coed football coed soccer

Roundtable: Professional Coed Sports

12:43 PMAleks Vee

by Aleks V |

In December 2013, I asked Alexi Lalas what his thoughts were on the subject of professional coed soccer. That prompted a discussion whose tone was a clear indication of why the subject is rarely brought up, and why it remains just that.

Given the recent Fox series Pitch, a fictional story of a female baseball player joining MLB, and articles on coed sports from Fortune and the New York Times over the last few years, I thought it may be time to revisit the subject.

Last year, the Sonoma Stompers signed two female players, "becoming the first coed professional baseball team since the 1950's to feature more than one female player at the same time".

Can other sports, such as soccer, follow suit?


Roundtable Participants:
Chris McGuffin (@thecurseofchris) - USMNT, LA Galaxy and Manchester United fan. Former co-host of GoalChatter Radio. (US)
Karim Hameg (@karimhameg) - Blogger with a passion for geography and football. Fan of Olympique de Marseille, Bayern, Zenit, and others. (France)
Aleks V (@aleksvee) - Founder and Editor of GoalChatter. (US)


1. What's your opinion on coed sports leagues? Do you think there can be pro leagues or more pro tournaments in the future?

Chris: To me, coed sports leagues are a tricky subject. It really depends on the sport as well as the age group. I grew up playing youth soccer which was coed, and although there were some really good and talented girls that weren't afraid to "play with the boys," there were also some who had no desire to be there and were just stuck on the backline playing defense (though to be fair, there were some boys like that as well, so it goes both ways). I've always thought that soccer was the best coed sport to play because of this, and I often wonder what a USMNT v. USWNT match would look like. While I don't think logistics are in place for a full coed league, I think a tournament would be an exciting thing to have and would help make American soccer stand out on its own, and potentially revolutionize the women's game again just like it did in the 1990's.

Karim: I think it's a good idea to let men and women play together. Having coed sports leagues can be interesting. Considering the evolution of mentalities, there can be more coed sports leagues in the future.

Aleks: Coed sports leagues are great. I think it's something that'll gradually occur in the world of professional soccer, probably with the introduction of friendly games as a way to test out whether or not there is an audience that's willing to buy tickets or watch on TV. It's something that's more likely to start to happen when women's leagues gain more popularity, and when there isn't such a gap between the popularity of men's and women's leagues.
Laura Robson and Andy Murray - Wimbledon, London 2012 Olympics. Photo: Christopher Johnson 
2. Coed professional sports are nothing new - there's the US Open and figure-skating, for instance. There are quite a few non-professional opportunities in coed sports, as well. Northern Virginia's FXA Soccer, for instance, boasts over 350 teams and 7000 players. What are the main barriers to having a professional coed league and what can fans do to combat those barriers?
Chris: Like I said above, I think a lot of it has to do with logistics. There is obviously a difference between amateur leagues and professional ones and the way each of them are operated and managed. But I think these things are subject to change, and that with the right people leading the way, there could be a viable solution to many of the problems that would inevitably arise for a coed league. With soccer specifically, I'm sure that if the fans saw a positive result from one-off coed matches, they could easily get behind a movement like this.

Karim: Sports like tennis and figure skating, for example, have integrated for a long time the idea of making men and women playing together; that's not the case everywhere. For other sports it would be something new and I'm not sure it would be well accepted by fans and club/leagues owners, especially at the highest levels. Fans must show that they are ready to integrate that idea and fight for more equality.

Aleks: As with most things, the main barrier is money. Finding someone who can see the potential in a coed league or tournament and be willing to invest in it, finding sponsors, etc. I think if interest in such a league grew among fans of both the men's and women's game, fan movements can be created (similar to the fan movements for MLS expansion, for instance). A lot can be achieved with the help of the internet and the almighty dollar. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if coed teams were introduced at the college level, but the way things are today, I don't see that happening.

3. We already have the first female head coach in pro soccer, Corinne Diacre (the previous coach, Helena Costa, resigned shortly after being appointed). We also have the first female assistant coaches in the NFL, NBA, and NHL. Why do you think it's pretty common to see men coaching a women's sport, but the opposite is fairly recent and still quite rare?

Chris: For the longest time, sports have been considered a "men's thing." It's obviously a stereotype even though some of the time it's true, so I think that's why it was so common to see men coaching women's teams. I would assume that the thinking is: "Well if the guy can be successful coaching a men's team then he could do the same for women." With young girls getting into sports at a younger age now (especially those who were born in the late 80's/early 90's), and seeing better publicity of female athletes, they may now have more motivation to break the stereotype that girls just don't like sports. I think that's why we're seeing more women getting coaching jobs and I think it's up to the men to give them a chance and see what they can do.

Karim: To stay in the universe I know more - soccer - women came later than men. So there it was normal to see men coaching a women's team because I guess it was easier to find a male coach. It's really recent to see women interested in coaching in professional sport and the majority of them coach women's teams. Also I think there is still a lot of misogyny in professional sports (Corinne Diacre herself had to face this).

