Sports

Women’s World Cup Draws Record-Breaking Audiences After Doubter Said It ‘Wasn’t Worth Watching’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

After a heartbreaking own-goal in stoppage time cost England a spot in the Women’s World Cup final, Japan is set to face the USA — the same opponent it defeated for the title in 2011 — this Sunday. Fans tuned in to watch USA take down Germany on Tuesday, continuing the tournament’s record-breaking audience streak on FOX network with 8.4 million television viewers.

Despite a lack of coverage, bracket pools, and adequate playing fields, almost every game played by the U.S. Women’s National Team in this tournament has drawn more viewers that the last. The team’s most recent win over Germany was the most-watched broadcast on FOX networks since the April 1 edition of American Idol.

Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor at Purdue University who researches women’s sports and viewership, said the recent increase in viewership “speaks to how, when we give women’s sport time to develop a fan-base, people tune in and people show up.” She cited the success of the women’s team as being a major factor in increasing the popularity of women’s soccer during the World Cup.

The USA vs. Germany semifinal had 2.7 million viewers more than the quarterfinal against China just a few days earlier. The trend suggests that as the women’s team advances further, and as the stakes get higher, more people tune in to support.

But other aspects of media have also helped draw the public’s attention to women’s soccer in recent weeks. Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit tweeted that women’s sports and women’s soccer in particular was “not worth watching,” creating huge backlash and effectively drawing more attention to the tournament. One of the responses was a widely-watched segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers, where Meyers and Amy Poehler poked fun at the absurdity and offensiveness of the comments made by Benoit, who has since apologized. At the end of the segment, Poehler encouraged viewers to watch the women’s quarterfinal against China, which then had about a million more viewers than the team’s previous game.

Not only is viewership increasing from game to game, but also from tournament to tournament. Millions more people in the United States are watching each game this year than did during the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Because the 2011 games were played in Germany, which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, fans had to watch during the workday; but now with the games held closer in Canada, they’re often broadcast during primetime. That this year’s tournament is being hosted in such proximity to the States has also likely increased interest and viewership.

Some factors, however, have been less favorable to viewers of the tournament. Other major sporting events, like the Stanley Cup final, which was broadcast the same night as the tournament opener, and the NBA playoffs, have threatened viewership. And the relatively lesser popularity of FOX Sports 1 compared with 2011’s tournament broadcaster ESPN is also a potential disadvantage.

While USA games in this year’s tournament thus far have been watched by far more people than in 2011, none have beat the record set by the 1999 Women’s World Cup final against China, which had close to 18 million viewers.

Cooky pointed to the cultural moment of the late ’90s, during which she said “strong women were pervasive in the cultural narrative,” and the popularity of players like Mia Hamm, as reasons why so many people in the United States tuned in for the final. This, paired with the fact that the game was played in the famous Rose Bowl Stadium outside Los Angeles, contributed to the record-breaking audience. And though she didn’t say whether she expected this year’s final to beat the 1999 record, Cooky did say she was hopeful.

On Sunday, the U.S. women’s national team will face the opponent they lost to just last tournament, closing out a patriotic weekend and guaranteeing an exciting fight for the title. “I think the fact that Japan is a returning champion, I think that makes for a compelling story,” Cooky said.

“Perhaps people will feel that patriotism from the Fourth of July and carry the excitement from the fireworks and the celebrations into this and turn on the game and support.”

Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress.