Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird backed comments made by her girlfriend, United States women’s soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, regarding her belief as to why women’s soccer receives more public support and adoration than women’s basketball, per ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel.
Rapinoe wrote the following in an Oct. 5 Players’ Tribune piece:
“This country has a deep history of racism, and a deep history of homophobia.
“And if you look at the players in the W: Most of them are Black, and a lot of them are gay.
“I just think that needs to be said, loud and clear, so there’s no mistaking things. Because, again: I’m so proud of the run that we went on last year at the World Cup—and so damn grateful for the support that we got. And in a lot of ways, I’m OVER THE MOON about how it was seen as this ‘breakthrough’ moment. But I think the conversation around what our team represented tended to be somewhat incomplete.
“And what I mean by that is: When it comes to U.S. women’s soccer, the general perception is that—let’s face it—we’re the white girls next door. The straight, ‘cute,’ ‘unthreatening,’ ‘suburban’ white girls next door. It’s not actually who we are—the WNT’s racial diversity, though not yet where it needs to be, is improving every year. And, you know, breaking news….. I’m gay. But by and large, that’s the perception. And it’s certainly how we’re marketed to a lot of people.“
Regarding those comments, Bird said the following in part to Don Riddell of CNN’s World Sport, per Voepel.
“It’s 70-80 percent Black women, a lot of gay women. We’re tall; we’re big. And I think there’s just maybe this intimidation factor with that. People are quick to talk about it, judge it, put it down. And soccer, you just don’t see that just based on how they look.”
Bird rejected the notion that marketing was an issue causing the problem.
“The problem is not the marketing, per se. The problem is how society and how the outside world is willing to accept the cute girl next door, but not willing to accept, or embrace, or not judge these basketball players who are tall, Black, gay.”
The women’s World Cup typically captures the nation’s attention in a way that women’s hoops has not despite the latter sport’s incredible success on the international stage and the high quality of play in today’s WNBA.
Per Sports Media Watch, the USWNT vs. Netherlands 2019 Women’s World Cup Final averaged 16.9 million viewers, and that was down from four years ago, when USWNT vs. Japan averaged 26.7 million viewers.
In 2016, NBC’s full telecast window featuring the Olympic women’s gold-medal basketball game between Team USA and France averaged 7.3 million viewers, per Sports Media Watch. Four years earlier, the gold-medal matchup between Team USA and Croatia garnered 11.4 million viewers, per Sports Business Daily.
The WNBA’s popularity is seemingly growing if television audiences are any indication, however: Finals ratings were up 15 percent year over year, per ESPN, and Game 3 of this year’s WNBA Finals was up 34 percent over last year.
Still, the two sports have far different levels of popularity on a mainstream level, and Bird and Rapinoe provided astute and salient theories as to why that is.
Bird, now a four-time WNBA champion after her Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces in three games, has made 11 WNBA All-Star Games and been named to eight All-WNBA teams. The ex-UConn star also won two NCAA titles and four Olympic gold medals.
Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup winner who plays for the NWSL’s OL Reign, won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards following the USWNT’s undefeated and untied run in the 2019 World Cup.