Marcus Hayes: How the U.S. World Cup team made millions of fans |
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OK, I’m in. In for life.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team, with its skill, talent and professionalism, made me the kind of fan I haven’t been since Doc and the Sixers.

To be clear: They don’t need me. I need them.

I am sure I am not alone in this realization. I am sure there are millions of men like me, but millions of women, too; casual sports fans or even non-sports fans. We already doted on Delran native Carli Lloyd, but over the last month we invested deeply in Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath and the marvelous Megan Rapinoe (it’s rah-PEA-no), and in their gritty supporting cast, and we fell in love with the idea of the team and with the spirit of the team, and our lives are a little better.

I don’t watch sports. For free. I’ve covered dozens of big-time events: Super Bowl and World Series, Stanley Cups and Olympics, Masters and U.S. Opens, but this is maybe the fifth sporting event I’ve watched start-to-finish without being paid to do so. Why?

None of those events captured my soul like this run to a fourth Cup. I have been completely fixated.

How fixated? Well, when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George landed with the Clippers early Saturday morning, all I cared about was whether Christen Press would start in the final over Rapinoe. For the record, Rapinoe scored the winning goal Sunday, won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s leading scorer and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player.

Why this fixation? Because they play beautifully, and they play relentlessly. But also because they play authentically and speak authentically. And, unlike the men, they don’t dive all the time. The women have fewer drama queens. Go figure.

More than anything, though, these women represent more than sport. They represent progress, and — in this divided and progressively regressive world — they represent hope. And they know it.

Nike’s “I believe” commercial, which ran just minutes after their 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday, gave me chills I haven’t felt since Apple smashed the Big Brother screen.

“We’ll keep fighting not just to make history, but to change it.”

As the ad said: This team wins. Everyone wins.

All of this makes me feel good. Maybe it makes you feel good, too.

If this comes off as patronizing, so be it. The team didn’t court me, but I hope it will have me.

As a man immersed in sports by vocation and choice, women’s sports has often been satellite to the more mainstream endeavors; read, men’s endeavors. I’d watch women’s golf (partly because I have a golf problem), and, reluctantly, softball, volleyball and tennis. But certainly not soccer. I played the game, and I’ll occasionally peek at men’s soccer on TV, but this team made a difference for me.

It wasn’t just me, either. ESPN announced Saturday it will televise 14 National Women’s Soccer League Games in 2019, including the playoffs. First up: ballhandling wizard Heath and the Portland Thorns vs. tea-sipping cover-girl striker Morgan and the Orlando Pride next Sunday.

The U.S. semifinal against France on Tuesday averaged 7.03 million viewers, the third-largest U.S. soccer audience regardless of gender since the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

Hundreds of thousands of fans attended World Cup watch parties Sunday, from Philly to Boston to Bethlehem, Pa.

This personal reset button came out of nowhere, but there’s something exhilarating about watching strong, confident women develop a game over a 20-year span. This edition of women’s soccer is its pinnacle.

Trust me: This has nothing to do with me being an American and therefore rooting for Americans. In fact, I enjoy perverse pleasure watching would-be powerhouses from the United States struggle. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for the whiny Ryder Cup teams America has fielded, and the men’s national basketball Dream Teams have seemed ridiculous since the 1992 Summer Olympics. Go, Angola.

For me, and maybe for you, this runs deeper than the women’s soccer team. On Friday, I was delighted when 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff’s unlikely Wimbledon run pre-empted coverage of a tense Novak Djokovic match already in progress. Both survived, as did the sport.

I’ve written a lot about women’s sports and about women in sports. I’m sure that, at times, I have been condescending. Maybe even low-key sexist. That experience doesn’t make me an expert. It does, however, give me a better toehold when I consider this thrilling phenomenon.

It’s a fun wave to ride.

Climb aboard.

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