LYON, France — One event has influenced sports, politics, pop culture and television conversations during the past month. The 2019 World Cup permeated the women’s soccer sphere and broke viewing records, attendance records and scoring records, while also shining a spotlight on and sparking debates about equality and gender discrimination.
The United States women’s national team is at the forefront of what could be a revolutionary moment for the sport globally, but a lot of work will need to be done to capitalize on the World Cup momentum beyond Sunday’s 11 a.m. ET title match between the U.S. and Netherlands.
“There was a before, there will be an after the 2019 women’s World Cup,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who leads international soccer’s governing body. “It’s up to us to make sure that we seize this opportunity and we do something about it.”
Infantino outlined a five-part plan to drive further development in women’s soccer, including increasing the number of teams in the World Cup, increasing FIFA investment in the women’s game and creating new tournaments, such as a club World Cup and nations league.
Skepticism surrounds any FIFA-proposed ideas, however, because of the organization’s failure to follow through on promises to support the women’s game in the past. For example, FIFA scheduled two men’s tournament finals on the same day as the women’s World Cup final, and despite FIFA doubling prize money for this year’s World Cup and possibly again for the 2023 World Cup, the men’s prize money is increasing at a faster rate and the pay gap between the two is growing.
“I understand that for a lot of different reasons the men’s game financially is far more advanced than the women’s game. But if you really care, are you letting the gap grow? Are you scheduling three finals on the same day? No, you’re not,” U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said. “Are you letting federations have their teams play two games in the four years between each tournament? No, you’re not.
“We need attention and detail and the best minds that we can possibly have in the women’s game helping it grow every single day. I understand it’s a very complex problem, but the resources are there and I think the willingness and the brain power is all there. It’s just a matter of wanting to do it and caring enough about it to make it happen.”
U.S. women’s soccer reached a similar transformative moment during the 1999 World Cup, when Mia Hamm led the Americans to a second world title and Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off in celebration after hitting the Cup-clinching penalty kick. Those moments changed the perception of the women’s game, proved women’s soccer was marketable and inspired the generation of players now on the field competing for another gold medal.
But there still was a drop in interest after the 1999 World Cup high.
Investment in the sport grew, but in fits and spurts. The WUSA professional league that formed after the ’99 World Cup fell apart after three seasons. Other iterations of professional women’s leagues also failed, until the National Women’s Soccer League launched in 2013. Now in it’s seventh season, the NWSL is surviving, but it is still battling a perception issue, funding problems and low attendance in some cities. After losing Lifetime as its broadcast partner before this season, the league scrambled to find an alternative and announced Thursday a deal with ESPN for the 14 remaining 2019 matches.
“We need more things like that,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said of the ESPN deal. “Eyeballs are important and representation is important.”
U.S. striker Alex Morgan said she hopes their play speaks for itself and carries the game forward since 60 NWSL players made World Cup rosters, including every member of the U.S. team.
NWSL President Amanda Duffy said the league is committed to building on the World Cup buzz. Now that a television deal is in place, she is focused on adding more sponsors.
“The U.S. women have been truly exceptional this tournament and have continued to set that standard on the global stage with national team performances,” Duffy said. “At this point, being in the final and hopefully keeping the title in the United States, it would be big.
“We feel the momentum. We feel the support. We feel more exposure. We feel more interest, both commercially and from fans, in wanting to see NWSL grow and build and build off the wave of what’s happened in the last 30, 60, 90 days in the lead up to the tournament, and of course during it.”
What the ’99 World Cup did for women’s soccer in the U.S., the 2019 World Cup could do for countries around the globe. The buzz, money and television ratings are the highest they’ve ever been.
World Cup games will draw more than 1 billion total viewers by the time the final is over, according to FIFA. Ratings have been 6% higher than the 2015 World Cup and 50% higher than the 2011 World Cup, according to rights holder Fox Sports. And more than 1 million people have attended World Cup games so far, an average stadium occupancy per game of about 75%.
“We saw the Argentinian team that got to the round of 16, but went home and were welcomed as if they won the World Cup,” vice president of the French Football Federation Brigitte Henriques said through a translator. “Nobody had even heard of the Argentinian team. That’s just one example of many that has come out of this World Cup. We’ve been able to move out of the box and push these limits. The quality of football is beyond our wildest dreams. These women players have gone beyond every limit and nothing will be the same again.”
Increased investment in European countries, such as France, Spain and England, raised the level of competition. Gritty 2-1 matches between those teams and the U.S. gave federations and fans proof that what they’re doing is working. Now another rising power, European champion Netherlands, awaits.
Not-so-close matches, such as Thailand’s 13-0 devastating loss to the Americans, showed developing programs what can be accomplished with increased support.
And the United States, the top-ranked team in the world, continuing to win while making headlines for players suing their employer for fair pay shows there is more room to grow.
“There’s the clearest correlation that you could possibly have with money invested in the federation and the level of play, the product on the field and the level of success these teams are having,” Rapinoe said.
That’s why when asked for the No. 1 thing needed to parlay the 2019 World Cup boon into tangible growth, Rapinoe sang out, “Money, money, money, moneyyy.”
“Money from FIFA. Money from federations. Money from advertisers, sponsors, rights holders, TV, all of that. And obviously not just blindly throwing cash at things, but investing in infrastructure, in training programs or academies for women, in coaching for women – all of it,” she said. “I don’t think you get to the point of having an incredible business by running it on a budget that’s $1 more than it was last year. You have to make big, upfront investments and really bet on the future.”