“You could find no better metaphor for the way the rest of the world can now compete head-to-head more effectively than ever with America,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 2005, “than the struggles of the U.S. Olympic basketball team.”
On Sunday, the U.S. women’s national soccer team beat Japan, 5-2, in what was the most-watched soccer telecast in American history. What’s that a metaphor for?
Friedman’s claim, about the 2004 men’s Olympic basketball team, came in a chapter titled “The Quiet Crisis” in his mega-bestselling globalization book “The World Is Flat.”
Americans had invented basketball and dominated it for decades, Friedman reasoned, but basketball knowledge had spread, global standards had risen, and the U.S. had failed to keep up. It was a little like “the steady erosion of America’s scientific and engineering base, which has always been the source of American innovation and our rising standard of living.”
Of course, the U.S. went back to dominating men’s Olympic basketball in 2008 and 2012, the result perhaps of better governance — there was a lot more emphasis put on preparation and teamwork — or maybe just better players. Using sports metaphors to explain the world has its limits. Still, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying; that would mean acceding to the erosion of our metaphor base! So … women’s soccer.
Soccer was born in England, but the English have never really dominated it. Women’s soccer was born there, too, and was quite popular in the early decades of the 20th century, until the Football Association — to which all the country’s men’s professional teams belong — banned women from playing on its fields in 1921, claiming that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females.”
That ban was finally lifted in 1971, by which time women’s soccer was beginning to catch on in some other European countries. In the U.S. it then got a huge boost from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. As a result, girls’ sports in high school and women’s sports in college suddenly became a big thing, and soccer probably benefited the most because it didn’t require expensive equipment or special abilities.
The first women’s soccer World Cup was held in 1991, and the U.S. beat Norway 2-1 in the final. Since then, the U.S. has been the only country to make it to the semifinals of every World Cup, and has won it all three times. Other winners have been Germany (twice), Norway and Japan. England made it to the semifinals this year for the first time.
There are now women’s professional leagues in several countries, but they’re not exactly big-money operations. Two members of the U.S. national team who play for the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg, live with former Houston Rockets (and New York Knicks) coach Jeff van Gundy during the season to save on rent.
What does all this add up to? Here are three possible lessons:
▪ Failing to invest in human capital, and preventing people from developing it themselves, can be costly. England is only now catching up after decades of holding back women’s soccer. Conversely, the U.S. was able, thanks to its Title IX investments, to become the leading women’s soccer power despite not having much history with the sport.
▪ Long-term global dominance of any field is rare for one country. Men’s Olympic basketball has been an exception for the U.S. Movie-making, too. Soccer is harder to dominate in part because its luck-to-skill ratio is higher than basketball’s. But it’s also just that competitive forces really do make it hard to stay on top.
▪ Sunday’s TV ratings would seem to indicate that there’s some major untapped commercial potential in women’s soccer. Please, somebody figure out how to tap it so Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg can afford to get their own apartments.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about business.