiece event, the Gold Cup final, on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final and later admitted that it had simply been an oversight.
It’s a bad and unnecessary mistake, underscoring the two-steps-forward-one-step-back reality of women’s soccer and its growth, especially in North America. All of the momentum the World Cup might have bestowed upon this qualifying tournament, which features three teams that participated in France, was squandered. This shouldn’t have been a very hard tournament to sell, but CONCACAF botched the job.
CONCACAF remains an entirely unsuitable guardian of the women’s game in this region. It is unfit to administer the confederation holding the world’s premier team, a long-time power in Canada, and several ascending teams to the south.
On Tuesday, almost nobody came and the TV ratings will surely be paltry because there was virtually no awareness of the game. CONCACAF made no discernible effort and FOX hardly got the chance to get the word out. The broadcaster tends to drive the advertising effort, but for a real campaign to be put on, more than a single day is needed. FOX, which has thrown its full weight behind the last two Women’s World Cups, garnering a fabulous return in viewership and credibility, isn’t at fault here.
Because CONCACAF remains a confederation that can’t get out of its own way. And in its stumbling and bumbling, it does the women’s game a greater disservice than any other.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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