Saturday, July 11, 2015

FIFA and the Women's World Cup, Part I: Money, Fans, and Ethics

This is the way we’d like to remember the Women’s World Cup:
celebrating with Carli Lloyd.

[It turns out that even beginning to talk about the corruption, incompetence, and sexism of FIFA with respect to the Women’s World Cup takes a lot of space.  This is, then, a two-part essay.  More tomorrow.]

Like a lot of other folks, Curmie watched the finals of the Women’s World Cup a week or so ago. Unlike many of the others tuned into that match, however, Curmie also watched both semi-finals, and would have watched many of the preliminary games had he not been pretty much cut off from television access at the time.

The fact is, the women’s game is simply more fun to watch than the men’s, and not merely for the jingoistic reason that the US women are perennial contenders for whatever title they seek, whereas the men (to put it politely) are not. The women’s game is more team-oriented, more reliant on passing and positioning, more (dare I say it?) intellectual without being any less athletic. It’s a cleaner game, too, with fewer fouls—not just fewer fouls called, but fewer fouls, and if a female player goes down and doesn’t get up immediately, it means she’s really hurt, not faking paroxysms of agony to try to influence the referee. The respect for the game, for the opponent, for tradition, and for teammates is all considerably higher.

Witness the fact that Carli Lloyd, the very deserving Golden Ball recipient whose hat trick 15 minutes into the final was nothing short of incredible, handed over the captain’s armband to fading star (but still team leader) Abby Wambach when the latter entered the game with the victory no longer in doubt. And who actually hoisted the trophy after the award presentation? Lloyd? Nope. Golden Glove winner Hope Solo? Nope. Wambach and 40-year-old Christie Rampone, the only active member of the 1999 team that won the Cup in such dramatic fashion: Wambach and Rampone are the links to heritage, the veteran leaders; the best players on the team right now will, one hopes, have another opportunity. (Wambach also passed the captain’s armband on to Rampone, who was apparently selected to raise the trophy by herself, but insisted that Wambach join her.) Respect, tradition, team. Not to mention the utter casualness with which everyone associated with the team regards the fact that Wambach and fellow veteran Megan Rapinoe have both been out of the closet for years. Ah, if only all sports were like that.


Alas, there is a darker side to the feel-good stories. There’s the fact that the US’s star goalie Hope Solo is alleged to be a violent criminal, yet has not been subject to the same backlash as, say the NFL’s Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice. (Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall does his usual excellent analysis here and here.) Because she’s white? female? Because her variation on domestic violence isn’t perceived as being symptomatic of a larger problem? If Solo were black and/or male, or a little less accomplished (or even a little less beautiful), would she be trotted out as one of the faces of the team, or even allowed to stay on it? All over America, little girls are hoping to grow up to be Hope Solo, and their parents (not to mention their sisters and nephews) are hoping they… uh… don’t.

There’s also the frankly rather sketchy officiating. (Yahoo’s Graham Watson agrees.) There were a total four penalty kicks awarded in the two semi-final games. You could make a pretty good case that none of them were merited. And apparently (I missed this game) the third-place game between England and Germany was an officiating disaster. Part of this is the fault of the referees themselves, of course, but part is also on FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football) for not insisting on replay for calls that have the potential to change the direction of a match in a heartbeat.

Ah, yes. FIFA. The perfect blend of corruption, arrogance, incompetence, sexism, and boorishness. Needless to say, the world’s governing body for soccer/football had been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons coming into the Women’s World Cup. There was the corruption scandal involving many of the organization’s most powerful officials. There’s the mounting evidence that not only was the awarding of the 2022 (men’s) World Cup to Qatar almost certainly the product of bribery, but that the facilities for that tournament are being constructed in hazardous, often deadly, conditions by what amounts to slave labor. Please note, Gentle Reader, that this is an entirely different set of allegations from those that led to multi-count indictments (and three convictions already) against over a dozen current and former FIFA officials, sports marketing mavens, and a broadcaster. Self-styled “Godfather of Women’s Football” Sepp Blatter (yes, that is indeed a name worthy of a James Bond villain), who was re-elected in May because of despite being one of the most contemptible creatures ever to trod the planet, resigned in the wake of that scandal, but who is still in charge until a successor is named several months hence, didn’t make the trip to Vancouver amid speculation that his absence—and that of his minion, Secretary General Jerome Valcke—was under the advice of his lawyer.

