Looking back at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019

A few weeks ago, you read our article predicting a big change in women’s sports. Not going to say we told you so, but almost… 

Now that the dust has settled, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at a month of top-class international soccer, by breaking down the good, the bad and the awesome from this undeniably memorable Women's World Cup. 

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More than a game, a fight for equality

It has been impossible to ignore the United States Women’s National Team (aka USWNT) throughout the entire 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. We all remember US co-captain Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle securing the win in front of a sold-out crowd of 57,900 people filling the Stade de Lyon. Fans were chanting for equal pay when FIFA president Gianni Infantino and French president Emmanuel Macron were on stage handing out gold medals to the US players. When most teams would have soaked up the praise and celebrated winning the biggest prize in women's soccer, the USWNT used the victory as a platform to drive their fight for equality forward

Female players’ pay is still a long way short of their male counterparts. The pay gap was an issue Rapinoe voiced loudly and often during the tournament. The use of the #EqualPay hashtag quintupled during the USWNT’s final and in the days following. The federal class-action lawsuit filed in March by 28 players against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleged systemic gender-based pay discrimination, in addition to unequal conditions concerning marketing, playing, travel and training. The team’s lawsuit has done much to define its identity. Will this World Cup be the new milestone toward change? 

Visa, one of the six global FIFA sponsors, promised to spend the same amount on marketing the Women's World Cup as it did the men's in Russia last year. UK team sponsors Lucozade Sport and Head & Shoulders also pledged equal importance in advertising for the Lionesses, England’s national team. Adidas also pledged to pay its sponsored players on the winning team “the same performance bonus as their male counterparts". We have to admit, it’s a start. 

Marta Vieira da Silva, the Brazilian recognized as the best female player in history, set the all-time World Cup scoring record (for both men and women!) and celebrated, all cameras pointing at her, by showing the pink and blue symbol on her shoe, dedicating the goal to "anyone fighting for more equality." Then, when her team was eliminated by France, instead of reflecting on her own career, Marta took the opportunity to deliver an emotional message in which she passionately called on young girls to keep trying: "Women's soccer depends on you to survive. You have to cry at the beginning so you can smile at the end." A powerful and meaningful message for all the girls watching. 

The women in this year's championship have used their voices to let the world know gender inequality will not be tolerated anymore. To be continued… 

What about the media?

Women’s World Cup TV viewership has increased steadily throughout the tournaments. With more than 200 broadcasters in more than 200 countries, many of them giving prime-time slots to games on network TV, FIFA has estimated that this World Cup drew roughly one billion viewers, rising up to almost a third of the men’s World Cup in Russia (3.5 billion).

TV records were broken across the globe, including in the US, France, Germany and China. Almost 59 million people watched the Brazil-France game, making it the most watched women's soccer match of all time. The final between the US and the Netherlands drew 5.48 million on Dutch TV. Can you believe that 88% of Dutch TV viewers watched the match? That’s the highest TV audience in the country since the men's World Cup semi-final in 2014! 

The quarter-final clash between US and France drew a record audience of 8.24 million viewers, making it the most-watched English-language soccer broadcast since last summer’s men's World Cup final. Moreover, the UK-US semi-final attracted the highest peak in UK TV audience of the year so far with 11.7 million, setting another new record for women's soccer. Interestingly, the gender split was 62% male vs 38% female, according to the marketing news website The Drum, dismissing the cliché that men do not watch women’s games. 

In Brazil, their match against France was viewed by more than 35 million people on free-to-air network Globo TV, the largest domestic audience for a women’s soccer game anywhere in history. A further 10.6 million in France tuned into the game, making it the country’s most-watched women's match of all time. 

Independently from the increased TV viewership, many of the games were highly entertaining, sparking extensive debate on social media. Tense moments, including late goals, the use of the video-assisted referee (VAR) system, alongside off-pitch debates such as the quarrel between Megan Rapinoe and President Donald Trump or Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping goal celebration, also helped increase online interest. 

The official FIFA Women's World Cup social accounts had 433 million views by the end of June, in addition to welcoming another two million followers on Twitter and Facebook. There have also been more than two million conversations using the Women's World Cup hashtag. 

The 2019 Women’s World Cup was highly enjoyable and exceeded expectations on a number of levels. From incredible goals and saves to increased media exposure and records broken, it can only be regarded as a success. 

