Q&A: The New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas on women’s soccer as a global media phenomenon

The women’s soccer World Cup—which has unfolded in recent weeks in Australia and New Zealand, and will end on Sunday—has not been lacking in media stories. Early on, the BBC apologized after a reporter asked Ghizlane Chebbak, the captain of Morocco, whether she has any gay teammates and, if so, what life is like for them in their country, where same-sex acts are criminalized; the reporter initially defended his question as being about “people” not “politics,” but the BBC acknowledged that the question was “inappropriate” after other journalists criticized it for putting Chebbak in danger. Two Iranian journalists who traveled to cover the tournament reportedly sought asylum amid a crackdown on dissent back home. Even before the tournament began, rights negotiations between FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, and broadcasters “devolved into a public battle that won’t pay off as planned,” as the Wall Street Journal put it.

In the US, the biggest story of the tournament played out on the field, as the country’s team, which won the previous two tournaments, crashed out early—and in tantalizingly dramatic fashion—to Sweden. Mostly on the field, anyway: the defeat of the US team—members of which have been outspoken on social issues and, especially in the case of the star player Megan Rapinoe, against Donald Trump—was gleefully weaponized by anti-woke right-wing commentators. (Not least Trump himself; he posted “WOKE EQUALS FAILURE.”) By far the more consequential takeaway from the loss—and one that also got coverage in major national outlets—was that it underscored the end of the US program’s unquestioned dominance of women’s soccer. Other countries have invested heavily in the sport, and caught up.

Writing to mark the opening of the tournament last month, Louisa Thomas, who covers sports for The New Yorker, focused on the Spanish team as emblematic of the state of the global game: it is stacked with superb technical players, many of whom play at club level for the currently all-conquering Barcelona side, and yet had recently seen its performances on the field overshadowed by drama off it, with fifteen players at one point refusing to be selected in protest of their coach, among other issues. (The French team, also flush with talent, experienced similar behind-the-scenes tensions—as well as a baroque, Tonya Harding-style scandal which saw one player charged with assaulting another.) Yesterday, Spain, its coach still in situ, qualified for the final. It will meet England—much to the delight of your London-based newsletter writer.

Since then, Thomas has written about the revelatory Haitian talent Melchie Dumornay, and the US exit. Last week, before the quarter- and semi-final stages of the tournament took place, I talked to Thomas about the coverage of the World Cup in the US, the growth of women’s soccer as a global media phenomenon, and the appropriate balance between on- and off-field stories in sports journalism more broadly. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JA: How have you assessed the coverage of the tournament, especially in US media, this time around? And how do you think it has differed from past tournaments?

LT: I think a lot more outlets sent people [to Australia and New Zealand], despite the obvious cost and hassle. There’s definitely more cut-through. Traditional soccer-focused outlets, like Men in Blazers, have covered this World Cup to a degree that I don’t think they used to. Obviously the New York Times is going through its own seismic shifts in its coverage of sports, but The Athletic [which is owned by the Times and was recently further integrated into its sports coverage as the paper closed its own sports desk] has a number of people who are there. More and more places are understanding that we need to approach this in a full-on way.

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The exit of the US women’s team had its own cut-through in the right-wing mediasphere; there was a lot of culture-war nonsense around it. Does the team being a target for that kind of rhetoric signify something about the broader cultural cut-through of women’s soccer these days? Or is it just that these people will take any opportunity they can get to bash “wokeism”?

I think both. The team—because it does very avowedly represent these larger social issues, and fight for them—is a large target, and the fact that it’s a large target makes it an attractive one. It’s a sign of its arrival as a major cultural force. But also the culture wars are being waged on every front these days, so it’s not that surprising at all. 

When Trump did his post about it I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was kinda weird…

This seemed like a bigger deal in 2019, when [the US women’s team won the World Cup and] Trump was like, I’m not gonna invite them, and Megan Rapinoe, in a very brilliant and offhand way, pushed back on the idea that she would ever go visit Trump in the White House, with a guffaw. The way that played out seemed more unexpected and newer—it blew up in a way that wasn’t surprising, but felt novel in some ways; felt significant. This time feels more like a continuation of that than something new.

Back to what matters: I read your piece about the US team going out and was struck by this idea that while its exit reflects weaknesses within the program, it also reflects the global growth of the game. In England, for example, we’ve caught up to the US and other teams, and with that, the level of interest here has grown. Do you feel like that global growth has been paralleled by the growth of the game as a global media phenomenon? 

