U.S. women's soccer stars charm Forbes Under-30 Summit

Almost every time players from the U.S. women's national team make public appearances, they get received like rock stars.

When they're at events with youth soccer players, they're swamped by screams of delight from start to finish. When they're amid crowds of grown-up soccer fans, they're revered as world-conquering heroes.

So how about the horde of twenty-something tech savants and future captains of industry that has descended upon Philadelphia this week for the Forbes Under-30 Summit?

Organizers trumpeted a panel discussion Wednesday morning with Alex Morgan, Julie Johnston and Shannon Boxx. When they took the stage at the Pennsylvania Convention Center's grand ballroom on Tuesday morning, the hall was close to three-quarters empty. And the applause was polite, not rapturous.

The word went around that there were mitigating circumstances. There was a bar crawl the night before, and a run to the Art Museum (and up the steps, of course) in the morning with the soccer stars leading the way.

Okay, fine. And if anyone hit both events at full strength, congratulations.

But I couldn't shake a sense that something felt incongruous, even amid the slick coolness of an event with a genuine purpose.

(The Under-30 Summit is a big gathering of entrepreneurs from across the country, with lots of opportunities for networking and job offers. It also brings a decent chunk of sales tax revenue to Philadelphia, along with a coolness quotient that's appreciated by local universities and technology incubators.)

I hoped the aforementioned hunch would be proven wrong. Alas, I was proven right almost as soon as the event kicked off.

Forbes editor Randall Lane introduced the session by stating that the U.S. women "shocked the world" by winning the World Cup this summer. A few moments later, panel moderator Ronan Farrow noted that "a strange thing happened this July. Everyone was glued to their TV, everyone was watching - your aunt was watching, your neighbor was watching, your dog was watching."

Then Farrow added, in a notably skeptical tone, "And the surprising thing was they were watching women's soccer, which a lot of people in the business world would have written off in terms of its commercial prospects - certainly at that scale."

Although Farrow's second point was fair, his first point - to say nothing of Lane's claim beforehand - was not. Sure, it was impressive that Fox and Telemundo's broadcasts of the championship game drew the largest American television audience ever to watch a soccer game, but the team's triumph was no Cinderella story. It was just the opposite: a behemoth doing what it was supposed to do all along.

As a reader pointed out to me on Twitter during the event, the only people who were close to surprised were cynics in the team's fan base who feared coach Jill Ellis wouldn't properly deploy the team's talent. We all know how that turned out.

Yet even with the hosts' verbal missteps - Farrow later claimed Morgan was "the first soccer player of any gender to pass one million followers on Twitter" - the discussion was quite substantive. Boxx, Johnston and Morgan each politely corrected Farrow when necessary, and from there offered interesting insights into how they handle stardom.

Let's start with Morgan's reply to those claims of the World Cup being a surprisingly big deal.

"We knew this was going to be huge," she said, noting the spike in exposure that the team received when it won gold at the 2012 Olympics. "We knew that this was our chance to prove ourselves and have the whole country rally behind us."

It was well-documented during the World Cup that the U.S. team tried to shut out the media maelstrom that surrounded it throughout the tournament. As a result, Morgan said, "we really didn't realize the impact that we had on the nation until we got home."

That was proven by an outdoor pep rally in downtown Los Angeles and a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Manhattan that each drew thousands of fans.

Farrow later led a useful conversation about the pay gap between men's and women's soccer players, though he set it up in a way that betrayed a lack of homework on the matter.

"The pay cap for the women's major league soccer players is 11 times less than the pay cap for men's major league soccer players," he said.

No one bothered to correct his mis-labeling of the National Women's Soccer League - though no one disagreed with the point, either. Once again, Morgan deftly navigated her way around the mistake.

"The players need to get paid for what they're worth, for what they put out on the field," she said. "It's going to take time - MLS, they're in their 20th season now, and we just finished our third season - but I think we're headed in the right direction."

Morgan then turned the spotlight onto FIFA, strongly accusing global soccer governing body of not doing enough to support the women's game.

"It starts with FIFA, because the regulations that they implement affect all of us," she said. "I think for them, it's continuing to help those federations that don't have as many equal opportunities on the women's side, like a lot of the African nations that culturally don't see women as athletes. So giving that opportunity to young girls, and creating this global platform for females to be able to play sports, it kind of starts with FIFA saying this is how it is - and also putting females on the executive committee. It's going to take a lot of people to come together, and it's going to take time, but I think we're headed in the right direction."

Farrow then asked Boxx to take the other side, for argument's sake - that the pay gap is a function of lack of demand for the women's game on a global scale.

"It's bigger in the U.S. - I think the U.S. looks to the women's team and sticks behind it, but you're seeing these other countries where maybe that's not done as well," the soon-to-retire midfielder responded. "We still have so much to grow even in the U.S. So yeah, on the other side you can say okay, well the men are bringing in a lot of money, and with the national team we bring in that money every four years or every time there's an Olympics or a World Cup. Now we have to find a way to do that [the rest of the time], but we are starting to find a way."

This summer's World Cup made clear that the demand exists, and not just with television ratings. As Morgan noted, the tens of thousands of American fans who stormed across the border made a collective statement too.

"At least for my family, they couldn't even find merchandise," she said, echoing a complaint that I heard plenty throughout the tournament. "I don't know if it was Canada or FIFA that didn't prepare for the volume of people to come watch us play, but most of our games were sold out. There were a lot of fans coming up for the games, flying in, wanting to buy Women's World Cup stuff - there was like a two-hour line during the entire game."

Whichever entity was ultimately at fault, Morgan made it clear that FIFA should bear more of the burden.

"You can say that the men's teams bring in a lot more marketing dollars and a lot more money for FIFA, but at the same time, they need to at least prepare for us to take the next step," she said. "They need to be ahead of the game and help us continue to head on."

