Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Megan Rapinoe was NWSL’s biggest star, but the league helped make her as much as she helped make it

When Megan Rapinoe finally made the trek back to Washington state a few weeks after winning and celebrating her 2019 Women’s World Cup triumph, she did so at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium. She did not play for Reign FC that day — “I’m exhausted,” she admitted before the match — but people traveled to catch a glimpse of the pink-haired star who was recently crowned an American icon on top of her World Cup accolades.

It was a fitting place for Rapinoe to be welcomed back to the game. Her time with the NWSL club, now called the OL Reign, is what she attributes to her success on the world’s biggest stages.

“The biggest, shiniest moments of my career may not have happened in the Reign jersey, but they don’t happen without me playing here,” she said, per The Equalizer. “I think [head coach] Laura [Harvey] is just so integral in my career and in my growth at a time that I really needed it. I think up until that point I hadn’t really unlocked the next part of the game, the tactical part of the game, and I think that coupled with my natural talent is what even allowed me to have a moment like 2019.”

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Rapinoe has been on the Reign’s books since 2013, the NWSL’s inaugural season, and won a handful of accolades with the club, most notably three NWSL Shields and her status as the Reign’s leading goalscorer. The most impressive thing about her decade-long spell in the Seattle area, though, is that ushered in a new era of Rapinoe’s career — and the women’s game as a whole.

When the NWSL began play, club soccer was a secondary gig in the women’s game, especially for a U.S. women’s national team that still served as the sport’s gold standard. It was not the players’ fault — two previous American professional women’s soccer leagues, the WUSA and the WPS, folded after just three seasons of play. The NWSL’s ability to outlast its predecessors, though, meant the women’s game could finally begin to strike a balance that fits seamlessly within global soccer’s structure and benefited all.

Take Rapinoe’s word for it as it pertains to the on-field evolution of women’s soccer. A place to hone her skill on a day-to-day basis allowed Rapinoe to realize her full potential, and impressively so — her 2019 World Cup excellence came at age 34, very much considered a post-peak age for athletes, and allowed her to stay competitive until age 38. Serving as a destination for many of the world’s top players also allows the NWSL to boast about the uber-competitiveness of its on-field product on a regular basis.

That environment also allowed a coach like Harvey, frequently outnumbered as one of the few women coaching in the league, to become the NWSL’s winningest coach. She credited Rapinoe’s buy-in with her own longevity in the league.

“I don’t think I would be where I am in my career if it wasn’t for Pinoe,” Harvey told CBS Sports. “”There’s an acceptance that you need from players like that … she was willing to believe in it. And she was willing to carry my message. And she was willing to take my narrative where it needed to go. I think she elevated my career. And, you know, I’ll always be pretty grateful for that.”

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It’s hard to undersell the importance of the quality on the pitch to the women’s soccer ecosystem. There’s a straight line from Rapinoe’s 2019 World Cup performance to the NWSL’s post-tournament boom, when teams saw across-the-board attendance increases that laid the foundation for the league’s recent growth. The league’s overall attendance jumped from roughly 651,000 in 2018 to more than 792,000 in 2019, and surpassed the 1 million mark last year.

True to form, Rapinoe helped the league notch another attendance milestone on her way out. In her final regular season home game, more than 34,000 people filled Lumen Field and broke the league’s attendance record, which was set last year by the San Diego Wave when 32,000 were present for the team’s opening match at Snapdragon Stadium.

The knock-on effect has seen money flood into the women’s game, including through the exponential rise of team valuations in the NWSL. OL Groupe bought the Reign in December 2019 for $3.51 million in one of the last nine-figure sales in the league’s history. The Chicago Red Stars were acquired just last summer for $35.5 million, while ownership groups are now paying more than $50 million to launch expansion teams.

The NWSL’s success goes hand-in-hand with the increased investment in its European counterparts, which allowed the 2023 World Cup to emerge as the most competitive edition of the competition to date. Rapinoe’s nod to the Reign’s impact on her career provides a clue at where the next phase of growth in the women’s game should be — at the club level, where players like her can work daily to perfect their talents.

The off-the-field impact reflects the changes Rapinoe has long pushed for. The player’s advocacy spans many topics, most of which are notably relevant to a woman in professional sports who lives the realities of discriminatory practices on the regular. She dazzled on the field while demanding professionalism off it, including during that famous 2019 World Cup run. She and her teammates were engaged in the middle of an equal pay battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation, and she criticized FIFA for the prize money gender gap and a scheduling choice that arguably deprioritized the Women’s World Cup final.

Her activism was also not reserved to her time with the national team. Rapinoe first kneeled for the national anthem in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during an NWSL game in Sept. 2016, when the Reign were at the Chicago Red Stars. It was perhaps the first example of her advocacy on behalf of others, but obviously far from her last.

“I am disgusted with the way he has been treated and the fans and hatred he has received in all of this,” she said at the time. “It is overtly racist: ‘Stay in your place, black man.’ Just didn’t feel right to me. We need a more substantive conversation around race relations and the way people of color are treated. … And quite honestly, being gay, I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven’t had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling.”

That decision became an example of her prevailing legacy. She received backlash from many, was left off the national team following the move, and her mother was even involved in an unwanted altercation for it. Her on-field ability was the reason she was ultimately welcomed back into the fold, but her off-field persistence means that today, her protest is so well-respected that Nike included it in a spot they commissioned to commemorate her USWNT farewell match.

Her entire career — not just her national team exploits — showcase a passion to grow the women’s game as a whole, and Rapinoe leaves a legacy on women’s club soccer that is just as impactful as her international triumphs. She is one of the leaders of an outgoing generation of players that drove the growth of the game themselves, fighting the higher-ups who should have done the work of spearheading change. It’s something Rapinoe herself is well aware of.

“I think this generation of players has really changed the game forever,” she said in an interview with CBS Mornings’ Natalie Morales ahead of her final NWSL regular season home game, a scoreless draw with Washington on Friday night. “It’s up to this next generation to take that platform that they’re on now and take it to places we never even knew was possible. … Take that opportunity, I think, and take that privilege to do something really special with your life that this sport can provide for you.”

Rapinoe, with all the makings of being this generation’s Billie Jean King, thankfully promises that she will not be far from the sidelines as the next generation of stars dominates. She has an ongoing deal with Nike, and added that “anywhere that I can lend my voice to amplify or to support or help to use that megaphone in a positive way, you’ll see me there still.” Harvey is in agreement that Rapinoe will fit right in as a decision-maker in sports, saying she “would love to see her at the board level. I think that’s where she would have the most influence.”

The onus, though, now shifts to those with daily roles in the women’s game to ensure Rapinoe’s legacy does not go to waste. There is a long way to go in realizing women’s soccer true potential, but the game is in a better place because of Rapinoe’s tireless advocacy. The best way to pay tribute to her legacy going forward would be to invest as she did — wholeheartedly, with intention in every part of the process and the realization that everyone has a part to play. If her trajectory serves an example, there are very few downsides in following her lead.

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