It seems like there is far more interest globally in the game than perhaps there was. At the same time, there was a really interesting controversy over the television rights in the runup to the World Cup. Historically, the rights have been thrown in as an add-on to the men’s World Cup; this is the first time that FIFA has realized it could make more money by packaging the rights as their own deal. They then declared they were very insulted for women everywhere by the low bids, which were lower than they might have been for understandable reasons: the time difference is very bad for much of Europe; they’re used to getting it for free. In Europe, the rights deal wasn’t hammered out until quite late. In Japan, a rights deal wasn’t struck until really late, right up to the edge of the World Cup. There was a very looming possibility of a blackout. 

It’s impossible to imagine that for the men’s World Cup, first of all. But it also meant that there wasn’t the opportunity for the same kind of buildup by the rights-holders. I wonder if there would be even more involvement from the global media had there been the same sort of investment in promoting the event that you might imagine having had the rights for years. That said, maybe the counterfactual is the US: Fox has had the rights for quite some time, and I was actually surprised by how many of my friends—including ones who would have called themselves women’s soccer fans—were either barely aware or unaware that the World Cup was happening this summer until very shortly before it began. There’s still a lot of room for growth in that area. 

I wonder what it’s like abroad. I don’t actually know what Sky Sports [in the UK] would be telling me…

Without wishing to rub salt in the wound, we’re still involved…

I wrote a piece about Melchie Dumornay, from Haiti, and I talked to the editor of the Haitian Times, which is one of the big diaspora-focused newspapers. If you went on their website, [the World Cup] was the main story in the featured box. Haiti was not going to win the World Cup; it was not going to win a game, as it turned out. And yet it was still a major story, maybe the major story of the week.

To come back to the broadcasting point, it sends something of an ambivalent message about the global commercial power of the game: FIFA saw a big enough opportunity to unbundle it from men’s football for the first time; on the other hand, the rights weren’t agreed until very late. I guess this story of growth—but we’re not there yet—seems to mirror the defining dynamic of the women’s game as a whole at the moment?

Anything that is growing is going to go through some kind of seesaw. FIFA is inevitably going to ask for too much because FIFA always wants too much, and it’s the broadcasters’ job to get these things for as little as possible. But I don’t think that has anything to do with power necessarily. Forever, women’s sports have been underestimated. These are self-fulfilling prophecies sometimes: you put things on small channels and you don’t promote them and not a lot of people will watch; if you put things on big channels and you promote them, it turns out a lot of people will watch—but you don’t necessarily know the latter if you’ve been doing the former. So I think women’s sports are at an interesting moment. I think we’re getting to the point where people are realizing that, actually, these things have a lot of power, a lot of purchase, and people will care a lot if we give them the opportunity to.

I was interested that you led, in your curtain-raiser piece, with the drama in the Spanish program. That’s something me and my girlfriend have been following closely, along with the even more insane situation in the French camp…

I actually thought about starting with the French, and it was too insane. I was like, I can’t do this to people.

Right! But why did you start with the Spanish program, rather than, say, the US? What were you trying to illustrate?

A couple of things. I had a sense that the US was maybe not going to win this year. And I think that Spain’s team is just awesome; the players are so much fun to watch. I think they should have been the favorites, not the US team. But they weren’t, for interesting reasons. So I wanted to say, Hey, look, soccer has become this huge elsewhere, and maybe even the best soccer in the world is not being played in the US. In the US, it’s commonly assumed that the US is the epicenter of women’s soccer. Regardless of what happened in this tournament, the US is still the number-one-ranked team in the world, and if we replayed the World Cup and did some different things, the US could very well have won. But I thought that Spain was the coolest team and the most interesting team. I wanted to establish that this is a World Cup, not a US Cup. 