Boxx has lived through the high times of big exposure and the low times when no one pays attention. What will happen after next summer's Olympics, with no major tournaments in 2017 or 2018? The southern California native said she hopes social media will play a role in sustaining interest in women's soccer.

"Being elite athletes, we have a voice that people are wanting to listen to," she said. "We have visibility, we have reach - we can get to a lot more people with Twitter and Instagram and all those things, and I think it's a big responsibility that we have… Even though we're athletes, we all still have those life lessons that we've had to go through, and we have a big role with using our voices to try to help."

Of course, the platform that social media provides also carries some big risk. No one on the national team is more exposed to that risk than Morgan, who has millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram.

"A lot of people definitely take everything I say and correct me grammatically," Morgan said, "and definitely, I have a lot more -"

At that point, Farrow rather loudly interjected to recount an anecdote of his own experience, then yielded the floor back to Morgan.

"Having social media platforms [helps] to be able to tell people a little about who I am, and share with people the upcoming games we have, because sometimes they aren't on TV," she continued - and yes, I was amused by that line about games not being televised. That isn't the case anymore, thankfully, though it hasn't been that long since it was.

Yes, Morgan really did say that last bit. She also said a lot of very thoughtful things about having to make a real adjustment in her lifestyle because of the number of people who watch her life through social media.

"It's a little weird to have so many eyes on me," she said. "I think about that before I post anything, knowing that you're never able to erase that, but it's fine. Any attention to bring to the sport is good."

Attention to the sport is good, but as Morgan said, sometimes the attention to her specifically is not. Even when she's off the clock, the spotlight is still on. And it's made brighter by the fact that her husband is also a soccer player: Servando Carrasco, a journeyman in MLS who's currently with Orlando City.

Morgan offered this long and thoughtful take about bearing the burden of stardom at all times, whether she likes it or not:

When I'm in my soccer clothes and on the soccer field, I know that I have so many eyes on me, but at home, I just want to go to dinner with my husband without being interrupted... When I'm recognized or when one person recognizes you and then other people start to recognize you, I guess I start to get a little embarrassed and shy. I just want to go back home.

I don't really want to go outside sometimes, because I feel like going to dinner, whatever it is, you're - I don't want to say bothered, you're going to be interrupted at dinner or whatever you're doing. Sometimes I don't always want to take a picture or I don't always want to put on a happy face or a show face.

I think that, for me, is something a little new - always being a little courteous, and if you're rude to someone or say no to someone, that one person is going to make sure that it's known on Twitter or whatever it is, so it's going to get back to you eventually.

I see that a lot of times, you can't make everyone happy, but I know on the soccer field - we have to sign autographs, we have to take pictures, and I want to do that for the little girls. But sometimes for those autograph poachers, I don't always want to sign autographs, and they will make it known that you are being rude, and they will make it known that you are not being a nice person. And sometimes, I don't really care.

Boxx, who at 37 was the second-oldest player on the U.S. roster in Canada (she turned 38 during the tournament), admitted that just joining Twitter was an adventure in and of itself.

"The hardest part is that you have to watch everything you do, and it's not natural to do that," she said. "But we obviously want that. We take responsibility for choosing to play the sport that we do and at the level that we do, but sometimes you definitely have to think: 'I can't just go do this, I have to think about if kids are going to be here.' Not that we're doing anything terrible, but you know it's just always on your mind."

Morgan added that it is also difficult to be, as she put it, "authentic" when she's also such a major public figure - and in particular, someone who's sought by companies that want to feature her in advertisements.

"Signing with some major companies, some global brand companies, I do want to be the face of some companies that I actually use their product, or to promote healthy living," she said. "I have a lot more opportunity, and I feel that I have grown into who I am, and feel a lot more comfortable with who I am… I feel like maybe five years ago or so, I was just kind of going along with what people had, the commercials or the photo shoots or the ideas that they would come up to me with in terms of how they wanted to use me."

Johnston's standout performances at the World Cup gave her a taste of celebrity life. Her star status will only grow in the coming years as she continues to lead the American back line.

She stepped perfectly into the spotlight this summer. If you didn't know about the rest of her career - including being dropped from the starting lineup in late 2014, then seizing a spot for good when Christie Rampone got injured - you might have assumed that the 23-year-old had been part of the team for ages.

After the panel discussion ended, I got a few minutes with Johnston for an exclusive interview. She credited her teammates, her family and her boyfriend - Eagles tight end Zach Ertz - for helping her through the highs and lows. By the time she got to Canada, she was ready for the big stage.

"This win, it definitely projected women's soccer, and soccer in general, and that's a positive for us," she told me. "If that's shocking to the world, so be it, but we're not shocked. This is what we worked toward for not just a year, but since the last World Cup. It's what this team has been trying to get to."

To conclude, let's go back to the panel discussion. In some of her final remarks on stage, Morgan spoke eloquently about the importance of celebrating the journey to success along with the end product.

"Even though you're striving for perfection, you're striving for the best, having those bumps along the road and having that imperfectness at the end is kind of your 'perfect,'" she said. "Just focusing on the end result, you get caught up in so many things. Enjoy the journey, take a second and realize where you've come [from], how much you've done, and the success that you have created, even though you might not have reached your goals yet."

As we all know by now, the American team did reach its goal this past summer. Having been there to see that journey in person, it was rewarding to see Morgan, Johnston and Boxx offer some real perspective to a crowd more accustomed to expressing itself in a 60-second elevator pitch.

Unfortunately, the discussion ended with about that much abruptness. In a flash, the players were off the stage, and a CEO whose name I didn't catch was on stage hawking the virtues of his electronic creation. For all parties involved, it was back to reality.