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Is women’s soccer generating more money than men’s?

With growing interest in women's soccer, brands have been increasingly willing to show their backing for the game. Right now is a culturally relevant moment for soccer enthusiasts to join the movement and help companies gain new audiences. 

It’s safe to say that the USWNT weren’t the only ones on a winning streak at the Women's World Cup. Care to study a concrete case to illustrate the tremendous advantages a brand gains from sponsoring women’s sports? 

Immediately after the USWNT won the World Cup title, Nike aired a celebratory advertisement that not only honored the accomplishment, but also put a spotlight on the influence it could have on future generations of athletes, hinting at some of the actual frustrations regarding current inequalities. 

In addition to the ad, Nike unveiled a special edition championship USWNT jersey featuring four stars, one for each World Cup victory, with a brand-new golden star rising above the three existing ones. Nike sold more of this jersey on its website than it has of any other soccer team's shirt in a single season in its history. "The USA Women's home jersey is now the No. 1 soccer jersey, men's or women's, ever sold on Nike.com in one season," according to Nike CEO Mark Parker. 

Nearly two-thirds of the 24 teams that started the tournament wore Nike kits, and half of the players wear the company's shoes. "The exposure is driving outstanding sell-through in kits, high-performance bras and lifestyle extensions," Parker stated. In fact, Nike has become North America's biggest seller of bras for the first time in its history. 

Sales of Nike’s new World Cup merchandise are skyrocketing, with many items being bought and worn by men. It’s strong presence at the competition helped drive wholesale revenues in its women's segment up 11%. 

In 2016, women’s games generated USD 1.9 million more in sales than men’s games, according to the US Soccer Federation (USSF). From 2016 to 2018, women’s games generated about $50.8 million in revenue, compared to $49.9 million for men’s games. 

Contrary to common belief, it seems that women’s soccer is in fact generating more money than men’s, at least in the US. Will women’s soccer have a mass following beyond the World Cup?

Will women’s soccer have a mass following beyond the World Cup?

Now that the USWNT won, what's next for the game? They may be the champions, but the national leagues in Europe are becoming benchmarks for women’s soccer, thanks to increased investment and media coverage. This could have a huge effect on the future of the international game. 

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the highest level of professional women’s soccer in the US, obtained its first televised games during the 2015 season, with Fox Sports 1 airing them near the end of the season and post-season, which carried on into 2016. The league remained without a season-long broadcast deal, however, and streamed all of its games for free on YouTube. A few weeks ago, however, ESPN announced it will be broadcasting 14 league matches during the 2019 season. In total, eight matches will air on ESPNEWS, and the remaining six, including the two semifinals and the NWSL championship, will air on ESPN2. All matches will also be available on the ESPN App. 

Like it or not, it is impossible to downplay the social and cultural significance of the Women’s World Cup. In the last two decades, women’s soccer has emerged from obscurity to become a major worldwide sporting event. And while questions remain about the sport’s broad appeal beyond tournaments like the World Cup, the popularity of female club teams seems to be on the rise. 

But playing a sport has only a tangential relationship to watching it. Millions of people bowl, for example, yet very few actually follow this sport on a regular basis. Nonetheless, with social media giving women’s soccer an outlet that bypasses the limited coverage across traditional media, the potential for the sport is very real. Fans should be optimistic about its growth. 

Thankfully, the coverage and perceived enjoyment of the tournament has caused FIFA to rethink its organization of women’s soccer. In fact, Women’s World Cup will once again take center stage in Milan on 22 September, with the hosting of the first ever FIFA Football Conference aimed at analyzing the women’s showpiece. “This historic conference will give us a unique opportunity to better understand how women’s soccer has been developing on the pitch and the main lessons learned in France. It’s also an ideal platform to share experiences between well-established women’s soccer powerhouses and those member associations that are starting to invest more and more in the female game,” said Branimir Ujević, FIFA’s Head of Coaching & Player Development and the Project Lead for the Technical Study Group in France. 

Even if the USWNT took home the trophy, teams across the world, especially Europe, showed much improvement. With so much established and budding talent, and more and more opportunities to watch quality soccer, the future of the sport shows nothing but promise, for companies and fans alike. Hopefully, history will determine this year’s World Cup as yet another big step in the right direction for the women’s game.

A The Consultancy Group article, written by Justine Gilliot

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