So what FIFA really needed was a well-attended, effectively administered, competitive, Women’s World Cup with good TV ratings—something to take the edge off, at least, until at least some of the brouhaha died down. They got it, at least to hear them tell it. The reality was a little different. This year’s version set total attendance records, but there are two problems: first, the comparison is between a 16-team, 32-game tournament in 1999 (the previous record-holder) and a 24-team, 52-game tournament in 2015. So, in 1999, attendance averaged over 37,000 fans per game to reach a total of about 1.2 million, compared to over 1.35 million this time around. But whereas 2015 version drew more fans, total, it averaged over 10,000 fewer fans per game. 

If this is a sell-out crowd, a lot of people came disguised as empty seats.
And—problem #2—that’s after massaging the numbers. Early round games were sold as double-headers, and FIFA, ever the paragons of dubious virtue, double-dipped. Fans who bought a single ticket to see two games were counted twice, whether they saw both games or not. For example, some 32,716 people—a sell-out(!)—bought tickets to the Australia-Nigeria and USA-Sweden double bill. The latter game was in fact pretty close to full. The earlier game was half empty. FIFA consulted its magic pixie dust and declared that all 32K+ folks had attended both games: total attendance, therefore: 65,432.

The television numbers, which FIFA couldn’t control, were at least honest, and were certainly encouraging, at least in North America. The final, for example, was watched by some 26.7 million viewers in the US, eclipsing the old record of 26.5 million Americans who tuned in to the Germany-Argentina final in the men’s World Cup last year. But how many of those viewers would have watched had the US not reached the final (or even if it had not been a re-match of the 2011 final, a heart-breaking loss for the American side), and how many more would have watched the US men’s team had they advanced to games of real significance?

Still, as the New York Times article linked above points out, it is unquestionably significant that viewership for the USA-Japan final outdrew Game 7 of last year’s World Series and the clinching Game 6 of the NBA playoffs. There’s certainly interest. Here. As might be expected, countries whose teams didn’t fare as well didn’t stay tuned as much after their side had departed the competition. Still, the television numbers were generally pretty good all over. I can’t find final world-wide figures for the final, but the semis averaged over 12 million viewers world-wide, with about 2/3 of those viewers coming from the US. Assuming that same ratio for the final (global TV ratings haven’t been released, or at least I can’t find them), then we’re talking about a total television viewership of perhaps 40 million or so. That’s a lot of folks… until you compare it to the estimated 1 billion (yes, “billion” with a “b”) who watched last year’s men’s final. More importantly, whereas the women’s final this year probably attracted a few million viewers from countries other than the two participants, last year’s men’s final attracted a few hundred million audience members from elsewhere than Germany and Argentina.

And that’s an important statistic. Because whereas there is no doubt that FIFA is run by a cadre of sexist assholes, there is at least some economic sense to the disparity in payouts to the sides. Is there an outrageous disparity between the $2 million the US women won this year and the $35 million the German men brought home last year? Well, duh. But what ought that ratio be, and by what basis should we arrive at it? Is absolute parity the way to go? Could be. That’s what Wimbledon is doing, for example.

But a purely performance-based system also has a claim to being the fairest model. No one seriously suggests that the US women would fare well in a head-to-head contest even with the American men (who, by the way, brought home $8 million for getting knocked out in group play last year), let alone with a first-rate international squad. The women are at least as technically skilled, but high-end male athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than their female counterparts: that’s why there are separate teams for men and women (and there are few sports—wrestling, boxing, crew, weightlifting—in which smaller men get to compete only against each other, not against the big guys). If we’re really talking about some variation on equal pay for equal results, then shouldn’t a pedestrian men’s team make as much or more as a good women’s team they could still beat?

Or we could adopt entertainment value as our central criterion. Players who generate more income should be compensated according. That’s fair, too? Well, now we’re talking pure economics, and the more colorful (or sexy) players who attract a bigger crowd ought to get a bigger piece of the pie… regardless of outcome. And if we’re dealing with a strictly capitalistic model, then the fact that the men’s final generated a couple dozen times as many viewers as the women’s, both in the stands and in the worldwide television audience, suggests that they ought to be paid commensurately.

You know what?  Not really.  But at least there’s some rationale behind the disparity in prize money, which, it turns out, isn’t FIFA’s greatest crime. What is? That’s in part II of this post.  Watch this space.

No comments: