For a decade, Hollywood seemed to fall in love with soccer. In the 90s, films like The Big Green (1995) to Shaolin Soccer (2001) bridged the sport with hilarious antics. Meanwhile, most serious takes like The Game of Their Lives (2002) and Fever Pitch (1997) tapped into the sport’s journeys of transformation.
Then came comedic dramas led by women, including 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham and 2006’s She’s the Man. The most surprising part of the soccer film craze was the sport’s lagging popularity in the US and Canada. Across North America, sports like American football, baseball, hockey, and basketball have historically held the public’s attention.
Despite Americans having relatively little interest in soccer or the national MLS league, films focusing on the game performed well at the box office and in later sales. Oddly enough, following Hollywood’s big-screen killings with soccer-based films in the 90s and early 2000s, the American public showed an increased interest in the sport.
Since 2006, when She’s the Man was released, participation in indoor soccer has steadily climbed, according to Statista, while the number of MLS fans has also grown. In 2019, almost 1 million fans packed into Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch the local MLS team compete. However, the upswing in interest could also be due to the advent of sports betting. Since 2018, sports fans have had access to betting insights from trusted analysts who cover all major US leagues—MLS included.
Coupled with the influx of soccer films from the last decade, sportsbooks have helped introduce casual sports fans to the world of soccer. In states like Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where mobile oddsmakers are live, fans can back some of the league’s most popular teams, like New Jersey’s New York Red Bulls or Denver’s Colorado Rapids squad.
Meanwhile, the US’s WMLS has also skyrocketed in popularity since the early 2000s—though not every sportsbook offers wagers on the women’s league yet. Stars like Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz have made major strides by leading teams like the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns FC. They’ve also led the US national women’s team, which recently won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Whether Amanda Bynes (She’s the Man) and Keira Knightley (Bend it like Beckham) are to thank for North America’s budding interest in soccer remains up for debate. To this day, both films remain popular—but is there a clear favorite among film buffs and soccer fans? Let’s take a closer look.
England Leads the Trend
When it comes to soccer (or football, as it’s known abroad), Europe leads the world in athletic talent and competitive leagues. England’s Premier League is considered the gold standard of modern football leagues alongside Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga.
So, when it comes to making a comedic yet introspective look at the sport, it’s no surprise Bend It Like Beckham quickly became one of 2002’s most popular films. In fact, it holds the record for the highest-grossing sports film based on association (or club) football.
Four years later, She’s the Man went on to perform well at US box offices—though, much like the sport itself, couldn’t quite compare to the success of the UK’s Bend It Like Beckham.
Though Bend It Like Beckham performed better at the box office and with critics, the film tackled a variety of issues beyond the soccer field itself. Directed by British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha, the film focuses on the social pressures two female players face.
One, in particular, is sidled with cultural expectations from her Sikh family. The narrative follows this character, Jess, as she navigates her family’s expectations alongside her own dreams of advancing in soccer.
She’s the Man undertakes thought-provoking themes in a similar light. Rather than focus on the (at times gendered) pressures from family, the American soccer film focuses instead on gender dynamics on the field. In the film, main character Viola pretends to be a man to prove a point that the women’s team shouldn’t have been defunded.
Rather than focus on expectations from a specific culture (like Jess’ Sikh background in Bend It Like Beckham), She’s the Man focuses on gender divides in sports in general. Unlike many other major league sports abroad, the US features a high portion of competitive female athletics—though they’re often funded at lesser levels than male counterparts.
As aforementioned, the USWNT has outperformed the men’s team in international competitions since its inception. Other popular sports, including NASCAR, feature female competitors alongside men, while other female-only sports like the WNBA and WMLS, are gaining steam amongst sports fans.
The questions posed in She’s the Man, no matter how veiled in comedy, look to address these misgivings. Bend It Like Beckham, on the other hand, takes a deeper dive into the interpersonal dynamics of breaking norms related to sports.
When comparing the films and how each ends, it becomes clear that each serves a different narrative purpose. Bend It Like Beckham sees the main character lead her team to the top of their league, showcasing the importance of following one’s passions. Meanwhile, Viola’s character in She’s the Man is victorious in her campaign to start a co-ed soccer team, highlighting the potential for intramural sports.
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