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Sunday, July 21, 2024

To understand Lindsey Horan’s comments, consider the issues behind them: Yang

Lindsey Horan knew she would cause a stir when she told The Athletic, “American soccer fans, most of them aren’t smart.”

She did, after all, go on to say, “I’m gonna piss off some people.”

Based on the comments on the article and the rapid (and often out of context) aggregation of that particular quote across social media, she was right.

But rather than engaging in a black-and-white, right-or-wrong argument, there’s a better question to ask: How would club veteran and USWNT captain Lindsey Horan, who began her career at age 17 and has amassed 139 national team caps, eight major club titles and a World Cup, have arrived at this conclusion? Perhaps it was indelicately worded and a bit jarring to hear especially from a prominent national team figure, but she’s not popping up with this kind of observation in a vacuum.

The truth is that there’s an entire ecosystem of factors that could have played into this perception of American soccer literacy, whether it’s right, wrong, conditional or a secret fourth thing. Literacy of any sort is not innate; it takes exposure, immersion, and practice — all things that have historically been in short supply for soccer in the United States, and in the women’s game especially.

First and foremost, organized professional women’s soccer is simply a younger entity with a younger fanbase than its male counterpart, with its own distinct history, quirks, and evolution. There’s a difference between coming to something new as an adult and absorbing generational knowledge as a child.

That newness is compounded by the absolute dearth of women’s games on broadcast until very recently. It wasn’t that long ago that to watch a game taking place in England or Germany or France, you had to be willing to hunt down a grainy bootleg stream, usually from a non-English website, via a link you dug out from a message board you heard about from a post on another message board. This scarcity has absolutely imposed limits on the ability to comment and analyze, whether you’re a fan or on camera. And unlike other countries that can have a literal century’s worth of institutional soccer knowledge built up over time through the men’s game, in the U.S. that, too, is still finding its footing in the national conversation.

Even today, after huge advancements in both broadcast availability and quality for women’s games, it still feels daunting trying to watch a variety of matches in the United States, let alone across Europe or other countries. You only have to look at the confusion and worries about affordability that accompanied NWSL’s announcement that they would be spreading broadcast rights amongst four different partners to get an idea of the obstacles fans face.

Sure, there’s been some form of professional women’s soccer in the U.S. since WUSA’s inaugural 2001 season, but was anyone really able to watch those games on Pax TV (ironically since transformed into ION, one of NWSL’s current broadcast partners)?

If we’re talking about a supposed lack of technical sophistication in commentary, then sure, there is admittedly less conversation about tactics in the women’s soccer space. But again, that’s not because of some inherent characteristic of women’s soccer, the same way that not having depth of knowledge about soccer isn’t inherent to being American.

Until the last decade or so, there has been a deficit of data to inform tactical analysis in women’s soccer, and even less of that data was available to the public. Data requires that you be able to watch a game and log its actions, and if games aren’t available or have low broadcast quality — conditions that deeply and currently affect women’s soccer — then the data will be impacted. That creates a cascading effect, limiting who can talk about data and the tactics that they inform, and who can learn from it.

The way that media entities cover women’s sports has an effect too; consider how often fans have to voice their disappointment that a big media outlet only covers women’s soccer when it’s in crisis, if it covers the sport all. Take note of how so much of women’s sports coverage, not just soccer, frames these athletes foremost as role models, mothers, wives, and so on. There’s just not as much discussion of female athletes as athletes, or the women’s game as a game.

Sports agency Wasserman said in a recent study that women’s sports comprise as much as 15% of total sports coverage these days. It’s a massive and praise-worthy leap from the 4% number previously reported by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport in 2014, but it’s still not great that roughly one in seven sports stories is about women’s sports. Wasserman’s study also says that professional women’s sports, as opposed to college sports, generate only 8% of coverage, and that the increase is primarily being driven by social and digital platforms. Studio TV shows, the type of programming that is most immediate to viewers, and the type that Horan is directly addressing, allocates “less than 5% of coverage to women’s sports, proving the need for media to engage women’s sports topics beyond the surface,” reads the Wasserman report.

“So much of the time people take what the commentators say, right? My mom does it!” Horan told The Athletic. “My mom says, ‘Julie Foudy said you had such a good game!’ And I’m here, just going, ‘I was f—ing s— today.’”

There’s a reason Horan used Foudy as an example. Foudy is one of the most prominent voices in the women’s soccer commentating landscape at the moment. Of course this is partially due to her own hard work and experience, but it’s also a symptom of how few jobs there are in the already limited women’s soccer media space, and how many of those jobs media companies are offering to women, and which women have access to these offers. One person’s analysis can dominate in such a small space just by the way the landscape is structured. Of course we also have our Aly Wagners and Danielle Slatons, but growth in this area is still slow and honestly sometimes painful.

So did Horan say something that felt like an overgeneralization? Perhaps. But there’s no denying that there are very real issues underpinning her words.

The women’s soccer landscape is built on an ecosystem of history and behavior that interconnects in complex ways. It’s good to keep interrogating that complexity, if only to be able to say that someone is wrong.

(Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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