Why has the American national women’s soccer team won its version of the World Cup four times, while our national men’s team hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since 1930?
It’s not that the American women are better in an absolute sense than the American men. In 2017, for example, the U.S. women’s team was beaten 5–2 by a team of Dallas boys no older than age 15. But Americans aren’t sophisticated enough soccer fans to notice how much worse the quality of play is in women’s soccer than in men’s soccer.
No, America dominates women’s soccer for the same reason South Korea dominates women’s golf: because nobody else has much cared.
Success in women’s golf is largely a Social Construct of how much fathers want their daughters to win at golf. Right now, Korean dads obsess over that much more than do American or Australian dads.
Women’s golf has been hugely fashionable among Koreans for the past 20 years, so at present 12 of the top 20 ranked women in the world are South Koreans or from the Korean diaspora. Korea now has so many professional women golfers and so few surnames to go around that the No. 7 ranked player in the world is officially known as Jeongeun Lee6, because she is the sixth Korean lady golf pro named Jeongeun Lee.
In contrast, the highest-ranked Korean man is American Kevin Na at No. 32.
Why the difference? Because success in women’s sports is extremely socially constructed. After the part-Asian Tiger Woods’ triumph in 1997 and Se Ri Pak’s victory in the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open, Korean tiger parents fell in love with the idea of molding their children into golf prodigies.
But that’s easier to do in the women’s game because golf isn’t all that fashionable at present outside of East Asia. Women golfers were thought chic and sexy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America. But fashions change and now they aren’t. So not many American girls practice golf fanatically.
On the other hand, wherever golf is played, some boys are going to obsess over the game. For example, in 2004, Tiger Woods was briefly dethroned as world No. 1 by Vijay Singh from Fiji, a country that had only one golf course when Singh was growing up.
On the other hand, teenage girls don’t necessarily get better at sports as they age and the estrogen flows.
Back in 2004 the best 14-year-old golfer on the planet might well have been a girl, the Korean-American Michelle Wie, who entered the PGA Tour’s Sony Open and shot 72–68, missing the cut by only one stroke, which was better than 47 male professionals. To put this in perspective, Tiger Woods, the greatest golf prodigy of all, never made the cut in a pro tournament until age 18. If Wie had made one more putt, she would have been the youngest human ever to make the cut in a PGA tournament.
On the other hand, although she has since won five times on the Ladies PGA Tour, Wie hasn’t really lived up to her adolescent potential. She has been plagued by injuries that may be related to too much practicing when young, and by suspicions that she doesn’t really like golf that much anymore. She recently announced her engagement to NBA executive Jonnie West, the son of the legend Jerry West, and that she is taking the rest of the year off from the LPGA grind to recuperate.
Women’s soccer in America is a bit like women’s golf in South Korea, although its rise was less organic and more bureaucratic. The 1972 Title IX legislation mandated equal treatment of male and female college athletes, even though guys are clearly more sports-crazed. It’s hard to come up with sports that coeds care much about, so soccer has prospered by default as perhaps their least unfavorite team sport.
Thus, 333 NCAA Division I colleges host women’s soccer teams compared with only 204 men’s teams. And the women get 14 scholarships to only 9.9 for the men, for a total of 9,383 Division I scholarships for women versus merely 5,926 for men.
There are still more boys playing high school soccer than girls, but bribing girls with college scholarships has narrowed the gap.