American football may be this nation’s pride and joy when it comes to the hierarchy of sports, but make no mistake: over the last 20 years, thanks to international events like the World Cup, a different type of futbol has gained in popularity.
The men’s side has always been littered with worldwide stars like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and David Beckham, but what’s fascinating is how their female counterparts, more than in any other team sport, have carved out their own space.
At the forefront is legendary U.S. women’s soccer player Mia Hamm, who has had a great effect on the game’s popularity. Girls who grew up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s tried to emulate Hamm, one of the world’s more famous female athletes. Hamm didn’t draft the monumental 1972 Title IX bill (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”) but she benefitted greatly from it. And from that she inspired millions of girls everywhere. No other female athlete in American sports culture had the following of Hamm during her prime. And no other American female athlete could make young girls greet her and shriek in pure delight and admiration.
Consider her former coach at the University of North Carolina, Anson Dorrance, who once said, “I think she is our most important female athlete ever.” Obviously Dorrance has a bias, but it’s understandable, considering that Hamm helped the Tar Heels win four NCAA championships. Perhaps she wasn’t the pioneer in the same way as Babe Didrikson and Billie Jean King were, but more than anyone, Hamm represented the possibilities—college scholarships, achievement, recognition, respect, commercial endorsements—available to women since Title IX.
Hamm’s credentials alone are enough to see why tens of thousands of girls each year still strive to be like Mia, even though she retired eight years ago. Most of the women’s professional leagues in this country have either folded or suspended operations, but the reason any of those leagues even had legs to begin with is because Hamm was associated with them. Her popularity and credentials are unequaled in the sport, leading many to dub her the “Michael Jordan of soccer” during her reign.
In the course of her career, Mia was widely recognized as the world’s best all-around women’s soccer player. In Atlanta at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, she led Team USA to gold in front of 80,000 fans. At that time, never in history had so many spectators come out to watch a women’s sporting event. The Games highlighted female athletes as an equal to their male counterparts, and at the head of the table was Hamm.
Hamm’s team went on to dominate the world again, this time at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, where Team USA won the championship in front of 40 million television viewers in this country alone. That same team was responsible for selling over 650,000 tickets that year, including sellouts at then-Giants Stadium and the Rose Bowl.
Overall, Hamm has played a very large role in bringing women’s soccer to a new playing level in this country. She was one of the 20 founding players of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) that lasted from 2000-03. Thanks to having Hamm as the league’s marquee player, the WUSA even had games televised on national networks like TNT, CNNSI, ESPN2, and PAX TV. And when WUSA games weren’t televised nationally, each of the eight teams had their games broadcasted on various local and regional sports channels.
When the WUSA folded, the Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL) was formed, which garnered even more traction than the WUSA. Hamm’s image was the logo, and she helped spearhead its growth, as numerous soccer stars from around the world wanted to be a part of it. At the height of the league’s popularity, players like Brazilian sensation Marta, the 2008 FIFA Player of the Year, agreed to join the league. That move was big for U.S. women’s soccer at the time because Marta, then a three-time Player of the Year at only 22 years old, was a high-profile foreign player who wasn’t on the tail-end of her career.
Fast forward to the just-concluded 2012 Olympic Games, where U.S. women’s soccer remained in our consciousness after they took home the gold. One of their stars, Alex Morgan, has been favorably compared to Hamm, which means that even almost a decade after her retirement, Hamm is still the yardstick for the sport.
The impact Hamm has had on a new generation of women’s soccer is comparable to what Tiger Woods’s early accomplishments had on the African-American community for golf. During Woods’s epic run at the turn of the century, it was suddenly “cool” for inner-city kids to play golf. Hamm did the same for women’s soccer, as it was suddenly “cool” for girls to run, sweat, and compete like boys do.
Because of Hamm, young girls grow up believing they can be as successful as or even more successful at soccer than men. “She laid to rest the insult, ‘you play like a girl,’” Dorrance said of Hamm. “Back then, even boys could be seen wearing Mia’s No. 9 jersey.”
Nike Chairman Phil Knight said it best when he famously noted, about Hamm’s Olympic performance in ‘96, “I think we’ve had three athletes who play at a level that’s added a new dimension to their games: Michael Jordan, in basketball; Mia Hamm, in women’s soccer; and Tiger Woods, in golf.” Knight also thought so highly of Hamm’s effect on women’s sports that in 1999 Nike named the largest building on its corporate campus after Mia.
If that’s not impact, then what is?