Aleks: Historically, the women's game has actually been around for about as long as the men's game. However, a 50-year ban by the FA meant women's teams in England couldn't use FA-affiliated facilities/fields, which set the game back a bit. Back then, the women's game in England was growing in popularity, with attendances upwards of 50,000 - many interpret the ban as a reaction to the "threat" of the men's game. At the root of the ban was a long held definition of masculinity that's still around. Masculinity is defined as the rejection of femininity and "power over" other men as well as women. Men and women are under constant scrutiny by each other, keeping society's standards in a never-ending circle. By not conforming to said standards, men run the risk of being ostracized by their bosses or peers. The same holds true for the standards of conduct applied to women. There are, of course, cultural differences when it comes to defining gender, as pointed out by Chan Yuen-ting, who became the first female coach to lead a top division men's professional soccer team to a league title last year.
Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL (2015). Photo: Arizona Cardinals


4. Do you imagine a coed league ever replacing men's/women's leagues, or rather being an additional choice for the players and fans?

Chris: I don't see coed professional leagues becoming the norm anytime soon, especially worldwide. I doubt there will ever be a combined NFL or NBA or EPL. With so much of those leagues' goals riding on financial gain, I just don't see it as a feasible option until you have the majority of their viewers asking for it. I do think as female sports become more popular you will start to see some of the younger age groups become more apt to moving to coed, be it in the schools or in an amateur leagues.

Karim: I don't see coed leagues as a direct replacement of men's/women's leagues, but I think it could be a good idea as an additional choice at lower levels, more as a leisure.

Aleks: A professional coed league or tournament can be an additional option to the existing leagues in the near future, possibly the next decade or two. It's tough to look farther ahead than that, but you never know.
5. In your opinion, does the possibility of a pro coed league depend on the popularity of women's leagues? In other words, if women's leagues like the NWSL don't grow in popularity, will that hurt the chances of a pro coed league being established?

Chris: Yes, definitely. The WNBA is probably the most recognizable pro sports league in America and its struggles are well-known. Soccer fans know good and well just how poor women's leagues' luck has been over the past 10 years. Until these leagues show that they can compete in the viewership market and be a contender for media partnerships, then I don't see much progress being made. The NWSL has pleasantly surprised me though in the past couple of years so I'm hoping they stay on the right track.

Karim: In my opinion, yes. If a coed league is established into a sport where women's category isn't really popular, it could be considered as a marketing operation, as a way to promote women's category which would be not accepted by certain fans. Also, it would depend on the level of the women's category in the considered sport, too much difference wouldn't be good.

Aleks: I would argue that the level of the women's game is pretty high, especially in the US, and that the women's teams more often than not play a much more interesting game than the men. However, part of sport, especially the business side of it, is having super-star players who everyone knows. The men's game has Messi, Ronaldo, Beckham...fans in the most distant countries know their names. 5% of Manchester United's revenue last year, for instance, was from retail, merchandising, apparel and product licensing. Other than Mia Hamm, there aren't exactly any iconic names in women's soccer. The more popular women's leagues get, the more popular their top talent will be, and that could be part of the sell of a coed league: featuring the top names in the men's and women's games.
Former basketball player Becky Hammon is now assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. Photo: Platon Shilikov
6. Do you think coed leagues can change not just people's perception of the notion itself, but also people's attitudes towards each other and the way we define gender? Would coed leagues have the potential to influence the fall of the male-dominated hierarchy and/or gender inequality not just in sports, but in other industries? 

Chris: Oh, for sure. In fact, I think we've already seen this at the women's soccer level. I remember when the 2011 Women's World Cup was on, many people who had found renewed interest in soccer in America from the 2010 World Cup followed the USWNT's journey, and players like Alex Morgan were known more for their looks rather than their play on the pitch. Now, however, I think more people, both men and women, are more apt to call her a really talented athlete instead of that one hot girl on the women's soccer team. This could happen in other areas as well that aren't sports.

Karim: I think that yes, if it works, if women show that they have the level, it could change the mentalities in a positive way. Too often women's sports aren't well considered in terms of level, except for tennis maybe. So why not.

Aleks: I think there's tremendous potential to influence changes in the social structure through coed sports. It's important to acknowledge that, yes, men and women are different, and that that isn't the problem. The problem is when one is defined as being superior or inferior based on gender. Sport provides a rare opportunity to create something that doesn't exist all that much outside of it. After all, there's less room for subjectivity in sports - it doesn't matter who you are, you're either a good player or you aren't. I'm skeptical as to an immediate affect on other industries - sport, especially soccer, seems to be way ahead in terms of diversity. Part of the reason is that more people around the world have access to sports than to some other industries that require a good education or specialized training. In the long run, however, professional coed sports going mainstream can make other industries seem strange and outdated in comparison. Plus at that point, there'll probably be more women and other minorities in charge of various businesses anyway, so the overall picture will be different.

The USWNT celebrates at the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers. Photo: rachael.c.king
7. When will we see the first professional coed sports league? What country and sport will be the first to implement this? 

Chris: I think it will be a long while before we see a genuine coed league from one of the major sports that sticks around and is competitive with the top. If/when it does happen though, I think it will be in America and with one of the "lesser" sports like soccer or golf. I'm not sure if it'll ever replace MLS or NWSL, or another sport, like one of the other major leagues, but it could very well be a great alternative. I also think a country like England or France would have a good shot at making a coed soccer league.

Karim: I have absolutely no idea, because the mentalities have to evolve first and there is a lot of conservatism in sports.

Aleks: It's easy to say the US, considering all of the "firsts" we've seen in recent times with regards to female coaches in men's top sports leagues, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were a country in Asia, either. I'd give it a decade or two at most. Social constructs change over time. As Alexi Lalas and others have said, there may be challenges with regards to marketing, including the issue of not making it just a novelty thing. But challenges were made to be taken on. In the words of Shark Tank's Robert Herjavec, "You can sell anything". It's all about finding the audience and the right way to approach them.

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