Women’s soccer enters new era with huge World Cup audiences

LONDON — No longer a sideshow, women’s soccer has stepped into the spotlight.

The sport will further establish its growing appeal on Tuesday as millions prepare to watch the United States take on England in the World Cup semifinal.

Fans on both sides of the Atlantic will be tuning in for one of the most highly anticipated showdowns of the monthlong tournament. The game kicks off at 9 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET). Tickets for the stadium in Lyon, France, are sold out.

This World Cup has been widely popular with fans and nonfans alike, setting viewing records, and organizer FIFA expects to reach 1 billion viewers by the end of the final this Sunday.

For some, it marks the point women’s soccer escapes the shadow of the more popular and lucrative men’s game.

Jane Purdon, chief executive of the U.K.-based Women in Football nonprofit, said the last few years had seen increased commitment and investment in the sport.

“While women’s football has been highly enjoyable as a spectator sport for many years, there is no doubt that this World Cup is showing us that the quality has risen yet again,” she told NBC News.

Increased commitment from broadcasters, with many allocating prime television time to Women’s World Cup games, has had a major effect, she said.

“So what we have is a conjunction of improving standards making an entertaining, skillful spectacle, and viewers having easy access to the games,” Purdon said.

As for Tuesday’s match, the U.S. will hope to build on their confident 2-1 victory over host nation France on Friday. The tournament favorites and defending champions meet a promising young England side that is yet to get past the World Cup semifinal stage.

On Monday Britain’s football-obsessed newspapers reported allegations that members of the U.S. backroom staff were allegedly found wandering around the private area of the England team’s hotel — the so-called spying storm helping to attract even more attention.

But this time sports fans don’t need any encouragement to tune in.

Friday’s quarter-final game between the U.S and France drew more than 6.3 million domestic viewers on Fox and its streaming platforms.

TF1, France’s rights broadcaster, said the game was the most watched program on French TV so far this year, attracting 10.7 million viewers, or just over half of the total viewing audience.

Meanwhile, France’s earlier round of 16 win over Brazil attracted the biggest single television audience for a Women’s World Cup match ever — with a total of 35.2 million people watching in Brazil.

The previous record for a single broadcast at the Women’s World Cup was the 2015 final between the U.S. and Japan, which was watched by 25.4 million people.

The BBC, the U.K. rights holder, said the 2019 tournament has so far reached 22.2 million British viewers, well in excess of the 12.4 million record set in 2015 during the World Cup in Canada.

And in Italy, 7.3 million viewers watched the team take on Brazil. The previous high saw just 202,844 tune in for the Japan versus the U.S. final at the 2011 World Cup, according to FIFA.

The total viewership is still way behind the men’s World Cup, which was seen by more than 3.5 billion viewers last year, but it’s growing fast. The 1 billion viewers expected this year is a big increase on 2015 when 750 million watched the action on TV and 86 million tuned in online or their mobile devices.

Alex Morgan of the U.S. celebrates scoring their 12th goal with Megan Rapinoe in a game against Thailand in Reims, France on June 11. Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Aside from the growth of the sport in general, this has simply been a wildly entertaining tournament.

Last-minute wins, controversial decisions from officials using new video review technology, some eye-catching goals and on-pitch drama have added to the momentum and expectation.

History was made by the U.S. team’s crushing 13-0 defeat of Thailand — the largest margin of victory in either the men’s or women’s World Cup.

“If you have a World Cup with big incidents, late goals and drama, it’s only going to help,” lead soccer writer and editor with NBC Sports Joe Prince-Wright said.

NBC Sports: 2019 Womens’s World Cup coverage

Prince-Wright added that a drastic improvement in the quality of the women’s game — the result of increased funding from big soccer clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid in their women’s teams — had also played a major role in its growing popularity.

“It has taken them a while for whatever reason to figure out that it’s a big deal and they should really be pumping money into it,” he said.

Off-the-pitch drama has boosted the sport’s profile, too. One of the stars of this tournament, U.S. co-captain Meghan Rapinoe, became the target of critical tweets by President Donald Trump after a video emerged of her saying she would not visit the White House if the team was invited.

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But there is still a lot of work to be done, Prince-Wright said.

Not all players at this World Cup are full-time professionals, with many still lacking funding and support to make a career out of it.

FIFA doubled total prize money for the 2019 Women’s World Cup from $15 million to $30 million, but this is a fraction of the $400 million received by the players in the men’s tournament last year.

Then there’s the fact that the tournament’s final will be held the same day — July 7 — as the Copa America and Gold Cup soccer finals — something officials have chalked up to “an error.”

Still, Jane Purdon says she hopes national associations and existing male professional clubs will keep backing the women’s game.

“They should also look at how the huge wave of interest in the game can translate into greater commercial revenue,” she said.

“For the most part, it’s been a hugely positive World Cup,” Prince-Wright added. “And that’s not just the TV or attendance.”

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