Mallory Swanson discusses growing women’s soccer in the US, watching the World Cup from the sidelines, and pushing Chicago to support its women’s teams louder and prouder.
Mallory Swanson should have been about 9,000 miles away on Wednesday from the back of a rented pop-up space in the Chelsea section of Manhattan’s west side.
The 25-year-old forward would’ve been a welcome presence during the US Women’s National Team‘s 1-1 World Cup draw against the Netherlands on July 27 in New Zealand, but a torn patellar tendon suffered during an April friendly against Ireland has kept her out of action Down Under. It did, however, give Swanson a chance to visit Frito-Lay and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s “Gallery of Greats” pop-up museum, an initiative that included a $400,000 donation to the WSF and $5,000 in funding each to nine young female athletes nominated for the I Am Cracker Jill Award.
The winner, wheelchair basketball player Lindsey Zurbrugg, will be the first-ever athlete on Cracker Jack and special Cracker Jill boxes that will appear at baseball stadiums and on store shelves next year.
The trip to New York from Chicago, where Swanson plays for the NWSL‘s Red Stars, was a welcome respite from grueling 8-10 hour days rehabbing a knee that’s still in the early stages of a long-term recovery. Watching her teammates in Australia and New Zealand at the Women’s World Cup, Swanson said, is a weird mix of emotions. She’s nervous for the team and a little helpless, knowing she can’t contribute. There’s also a sense of relaxation in a peculiar way, knowing she doesn’t have to study and prepare for what would’ve been some of the biggest matches of her career.
At the 2019 World Cup in France, Swanson was 21 and the second-youngest member of the USWNT roster. She became the third-youngest US woman ever to score in a World Cup match in a stunning 13-0 rout of Thailand to open the tournament. Recalling the Americans’ run to a second-straight title, she said that preparing for the biggest stage in the world’s most popular sport starts months in advance and must take every single minor detail into account along the way.
“Like, your whole life,” Swanson told Boardroom. “How you sleep, how you eat, how you recover, how you think about the game. Everything.”
Everything about the World Cup is heightened. More intense. The injury took away that preparation and the chance to compete alongside legend Megan Rapinoe in what will be her final World Cup and what should be a celebration of how much she’s impacted the sport in the US and globally.
“Being able to play alongside her has been such an honor — to not only learn from her, but to see how she carries herself and how she continues just to grow the game and continue to push the game forward,” Swanson said. “Without her and some other veterans like her, this game definitely wouldn’t have grown the way it has.”
Swanson was able to play in the Red Stars’ first regular season matches and even notched a goal before her injury, a devastating blow to a team that sits 11th in the 12-team league. It’s been a breakthrough year for the NWSL, which has seen record attendance, ticket sales, TV ratings, and investment from brands and advertisers. This boom in women’s soccer, the Colorado native said, is a long time coming. It slowly began, she says, with the attention the USWNT received for winning in France.
“It’s an evolution and things take time, but women’s sports is booming right now,” Swanson said. “Everyone’s hopping on board because people are actually recognizing that it’s something special.”
But like NJ/NY Gotham FC‘s Ashlyn Harris said at July 25’s Boardroom x CNBC Game Plan conference, Swanson agreed that steps need to be taken for the momentum women’s soccer is seeing to keep building during the gap between World Cup years. That includes, Swanson maintained, more investment in youth and academy programs that feed into NWSL clubs or the senior national team. It includes getting the best players from around the world to continue to play in the NWSL rather than in European leagues, which makes the NWSL more attractive to watch.
This year marks Swanson’s third season with the Red Stars, but the first she gets to spend in Chicago with her husband Dansby, an All-Star MLB shortstop who signed a seven-year, $177 million contract with the Cubs in December shortly after the couple got married. Though their first year together in Chicago was completely different than what they envisioned following Mallory’s injury, she said it’s been nice supporting him as he adjusts to life in a new city, especially considering how rare it is for couples who are both active professional athletes to be able to play for teams in the same city.
Swanson has seen the support Chicago sports fans have for their teams, but with the Red Stars dead last in NWSL attendance at just over 4,000 fans per game and the WNBA’s Sky 6th out of 12 teams in attendance as of July 3 despite winning the 2021 championship, she wishes there was more local support for the women’s teams.
“I’m going to be completely honest, in Chicago, there’s definitely growth that needs to be had with women’s sports,” she said. “You see it with the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls. It’s such a cool sports city, so let’s get the women’s side more on board with that. The Sky is obviously amazing and they just won the championship so that got a lot of recognition, but we still at the Red Stars need to grow.”
Further investment on many fronts, Swanson believes, is the first step to building the Red Stars up in Chicago and across the country. And while there’s only so much she can do in that regard, she finds inspiration in female athletes like Alex Morgan and Mia Hamm in how they carry themselves as brands off the pitch. Any endorsement opportunity that comes her way, she asks herself what is it doing and what is it standing for. Looking for opportunities that meet those criteria while rehabbing and ensuring that women’s soccer and women’s sports continue to evolve and move forward both in Chicago and across the country has kept Swanson both busy and motivated.
Not too bad for someone currently forced to watch from the sidelines.
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