The FIFA Women’s World Cup begins June 7 in France, with the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) returning as reigning champions. With a target of 1 billion viewers set by the FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, the Women’s World Cup promises to be a global event and one more step forward for women’s soccer building an audience base that is ready achieve a new level of importance and be leveraged by big brands.
Women’s Soccer Has A Long History Of Ups And Downs
It’s been a long road for women’s soccer. Despite the U.S. earning gold three times in the Women’s World Cup and four times in the Olympics, the popularity of women’s soccer has been inconsistent throughout the years. For readers who want to review the multi-decade journey of women’s soccer, continue below. For those who’d rather skip ahead to learn how women’s soccer is showing significant signs of popularity gains, click here.
1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Unnoticed Success
The inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in 1991 in China. The U.S. roster was filled with stars-to-be, including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers. Collectively, they took home the gold, but few back home paid attention.
1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup: The Consecration Of Women’s Soccer
According to the FIFA website, “If China 1991 was the innovation, Sweden 1995 was the consecration of women’s football [soccer] at the highest level.” In addition to the global event, won by Norway, the 1995 Women’s World Cup acted as the qualifier for the next year’s Olympic games ― the first time women’s soccer would take the Olympic field.
1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup: The U.S. And A Sports Bra Take Center Stage
In 1999, the Women’s World Cup was hosted by the U.S., and the home team earned the gold. Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal with a shootout penalty kick, and, as described by Nina Mandell for USA Today in 2013, “in what became perhaps the most famous accidental [Nike] sports bra advertisement in history [Brandi Chastain] lifted up her shirt in excitement as she slid into the grass and lifted her arms in celebration.”
“I knew it as soon as I saw it. We all did,” Mary Buckheit of ESPN wrote ten years after the sports bra moment, “We knew right then and there that it was a watershed moment. Chastain’s epic, unscripted soccer celebration is our lifetime’s seminal moment in women’s athletics.”
U.S. women’s soccer, both with their gold and with the unexpected cover shot, had entered a new era of popularity. “Their [the USWNT] cultural significance was compared to Billie Jean King with this asterisk: America had other great individual female athletes before,” explained Johnette Howard for ESPN in 2011, “but there had never been a women’s team like this.”
Women’s United Soccer Association: A Story Of Lacking Corporate Support
Following the excitement of the 1999 gold medal win, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was quickly announced. Premiering in 2001, the league boasted top stars from the 1999 champion team, including Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, and launched the careers of future stars, including Abby Wambach.
In 2003, just five days prior to the opening game of the Women’s World Cup and just months after LeBron James signed a $90 million endorsement contract with Nike (at the time, the largest deal in Nike history), the WUSA announced it would cease operations due to lack of corporate sponsorship.
2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Under A Shadow
Originally planned to be in China, the Asian SARS outbreak resulted in the 2003 Women’s World Cup returning to U.S. soil. Although television audiences reached new highs for women’s soccer in Germany and Sweden, the tournament was held under a shadow of disappointment for U.S. women’s soccer fans, especially season ticket holders of WUSA teams. Despite indicators that women’s soccer was becoming more popular around the world, the loss of the WUSA raised uncertainty regarding how that popularity could be harnessed to build a year-round fan base.
2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Goal Keeper Controversy Goes Viral
For those who remember, the 2007 Women’s World Cup is known as the tournament with the goal keeper controversy. Then USWNT coach Greg Ryan benched Hope Solo in a strategic decision that placed prior first-string goal keeper Briana Scurry on the field. The U.S. suffered its worst loss in team history, and Hope Solo took center stage with a controversial post-game interview statement: “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.” Solo’s reaction went viral, and women’s soccer remained in the news for a time after the tournament ended.
Women’s Professional Soccer: Another 3-Season League
In 2009, the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) team launched, using social media and grassroots marketing to engage fans. Reserve players tweeted throughout certain games and teams engaged with fans at local venues to make community connections.
Despite efforts, the WPS folded after just three seasons due to a limited team-specific fan base and disappointing corporate sponsorship volume. But the efforts were not all for naught. Despite faltering numerous times, there was momentum behind the game. Women’s soccer was about to take hold in America and beyond.
Twenty years after the sports bra incident, women’s soccer is showing signs of extended popularity gains, including bigger fan bases, support for equity pay and global brand support.
