To best appreciate the impact of the 2015 U.S. women's national soccer team, you need only look at the photographs. Not of the team, though those remain unassailably impressive and inspirational, elite athleticism and sportswomanship captured at its finest. But equally stirring are the reaction shots of the fans -- elated soccer lovers of all stripes immersed in the World Cup matches, their faces alit with joy, excitement, pride.
Photos snapped in the stands, at pubs, during viewing parties on the street or at home -- glance at them, and the exultation is palpable. You see immediately why this USWNT matters, why women's soccer matters, why women's sports matter.
It's a tiresome debate, the constant inquiry over the value of women's professional leagues, inevitably measured against men's organizations, which is like comparing the shade cast by an acorn to that of a primeval forest, as most women's clubs are not just comparatively new to the scene, but underfunded and unpromoted to the point of insult.
A recent study published in Communication & Sport revealed that the amount of time spent broadcasting women's athletics on television is about 3 to 2 percent. And the airtime women's leagues do get so often appears at a much lower quality (fewer replays, fewer cameras, fewer catchy theme songs). As a result you can end up with the equivalent of a C-Span live feed competing with the next "Avengers" movie.
The reasoning for such undeniable marginalization is always the same: People don't care about women's sports. But maybe it's simply a case of viewers' inability to find women's sports to watch. The USWNT's victory in the World Cup final last summer not only beat the title-clinching game of the NBA Finals in viewership ratings, but also became the most-watched soccer event in television history, attracting 25.4 million viewers -- a.k.a 25.4 million people who care. (And all that without Sepp Blatter's recommended "tighter shorts.") Suck on that figure, Andy Benoit.
And yet, even with a proven appeal and the bonus of, you know, being the best in the world at what they do, the women's team still gets put in the proverbial corner. The mandated minimum salary for a National Women's Soccer League player remains $6,842 a year, well below the Federal poverty line of $11,770. By contrast, the men's MLS minimum is $60,000. And while the current champion USWNT took home $1.8 million for winning the World Cup, which they shared among 23 players and their support staff, the men's team (which lost and is ranked 32nd by FIFA) took home $9 million. In aggregate, women's soccer players earn an astonishing 98.6 percent less than their male counterparts.
The men also fly business or first class when they travel to Olympic and international tournaments. The women fly coach. The men compete on grass. The women play on turf (which acts like a cheese grater on skin, and a jackhammer on ligaments, among other undesirable qualities).
All of which makes the USWNT's victory and significant domination even more remarkable. These women aren't just, as Amy Poehler famously pronounced, "bad ass American bitches," but women who have repeatedly gotten the booty end of the stick -- and decided to play their butts off anyway. Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and the rest rose to the occasion, turning lemons into victory and a well-deserved ticker-tape parade. There is not a cry baby in the lot.
Instead, there is record-breaking excellence.
And open-minded tolerance.
And for the more than 3 million kids who play youth soccer, half of whom are girls, there are living, breathing examples of what inspiration and impact looks like.
Take a look. You can see it on their faces.