The Spanish example also shows how women’s soccer has improved so much in terms of data, performance, and so on, while also being held back by off-the-field bullshit, for want of a better word. In the UK, we had this report out recently saying that while the women’s game has developed, it still has very basic issues with professionalization. That sort of stuff doesn’t get the same amount of attention in the tabloids here as, for instance, England winning a penalty shootout. What do you think the balance should be in coverage between on-field and off-field stuff? You could make a case that you owe it to these great athletes to mostly focus on what they’re doing on the field, but there is stuff beyond it, too…

The US team has made the off-field stuff very much part of its identity. When I was writing about this Haitian player, this troubled me a lot more, because Haiti has had its own really disturbing controversy with the former head of the federation [who has been accused of sexual harassment and abuse]. I struggled for a while with how to balance not wanting to ignore that with the fact that the players themselves did not want to call attention to it, at least publicly. 

I do think there’s a danger, when we talk about women’s sports, of catastrophizing. There’s something funny that happens when you read a lot of mainstream media: all the attention on women’s sports is about how little attention women’s sports gets. This is, like, snake-eating-its-own tail behavior. Or they get attention because something really terrible has happened. A lot of outlets didn’t really pay attention to the NWSL [the top domestic women’s soccer league in the US] in a regular way; then they had this sustained series of controversies around both low levels of professional treatment and some pretty alarming allegations of sexual abuse, and suddenly it was a national story. If those are the only kinds of national story, that’s not what anyone wants. But those things are also interesting to people. 

How do you strike the balance? I think it’s something people are working out; it’s something I’m working out myself. I tend to write around sports. I try to tell a larger story, one that connects to these broader social and cultural and economic issues. So of course the off-field stuff matters. But also, I always want to take pleasure in sports for its qualities of beauty and athleticism. I don’t want to ever shortchange that stuff. It is a challenge. And it’s one that I think about a lot.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a court in Georgia acknowledged that it erroneously posted a document appearing to show charges against Donald Trump hours before Trump was actually indicted in the state on Monday; after Reuters reported on the document, the court described it as “fictitious,” but yesterday clarified that the document was a test run that was uploaded by mistake. Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s Charles Bethea spoke with George Chidi, a journalist in Georgia who was called as a grand-jury witness shortly before Trump was charged. (“I’m uncomfortable,” he said of his dual role of journalist and witness, “but I’m doing it.”) And court filings showed that Jack Smith, the special counsel who has federally charged Trump, obtained an “extraordinary array of data” from Trump’s Twitter account, per Politico, but only after a “bruising battle” with the platform.
  • The Washington Post’s Jeremy B. Merrill and Drew Harwell report that Twitter has been throttling links from the platform to news websites and other social platforms that the owner, Elon Musk, has previously attacked, including the Times, Reuters, and Facebook. “Users who clicked a link on Musk’s website, now called X, for one of the targeted websites were made to wait about five seconds before seeing the page,” the Post found. In other Twitter news, Axios reports that advertisers on the platform will no longer be able to promote their accounts in users’ timelines, despite that being a significant source of revenue for Twitter up to now. And—surprise!—Musk did not show up uninvited at Mark Zuckerberg’s home for a martial-arts fight on Monday, as he had threatened.
  • Sources at Vice told The Guardian’s Jim Waterson that the company has repeatedly blocked stories that might offend the government of Saudi Arabia. Vice recently signed a lucrative deal with “a media company controlled by the Saudi government, to establish a joint venture in the Middle Eastern country,” Waterson writes. “Of the 29 jobs currently advertised on Vice’s careers page, 20 are based in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. But the enormous sums of money now flowing from Saudi Arabia into Vice have led to high-level concerns within the company’s news division that the bosses are censoring its western-facing news content in order to protect staff working on contracts in Saudi.”
  • This week, ESPN’s Michael A. Fletcher reported that Michael Oher—the retired NFL star whose supposed adoption by a wealthy family was the subject of the Michael Lewis book The Blind Side and a subsequent movie of the same name—has petitioned a Tennessee court alleging that the family never adopted him, and that it exploited him financially. The family has denied this, but The Nation’s Dave Zirin argues that the allegations are “only an extension of what is so grotesque” about the Blind Side movie, calling it “a ‘feel-good story’ that, even without this lawsuit, is hyper-exploitative trash.”
  • And North Korean state media made its first public comments about Travis King—a US soldier who bolted into the country from South Korea last month rather than fly back to America, where he faced a disciplinary process—claiming that King, who is Black, absconded based on “ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US Army.” ICYMI, I wrote recently for CJR about the US soldiers who fled to North Korea before King—and wound up starring in anti-American propaganda movies.

ICYMI: The crusading journalism of Ecuador’s assassinated presidential candidate

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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