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As the Women’s World Cup enters its final week, TV networks around the globe are already declaring victory.
With this tournament setting ratings records — even ahead of the July 7 final in Paris — the 2019 World Cup appears to be marking the moment when the women’s game has stopped being treated as an adjunct to the men’s event and is embraced as a premier showcase on its own.
Massive television and digital audiences have tuned in to watch the first three weeks of live coverage, prompting organizer FIFA to forecast a total global audience of 1 billion viewers across all platforms by the time the final whistle blows on Sunday.
Fox Sports, which has English-language rights to 2019 World Cup matches, recorded a peak of 8.24 million TV viewers for Friday’s quarterfinal between Team USA and tournament hosts France, which ended in a thrilling 2-1 victory for the Stars and Stripes. It was the most-watched soccer match on English-language U.S. television since last summer’s men’s World Cup final. The audience was up 7 percent from the U.S.-China quarterfinal in 2015 despite being played in a European time zone, which meant U.S. viewers had to tune in at 3 p.m. ET or noon on the West coast.
On Fox streaming sources, the match drew an average minute audience of 211,000, making it the most-streamed Women’s World Cup match of all time in the U.S. Across Fox’s digital and social media platforms, World Cup content drew 13 million views and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Now live feed on Twitter posted 1.05 million viewers, more than double the previous record.
But women’s soccer has been a big deal in the U.S. for some time now. The Stars and Stripes are the most successful team in the game, having won three previous World Cups (alongside four Olympic gold medals). A big American audience for this year’s tournament was a given. What has really excited organizers, sponsors and fans are the huge TV audiences in territories that have previously proved indifferent to the women’s game.
Italy and Brazil, two soccer-mad nations, turned out in force to support their national sides. Brazil’s round-of-16 match against France was viewed by more than 35 million people on free-to-air network Globo TV, the largest domestic audience to watch a women’s soccer game anywhere in history. A further 10.6 million in France caught the game, making it the most-watched women’s match of all time.
Before this summer, Italy’s record domestic television audience for a women’s soccer match was a measly 202,844 — for 2011’s World Cup final between the USA and Japan. This year’s tournament has seen ratings more than 35 times that figure, with a record 7.3 million Italians catching the team’s first-round game against Brazil. For the Azzurri, it marks a triumph and follows significant investment in women’s teams at club level by giants of the men’s game in Italy.
Germany and France, whose squads were both defeated in the quarterfinals — by Sweden and the USA, respectively — went out on a high ratings-wise. Half of all TV viewers in France caught Friday’s match, a total of 10.71 million, a new high for the women’s game in the country and the best ratings of the year for commercial TV network TF1. The 7.9 million Germans that watched their squad go down 2-1 to Sweden was also a record figure for public broadcaster ARD and represented an impressive 43.2 percent market share.
England, who will face off against Team USA in the first semifinal match on Tuesday, is going from strength to strength off the pitch as well, with the quarterfinal against Norway drawing a record-breaking 7.6 million viewers on the BBC. It marked the third time the Lionesses have broken viewing records in as many weeks. Prior to this summer, the record TV audience for women’s soccer in the U.K. had been the four million who watched England face the Netherlands in the Euro 2017 semifinals.
The BBC said total viewership for the 2019 tournament had already surpassed 22.2 million, well in excess of the 12.4 million record set in 2015 during the Women’s World Cup in Canada.
These figures provide substantial ammunition for women’s teams that for years have been pushing their national federations for more equitable treatment. Ahead of this year’s tournament, all 28 members of the United States women’s national team filed a gender discrimination suit demanding they be paid the same as the men’s national team. The lawsuit asserts that governing body U.S. Soccer provided the men’s team with performance bonuses totaling $5.375 million for losing in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, while the federation provided the women with $1.725 million for winning the 2015 World Cup.
FIFA this year doubled the prize money for the Women’s World Cup from $15 million to $30 million, though that is still a pittance compared to the $400 million paid out to teams competing in the men’s 2018 World Cup in Russia, where champions France alone picked up $38 million in bonuses.
But a real sea-change may be underway among corporate sponsors of the game, who appear to be following the money. Fox Sports has reportedly virtually sold out its ad inventory around the 2019 tournament, with the average 30-second spot going for close to $140,000, or more than three times the $40,000 asking price for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
On a brand level, sporting outfitter Adidas has said that all its sponsored athletes on the winning World Cup team will receive the same performance bonus as their male peers.
Outside the tournament, corporate sponsors are also putting their money where their mouths are to back the professional women’s game. Banking group Barclays signed a $12.7 million three-season deal to become the title sponsor of England’s top league, the Women’s Super League, through 2022, a record investment in U.K. women’s sports. In December, credit card company Visa signed a seven-year deal to become the main partner of the Women’s Champion’s League. And on March 8, International Women’s Day, sports drinks group Lucozade Sport made its first foray into women’s soccer with a partnership with England’s Lionesses.
It should be money well spent. Research by Nielsen, published last year showed that more than half of the U.K. population has an “active interest” in women’s sports, with 40 percent of the population reporting they would consider watching a women’s sport live, while 42 percent reported they would watch more women’s sports if they were accessible on free TV.
“The commercial opportunity in women’s sport is growing at pace,” said Lynsey Douglas, global leader for Women’s Sport at Nielsen Sports in presenting the report. “All the indicators point to it being a very good time to invest in women’s sport.”
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