If women’s soccer is ever going to be seen as on par with men’s soccer, it will take more than the 28 million causal viewers who tuned into see the US women defeat Japan 5-2 in emphatic fashion to win their third World Cup earlier this month. As we saw in 1999 after the US women defeated China in a penalty kick shootout at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, though US media had come to revere the names Chastain, Lilly, Hamm, and Akers, the women’s game still faltered in the sixteen years between World Cup victories.
Twenty-two of the twenty-three players from the victorious US roster play club soccer in the National Women’s Soccer League, the nations fourth attempt at a professional women’s soccer league (the sole exception being Abby Wambach who is unattached to a club team). What makes 2015 different from 1999 however is the level of media and marketing behind the team and its players. Several of them, including Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Christen Press and Kelly O’Hara have endorsement deals from Nike to chocolate milk, and tournament Golden Ball-winner and finals hero Carli Lloyd won’t be far behind.
Then there is social media, the most unfiltered look into the lives of the players. Two of the team’s the biggest personalities, Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe take center stage on Twitter and Instagram. But what you don’t always see or appreciate in the 140 character tweets or in the 2-3 minute videos from US Soccer’s 23 Stories is the lifetime of commitment and work that go into becoming a World Champion. For that, we can thank Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, known together as the Mundo Sisters, who directed the ESPN series What Makes Us. What Makes Us is a series of five short films profiling some of the top elite athletes in the world, including Leroux and Rapinoe.
The sibling filmmakers strongly believe that if you present a good story, you will always find an audience, analogous to a somewhat familiar sporting trope, “if you build it, they will come.” I spoke with Rena Mundo Croshere about how What Makes Us came about and what she hopes viewers will take away.
Last summer the duo directed the Nine for IX Short: Rowdy Ronda Rousey for ESPN, and within 24 hours of its premiere it became the second most viewed short in ESPN history. What made the film such a success was Rousey’s story.
As Rena tells it, “Ronda is an exceptional athlete and exceptional person and she’s obviously made such a huge name for herself, but when she started out she was not as well known. She had been in the Olympics but she was definitely not known and everyone discouraged her from going into MMA. It was very much seen as this man’s world. And Dana White (UFC President) is notorious for saying things like ‘women will never be in the UFC,’ and now she’s his biggest draw. We interviewed him in that film and he kind of laughed at himself. He has a sense of humor about it but it really speaks to the perception [of women in sports].”
Partnering with the Mundo Sisters again was a no-brainer for ESPN who asked the sisters to create more content and tell the stories they wanted to tell. Rena describes the partnership, “We just felt based on the success of Rowdy Ronda Rousey that there was an audience for this type of film. We came up with this idea of _What Makes Us _and we pitched it [to ESPN] and they got really excited and off we were.”
For the sisters to duplicate the success of their Rousey film, they would need to find equally compelling stories. The bar was set pretty high but Rena and Nadine were eager to shine a light on more women, “We felt like there were so many of these stories of amazing, elite female athletes who from the time they are four or five years old – its pretty phenomenal – all of them knew at such a young age that this is what they wanted to do and devote their lives to. Playing this sport and becoming the best in the world.
“They all had this dream and persevered. We were really excited to tell these stories of female heroes.”
Three of the five shorts focus on some of the best soccer players in the world, USA’s Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux, and Spain’s Verónica Boquete. The shorts premiered on ESPNW.com and SportsCenter in late May as part of their Women’s World Cup coverage. In our conversation, Rena admits she wasn’t a fan of the US Women’s National Team ahead of making the series. While she and her younger sister were athletic growing up, she never considered themselves sports fanatics. In fact, the sisters, who chronicled their early childhood in their feature documentary American Commune, had a somewhat unorthodox upbringing from most American kids. Rena takes this opportunity to elaborate her point, “We’re the perfect example of, if you tell a good story, you’re going to become a fan. That’s how we became fans – by making films on them.” Rena boasts that she watched every game of the Women’s World Cup and she’s paid for and watched every single one of Ronda Rousey’s fights since directing her film.
The films, which range from 12-16 minutes, are told through interviews with the athletes in their own words, as well as interviews with the players’ moms, coaches and teammates. These aren’t your typical sit-down interview pieces that only sports fans can appreciate. The co-directors took great care to weave archival video, photographs and audio with the interviews and beautifully shot b-roll, with an accompanying musical score that lends itself to a full-fledged cinematic experience.
On Sydney: “We were just riveted by her story.”
