The two most iconic U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) players are Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Both forwards, the former is a 34-year-old legend playing in her fourth World Cup and the latter is a 25-year-old up-and-coming superstar ready to take over the reigns playing in her second World Cup. In 2012, they combined to equal a U.S. record for most goals scored by a duo in a calendar year with a total of 55, 28 by Alex Morgan and 27 by Abby Wambach (AP). Also in 2012, both women were finalists for the female Ballon d’Or, the award for the world’s best footballer, with Wambach taking home the trophy and Morgan finishing third (Farley). While both are elite players, their respective fames are quite different in origin.
A picture is worth a thousand words and a simple Google Image search tells the whole story. A search for Abby Wambach reveals action shots of a fierce competitor mixed in with a heavy dose of American patriotism. A search for Alex Morgan, however, results in a slew of sexualized photos, many of which come in the form of bikini photo shoots.
In an interview with Will Tidey, Alex Morgan talks about how she is portrayed in the media. “There are always female athletes highlighted for their sex appeal—that comes with any other female team. I have done Sports Illustrated, but I don’t regret it because it portrayed me in a positive way—as an athlete.” (Tidey)
Abby Wambach is openly gay. She is married to fellow soccer player and National Women’s Soccer League teammate Sarah Huffman. As a result of her homosexuality, Wambach is often portrayed in the media as masculine. While some of her popularity may be a result of fellow homosexuals admiring her strength to be an openly gay athlete, a large majority of it stems from her on-field success.
Mia Hamm, a former superstar for the USWNT, and the woman whom Wambach surpassed to become the all-time leading goalscorer in international play, is portrayed more similarly to Wambach than to Alex Morgan (Schaerlaeckens). She is a heterosexual woman, married to baseball great Nomar Garciaparra and a Google Image search provides images almost exclusively of her playing soccer. This is an interesting find because it rejects the possibility that Wambach’s lack of sexualized photos is due to her homosexuality. It also increases the likelihood that Alex Morgan is using her sexuality to her advantage and leveraging it to increase her popularity.
As of this writing, Abby Wambach has a shade under 500,000 Twitter followers. Alex Morgan has over 1.5 million, over three times as many as Wambach. While it’s possible that there are some confounding factors, perhaps Alex Morgan is more active or simply a more interesting follow, her outward flaunting of her sexuality most certainly plays a large role in her popularity. A popular phrase in the advertising industry is “sex sells” and this case is no different. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan are both extremely successful footballers but Morgan has capitalized on her sexuality in combination with her skill, whereas Wambach has only focused on the latter, allowing Morgan to become one of the most popular female athletes in the world.
AP. “Wambach Scores Twice as U.S. Women Beat China.” USA Today. Gannett, 15 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Farley, Richard. “Abby Wambach Claims Her First FIFA Women’s Player of the Year.” ProSoccerTalk. NBC Sports, 7 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Schaerlaeckens, Leander. “Wambach Breaks Mia Hamms Record.” FOX Soccer. N.p., 21 May 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Tidey, Will. “Alex Morgan Talks Gold, Celebrity, Sex Appeal.” Bleacher Report. N.p., 3 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Written by: Jake Toffler