First, it was the hassle of finding parking in Swope Soccer Village’s limited lots. Then, it was the long, mostly unpaved, unlit walk to the field.
Watching the game proved to have its own difficulties, as most of the "seats" were standing or sitting in the grass next to the playing field. The overall experience had Ann Gaffigan, an avid fan of FC Kansas City, the Kansas City women’s soccer team, questioning if she would return.
“It didn’t feel like a real sports game. It just felt like we were watching a high school soccer match except of course for the level of play,” says Gaffigan, reflecting on her attendance. “It was underwhelming.”
On July 20, FC Kansas City's home game against the Houston Dash had a starting lineup of seven 2015 World Cup winners from the two teams and a sold out crowd of 3,557 spectators, and yet the venue made the highly anticipated game feel just like that — underwhelming.
Heather O’Reilly, midfielder for FC Kansas City and a member for the winning U.S. women's team, played in the July 20 game in Swope Park, but returning to the home field conditions left her dissatisfied as well.
“It’s very hard to coming back from the major event of the World Cup and feeling this incredible imbalance,” says O’Reilly.
O'Reilly came from an international game viewed by nearly 23 million viewers to play a regular season game on Sporting KC’s practice field for less than 4,000 people.
Her World Cup championship game was viewed by more people than any regular season or playoff game of the MLB, NBA or NHL.
“I don’t think there’s any question that when we put [female athletes] on the platform and the stage that men are on — such as the World Cup, the Olympics — their product sells. It sets records, it gets everyone excited, it works. It’s proven to work,” says Gaffigan.
“The fact that we have the numbers in terms of ratings and games being sold out of the women’s soccer games — we have that data, but yet somehow those numbers don’t matter,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University.
The U.S. women's team received a hero’s welcome back in the U.S., with a parade in New York City and a Sports Illustrated cover. The team had generated hope-filled talk about how this championship was a broader win for women’s sports everywhere.
Just a month later, the hype has died down.
FC Kansas City continues to play in a venue that is considered a practice field for the men’s team, Sporting KC. It costs as little as $44 to buy tickets to four FC Kansas City games; the ticket price for one Sporting KC game is around $47. The Major League Soccer minimum wage is $60,000, the National Women’s Soccer League's minimum is ten times less, just $6,000.
As of now, despite the World Cup win, there is no talk of change for FC Kansas City, but change may come yet.
“I think we have a responsibility to grow the game,” says O’Reilly.
However, that leaves someone with lots of work.
“For years, [the MLS] they put millions and millions into building stadiums and getting their product on ESPN, and guess what? They are doing very, very well, and that’s why their salary cap is so much higher and that’s why their ratings are so much better,” points out Gaffigan.
Outside investment goes hand in hand with graduating women’s sports from its second-tier status.
With Title IX only 43 years old, some think it's understandable after just a generation that women’s sports have still not achieved equal status — but there's a more disturbing trend.
“The coverage of women’s sports is actually lower today than it was in 1989. Mainstream media and sports marketing still cling to that idea that women’s sports aren’t interesting. The interest is there, it’s just the fact that we still in this society have this idea that somehow women’s sport isn’t as exciting,” argues Cooky.
“I would challenge us and challenge the major media companies to take a chance and I think it will pay off,” says O’Reilly.