What's the biggest moment in American women's sports history? The most breakthrough, transcendent, crossover event that made everyone stand up and notice, and cheer?
Ask 20 people. One or two, if they're older, might say Billie Jean King's (probably fixed) win over Bobby Riggs in 1973. But every single other person, man or woman, sports fan and no, will say it was this:
We've forgotten a bit how much the 1999 U.S. Women's World Cup team captivated the nation before Brandi Chastain's shirt-shedding moment of joy; vivid memories like that one tend to cloud out the small moments that led to it. That team was a sensation long before Chastain's goal. It started with the Gold Medal in the 1996 Olympics, and by the time the World Cup arrived, with so many stars like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and the like, they were selling out football stadiums with ease. Seriously, in that World Cup, they sold out Giants Stadium, Soldier Field, Foxboro Stadium, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Stanford Stadium and the Rose Bowl like it was nothing. (Football teams have a hard time doing that today.) Having that once-in-a-lifetime team, along with a World Cup played in the United States with start times ideally suited for drunken, screaming gatherings -- I'm pretty sure I painted my face a couple of times -- led to a women's sports' breakthrough moment. The Chastain goal is the image we remember, but that tournament, and that team, dominated the whole summer. It was fantastic.
And … it was 16 years ago. So here's another, more pressing question: What's the biggest women's sports moment since Chastain's goal? The time when the rich world of women's sports crossed over into the American mainstream? I'll confess: I struggled to come up with one off the top of my head. Sarah Hughes at the 2002 Olympics? McKayla Maroney's unimpressed smirk? Serena Williams' ongoing dominance and drama? There have been moments, sure, but they've all been individual. Team-wise? The Connecticut team? The courage of Pat Summitt? The fact is: No moment, in the 16 years since that amazing U.S. team, has come close to matching it in the national cultural consciousness.
This in spite of the fact that women's sports, in general, have grown, wildly, in popularity and participation this century. In 2011, three million girls participated in high school sports, literally 10 times as many as did when Title IX passed in 1972. Nike sells $5 billion worth of women's sports merchandise and believes it can add $2 billion more to that by 2017. A look at the women's sports Impact 25 compiled by espnW -- itself a sign of the women's sports' emergence over the last decade -- is to list some of the biggest names in sports, man or woman: Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, Brittney Griner, Michelle Wie, even Mo'ne Davis.
And, not for nothing, but women's perspectives in male sports has become a larger part of the conversation than ever before; the NFL nearly had its season derailed by its inability to appropriately grapple with domestic violence, and no longer are Floyd Mayweather's horrific attitudes and actions toward women being swept under the rug. "From where I'm sitting, it's pretty incredible to see all that is happening for women in the sports world," Alison Overholt, editor-in-chief of espnW, told me. "Whether you're talking about pro athletes, elite amateurs, weekend warriors, little girls out on practice fields, fans at all levels, women sports journalists. … the numbers I see of who identifies as a fan, what's happening in our industry, the performance stats for athletes -- as in, the literal advancement of women's athleticism, skills and achievements on the field of sport -- it's a sea change from even five years ago, 10 years ago."
As this year's Women's World Cup begins later this week, played in North America's convenient television time zones for the first time since 2003, the question arises: Do women's sports, particularly women's team sports, need another Chastain-like crossover moment to solidify their progress of the last decade-and-a-half?
I always find myself suspicious of crossover moments, this weird need, in this day and age, to make whatever your personal passion is into some sort of viral, mainstream hit. It's the creeping Rovellianism of culture, this idea that if something isn't featured by Carson Daly on the "Today" show, or doesn't get Upworthied on Facebook (or whatever it is), or can't be packaged in some overly simple way that loses the complexity of the issue but can be easily understood by idiots who are only barely paying attention … that it's somehow failing. Trying to dumb down your passions, or whittle them down to some easily digestible capsule, is precisely the opposite of what passion is: It's what is making everything so stupid.
I find myself feeling the same way about women's sports, which are growing at an exponential rate. The last thing they need to be doing is making themselves into something they're not -- or trying to be something they don't want to be -- just to get a little attention from the front page of Yahoo. I can't wait for the Women's World Cup to start - I even have a wall chart in my office -- and I will watch every game with the same excitement I did 16 years ago, and 12 years ago, and every WWC since then. But if the rest of the country tunes out, that doesn't depreciate my enjoyment of it, and it doesn't change the locomotive momentum of women's sports this century. For the diehards and the true believers, the growing numbers, you don't need another Chastain moment. If you're just watching in anticipation of some viral moment to crossover, you're watching for the wrong reasons.
But … but … dammit, those moments do matter. The fact is, one of the reasons women's sports have gathered such strength in the last 16 years was Chastain's moment. You gain power in numbers. And that 1999 brought numbers we haven't seen since. It's about the tide raising all boats: You have your viral spikes, but what matters is what happens once all that fades. If you're more popular than you were before that spike, if your new normal is a better place, you've won.
"Big moments always matter," Overholt says. "Not to be pedantic about it, but we call them breakthroughs because that is literally what they do for us -- break through the noise, cut through our business-as-usual mindset, jolt us out of seeing things ordered in the way we've always thought it was ordered, to say, Wow, something different is happening here. That's never not going to be important for women athletes and their fans, who are still trying to earn a paycheck, ensure their professional leagues succeed, get better coaching, prompt the creation of more specific or relevant equipment, and make a case for more coverage of the sports and athletes they love to watch, on air and in arenas."
I'm going to let Overholt continue here, because she's smarter than I am.
"Is the fandom there? Yes, I think so. Is the advancement in women's sport happening? Without any shadow of a doubt. But is a breakthrough moment important? Also yes, because at the end of the day, the marketplace needs to know that this stuff is happening. Because the market is what funds, in a literal way, those athlete sponsorships, the growth of those leagues, the development of new technology and learning to support women athletes, the media that gets the word out to all those fans and aspiring athletes out in the world. So if the communities for women's sports remain disaggregated and never make enough collective noise for the market to realize there's something to recognize here, then it doesn't matter if real progress is being made … money matters, and big, breakthrough moments shine a big spotlight for where the money should go next. Women need that."
This is going to be a terrific Women's World Cup. I cannot wait. If America wins every game 9-0 and the whole world tunes out at halftime because they're bored, I won't care, because my team and my country will have won. (Note: This isn't going to happen: The U.S. is a favorite, but barely; remember, we haven't won the WWC since Chastain's goal.)
But as much as I don't want to admit it, Overholt is completely right. It requires those moments to, as she puts it, jolt us out of our order. Things are changing, and moving in the right direction. But not everyone knows it yet, and not everyone sees it; some don't even want to see it. That's what high-profile events like this one can do. They can shake us out of our routines and see what's really going on around us. What's really going on is exciting, and progressive, and important. But it's also extremely fun.
That's ultimately all that matters, after all. This is something we all can enjoy, and anything that allows more of us to do so, the better. So come join us. USA! USA! This is going to be a blast. You know what? The more the merrier.