Meaningful Equality and Why It’s Important to do Women’s Soccer Analytics

I hadn’t planned on writing anything today, and I’m not sure what started the discussion on Twitter, but there’s a discussion going on about whether countries should invest in Women’s Soccer. I’ve read some articles lately about gender equality in Australia, and there’s the USWNT/USSF lawsuit going on, but I didn’t see if there was a particular spark that set this off. Either way, it’s an important topic to discuss so I wanted to post some longer form thoughts on my short tweetstorm earlier.  This will likely be a series of synaptic misfires loosely related to women’s soccer and gender equality, but hopefully I can convey my thoughts and make some people think about the systemic issues with gender and sports in a different way.

The counterargument to paying women’s national teams equally to men/funding them the same/letting them play on the federation’s preferred surface is that “Women’s soccer isn’t popular/doesn’t make money. Once they bring in the amount of money that the men do, then they can have the same money.” The problem is that the two aren’t playing on the same playing field (literally in the case of the USMNT/WNT). For context I stole a line of thought from my favorite political science professor back in undergrad:

With zero data in my pocket to support this, I feel fairly comfortable saying women’s soccer isn’t nearly as popular as men’s soccer worldwide. Shockingly, if you treat something as unimportant and as a lower quality product, people will see it that way. Even if we stop doing that and treat the women’s game as an equal product to men’s soccer today, we still haven’t reached anything near equality. You can’t undo generations of conditioning with a single World Cup – it’s a start, but it’s not the end product. Not by a long shot.

A few weeks ago I posted a call to some of the bigger accounts in Soccer Analytics TwitterTM to have a “let’s retweet articles written by women” day, and had no takers. One person suggested “We should retweet women every day”, which is a good suggestion except virtually no one in my timeline does it. A couple of people suggested that they retweet quality content regardless of gender, which is a great sentiment except for the fact that 95% (likely higher) of the things I see retweeted are from men. Either men are just naturally better at writing about soccer, or there’s some gender bias in what we see as quality or what topics we’re interested in.

Admitting my own bias, I don’t follow women’s soccer particularly closely. 1 I do watch just about every match of the Women’s World Cup, and watch as many USWNT matches as I can, but there’s a few issues with it that end up in a nasty feedback loop preventing me, and I assume others, from following women’s soccer.

First, men’s soccer is so much easier to find on TV. NBCSN televises 5-6 EPL games every weekend, so I can put it on without needing to worry about setting up my Roku or streaming from my laptop to the computer2 I actually prefer Serie A, but even bein Sports makes it difficult to find Milan many weeks, so I’ve started following the EPL more.

This makes it easier to read articles about the EPL, or to a lesser extent Serie A.3 So I follow writers who write interesting content about the EPL because I have some sort of knowledge base there. There are a couple of really interesting German people I follow, but don’t read much of their content because I know nothing about the Bundesliga and the articles don’t mean much to me. This problem is exaggerated with Women’s Soccer: I don’t know that much about it, so when I read tactical analysis of the NWSL finals I struggle to keep up. It’s a nasty feedback loop: I don’t follow the league so I don’t appreciate the analyses as much as I should, which means I have less interest in the league because I don’t have a community to talk about it and learn about it with.

Similarly, the big EPL writers don’t write much about women’s soccer. I get why: I want to write more about the relegation round-up, but when I do I get far fewer retweets/likes/shares/clicks so I stop writing about Aston Villa/Sunderland/Newcastle. I’m just a hobbyist here, but I don’t want to spend time writing things people don’t read, so I end up drawn back to “Who’s going to win the EPL?” and “Is Leicester City for real?” and “What’s the deal with Chelsea?” It reinforces the big team bias, even in the biggest league in the world. Think what this does to something trying to get a foothold in the marketplace like women’s soccer.

This is a big reason I’ve decided to start doing predictive models for the NWSL this season.4 First, I want a reason to become more interested in women’s soccer, so investing myself into a project like this gives me a reason to follow it more closely. Second, maybe if I build it, people will come. I’m not necessarily a big dog5 in the soccer analytics community, but I have a decent following on Twitter and maybe if I start writing then we can start a women’s soccer analytics community. Someone has to be the first mover, and I’ll get enjoyment out of it so why not? Third, I think it’s an important thing to do. We have plenty of people writing about all the men’s leagues in the world, but not nearly enough writing about women’s soccer. I would never want to step out of my lane and speak over any of the amazingly talented women writing about women’s soccer, but if I can find a niche and bring in some people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested then maybe that’s a good thing.

I don’t know if this made for a particularly coherent blog post, but I really think it’s important to address the systemic inequalities in gender and sports (soccer in particular) and to think about how hard it is to break the cycle where we don’t invest in women’s soccer because it has a small fanbase/it has a small fanbase because we don’t invest in it. It’s an important step toward equality in sports, and hopefully we can move the ball forward.

  1. To be fair, I also don’t follow the Bundesliga, La Liga, or Ligue 1  closely either, but even for those leagues I know the biggest players and teams.
  2. I refuse to watch TV on my laptop. My students would cringe at me being an old man and watching TV on an actual TV, kind of like how I use my phone to be a phone.
  3. #forzaMilan
  4. There’s another problem here with availability of stats: it’s harder to do a decent analytic model for women’s soccer because there aren’t as many publicly available stats, so no one writes about it. But then no one collects stats for women’s soccer because no one’s interested, but no one’s interested because there aren’t any stats…feedback loop.
  5. Digby pun intended for Mike Goodman should he read this

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *