Future looks promising for women's football

Megan Rapinoe of the US scores their first goal from the penalty spot during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match against the Netherlands, at the Lyon Stadium, on July 7, 2019.
Megan Rapinoe of the US scores their first goal from the penalty spot during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match against the Netherlands, at the Lyon Stadium, on July 7, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS • When 90,185 fans jammed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to revel in the United States' penalty shoot-out win over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, it was hailed as a watershed moment.

Cheered by a cult-like following, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were shooting stars who seemed destined to put women's football centre stage - and keep it there - for years to come.

Meanwhile, football-mad countries in Europe and South America yawned. Even in America, the mania over women's football proved as fleeting as Reebok Pumps and Starter jackets.

Two women's pro leagues were launched and folded in the 12 years that followed, while fan interest waned more than waxed between subsequent World Cup and Summer Olympics cycles.

But here in France, there are signs that the sport's watershed moment may finally have arrived.

Throughout much of the sporting world, it has long been implicit that women's football is inferior. England deemed it such an affront that girls were forbidden from playing on proper pitches until 1971.

 

  • 11.7 Million people in Britain who watched the England-US semi-final.

But, according to the BBC, the broadcast of last Tuesday's semi-final between third-ranked England and the top-ranked Americans drew 11.7 million viewers at its peak, making it their most-watched TV programme of the year.

In the Netherlands, more than five million people watched Wednesday's semi-final against Sweden, translating to nearly one-third of potential Dutch TV viewers.

TV ratings for women's football also set records in countries whose teams advanced to the knockout round, including hosts France and Italy. In Brazil, 35 million watched Marta and her Selecao teammates' round-of-16 match with Les Bleues.

The question is, as this exceptionally well-played World Cup comes to an end: Is this uptick in global interest sustainable?

Is this the start of a new era in which women's football will attract paying fans, corporate investors and media coverage that are the lifeblood of professional sports?

In the US, there are encouraging signs. Nike said last week that the US women's team jerseys were its top-selling football shirt, male or female, on its website in one season.

More than seven million tuned in for the Fox broadcast of the US-England semi-final, making it the most-watched football game since last year's World Cup final.

Another 1.02 million tuned in via Telemundo, NBC Sports Network and its respective apps, making it the most-watched Women's World Cup match outside the final on Spanish-language TV.

In hopes of leveraging that momentum, ESPN announced last Thursday that it will broadcast 14 games of this season's National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) - all 23 members of the US women's World Cup squad play in the NWSL.

To Utah Royals defender Kelley O'Hara, who is competing in her third World Cup, it is exactly what is needed as "eyeballs and representation is important".

However, will all this fizzle after the fanfare ends? Fox Sports' commentator J.P. Dellacamera thought the last edition in Canada would serve as the breakthrough moment for women's football. It did not.

"Everyone is talking about how great this World Cup has been, but it's almost like when you hire a new coach, you get that bump," she said. "When we go home, will that bump reflect in NWSL attendance? That remains to be seen."

No doubt, the promise of women's football has looked bright before, only to fade.

Veteran sports agent Leigh Steinberg, though, has thoughts about why this event might be different.

The inspiration behind the Jerry Maguire movie character, he believes "this one has a real chance" as there is a synergy between the US team's success and the #MeToo movement, with their achievements coming amid a time of heightened women's consciousness.

Social media is also another behemoth. "This World Cup has caught fire here in America," he said. "The amount on Twitter alone of Alex (Morgan) breaking out her tea cup (celebration against England) went viral. This is massive."

In the US, all of Twitter's top-10 trending topics in the aftermath were about the game, according to a company executive.

Above all, what has made this Women's World Cup look promising for the sport's future is the elevated standard of play, and US coach Jill Ellis feels "it's an awesome reflection of the growth of our game".

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2019, with the headline 'Future looks promising for women's football'. Print Edition | Subscribe