In What Makes Us: SYD, the sisters focus on Leroux’s critical decision to leave Canada, the country where she was born and raised, at the age of fourteen to pursue her dream of playing for the US Women’s National Team. Leroux’s mother is Canadian and her father is American, giving her the option of choosing which country she wanted to play for. The Mundo sisters knew they had a ‘wow’ factor with the US forward, “from a filmmaker perspective, she has such an amazing story. She’s got so much conflict, and she really had to struggle to get where she is. To come to the US and have the dream and perseverance to stick it out, that was so hard. We were just riveted by her story.” Not only does the film go into detail telling Leroux’s pursuit of playing with the US and her 2012 Olympic experience, Sydney shares her struggle of growing up bi-racial, an experience Rena says she and her sister can relate to being half Puerto Rican and half Jewish.
On Rapinoe: “It wasn’t necessarily what you expect but it was so moving.”
The What Makes Us: PINOE film perfectly encapsulates the pass from Megan Rapinoe to Abby Wambach in the 120+ minute of the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal match versus Brazil. The pass headed in by Abby tied the game and kept the US hopes alive and will go down in history as one of the best moments in soccer. When I ask Rena about Megan’s story, Rena confesses she was concerned at first, “we really didn’t know that much about her. We thought she’s so well adjusted and from a director’s standpoint that’s not where you are going to get the [emotional] tug. You always look for a little bit of adversity so you can have that challenge.” Her fears subsided once they met and spent a few days with her up in Seattle. The sisters instantly gravitated toward Pinoe’s personality and sense of humor. They were also impressed with the US star’s self-assurance and wanted to include that in the film. “She’s like the new guard, ‘yeah I’m gay and I’m not ashamed of who I am and I want people to know.’ She’s so amazing about it and we felt that aspect was super inspiring, it wasn’t necessarily what you expect but it was so moving.”
On Vero: “To me her story is so poetic and heartfelt.”
For the third short, ESPN suggested an international star and the Mundo sisters read about Spanish player Verónica “Vero” Boquete and knew they wanted to feature her. “She’s got such an incredible story, to me her story is so poetic and heartfelt,” expresses Rena. Vero’s journey was hard for the sisters to believe, “in Spain, she was the only girl playing soccer, not only in her town but in her region. She trained [with the boys] and she had to sit on the bench [during games]. There was literally a rule that wouldn’t allow her to play. She really overcame so many odds. She has so much heart. It killed me when [Spain] got out of the World Cup, ‘oh Vero!” cries Rena.
I ask the newly minted soccer fan which other moments from the World Cup stuck with her. “I mean the final, those goals by Carli Lloyd. I don’t even know if we’ve ever seen a game like that, it was just so phenomenal. And of course you know, Megan’s game [against Australia] when she scored two goals. I just felt so proud and so excited for her. I was at the edge of my seat riveted. Obviously they had phenomenal performances and now we’re huge fans,” gushes Rena.
As our conversation winds down, I ask Rena what she hopes people will take away after watching the series. “I hope people are inspired by these elite athletes, female elite athletes, these women. I think their stories are ultimately inspiring because they’ve overcome so many odds to get to where they are and they don’t take it for granted. All of them talk about wanting to be a role model and that’s so important.”
As Rena continues, she becomes more adamant, adding, “I hope people do pay attention to these athletes and women in sports! I think there’s a misconception that, ‘oh well we aren’t going to have women’s sports on TV because people don’t watch women’s sports.’ But I think that if you tell their stories then people will pay attention and they will be fans. [I hope] these athletes, who devoted their lives and worked so hard to be the best, that they get their due. They deserve it.”
Surely the signs are pointing in the right direction. Good sports—and good stories—transcend gender labels and preconceptions. The World Cup Final was the most watched soccer game, men’s or women’s, in US history, and even topped ratings for the NBA Finals and MLB World Series. Young girls and boys wearing the players’ jerseys lined the streets of New York City by the thousands for the team’s historic ticker tape parade. The NWSL’s Portland Thorns announced their first, of hopefully many, sell-outs last week with 21,144 fans in attendance for their match versus the Seattle Reign. Other NWSL teams also recorded sell-outs at their smaller venues in the matches following the World Cup. And both the US Women’s Team and Ronda Rousey were celebrated and given awards over their male counterparts at the recent ESPY Awards.
While Rena is tight-lipped about what lies ahead for the filmmaking sisters, ESPNW still has the final two films of the What Makes Us series to release. Look for world champion surfer Carissa Moore’s film on August 1st and hockey star Hilary Knight’s film later in the year.
Ultimately, if the public is invested in the players, and their personal stories, they will become more than just the casual fan that only watches the World Cup Final every four years – they will become real fans. If you build it, they will come.