National Women’s Soccer League: Seven Seasons In And Going Strong
Launched in 2013, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is entering its seventh season this year, with all games available on Yahoo! Sports after ending a prior partnership with A+E Networks. “NWSL is the first women’s soccer league in the U.S. to continue operation past its third campaign,” said Lucy Hartwell of Front Office Sports, “a testament not just to the management and operation of the league itself but also a growing interest in the sport and appreciation of the women’s game.”
Although not big by typical professional league standards (there are only nine teams in the league), corporate sponsors, including Verizon, Coppertone, Army National Guard, Microsoft and Nike, have played a role in its success. Local sponsors, including Conservice, a local utility company in Utah have also played a part in financially supporting the growth of the NWSL.
2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Sporting The Most Viewed Soccer Game In U.S. History
The 2015 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Canada, included 24 teams ― up from 16 teams in 2011. In the finals, the U.S. defeated Japan to win the gold medal in front of a record-breaking audience.
- 764 million in-home TV viewers watched at least one minute of a World Cup game.
- 555.6 million TV viewers watched at least three minutes of a game ― up 33% from 2011.
- There were 7,781 hours of broadcast coverage throughout the tournament ― up 31% from 2011.
- 86 million fans watched games online, including from mobile devices.
- In the U.S., 23 million people watched the gold-medal game, resulting in the largest TV audience in U.S. history for any soccer game (across both genders).
- The game reached a Twitter audience of 11.17 million people ― topped that year only by Super Bowl XLIX, the NFC Championships (Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks) and the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao fight.
- Search volume was almost double in 2015 compared to 2011, according to Google.
The viewership of the 2015 final Women’s World Cup game was comparable to other big sporting events, including Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.
Pay Equity: USWNT Bringing Popularity To The Cause And The Sport
On International Women’s Day, 28 members of the USWNT filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination. The lawsuit is based on the premise that the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) asks both men and women to play the same game on the same size field with the same rules, but they pay women less than men.
According to the USWNT gender equity lawsuit, “The pay for advancement through the rounds of the World Cup was so skewed that, in 2014, the USSF provided the USMNT [U.S. Men’s National Team] with performance bonuses totaling $5,375,000 for losing in the Round of 16, while, in 2015, the USSF provided the USWNT with only $1,725,000 for winning the entire tournament. The USWNT earned more than three times less than the USMNT while performing demonstrably better.”
Earlier this year, the Norwegian Football Association and the New Zealand Football Association each announced equal pay for men and women. Meanwhile, despite a statement about their “unwavering commitment” to the USWNT, the USSF neglected to close the gender pay gap and gave brands an opportunity to step up to create equity.
- In March, Adidas announced that its sponsored players on the winning Women’s World Cup team will receive the same performance bonus as their male counterparts.
- In a move to “champion women,” on Equal Pay Day (April 2), LUNA Bar announced they will provide an additional $31,250 per player selected for the USWNT to ensure they make roster bonuses equal to men’s.
Though the USWNT lawsuit is about gender equity, its effectively driving up the team’s popularity and ability to attract funds from global and female-focused brands.
2019 Women’s World Cup: Poised To Reach New Heights
The spotlight is now on France as the Women’s World Cup approaches. As of April, 720,000 tickets had been sold, according to FIFA. And, in the U.S., all games will be available live on FOX Sports and the FOX Sports App.
The main sponsors of the Women’s World Cup represent an impressive roster of leading brands: Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai/Kia, Qatar Airways, Visa and Wanda, a Chinese conglomerate. In addition, Nike is sponsoring 14 national teams, Adidas is sponsoring six national teams and Puma, Umbro and Warrix are each sponsoring one national team. It seems national brands are finally catching on to the appeal of women’s soccer.
According to Caroline Parry of The Drum, “This surging interest in women’s football, and for that matter, the full spectrum of women’s sport, has been a long time coming, and there is still a long way to go.”
Outside of their official Women’s World Cup sponsorships, some of the top sponsors are leveraging the Women’s World Cup excitement:
- Visa launched their “One Moment Can Change The Game” campaign, sharing stories about women soccer stars.
- The Nike “Dream Crazier” campaign, launched during the Oscars as a sequel to their “Dream Crazy” spot with Colin Kaerpernick, was intended as a celebration of women in sport and featured some members of the USWNT.
- Nike unveiled the kits of their 14 sponsored teams during a global event at the Palais Brongniart in March. Each team’s kit was specifically designed for female teams for the first time ever. (In the past, the women’s kits were just scaled-down versions of the men’s kits.)
“Right now, we are seeing incredible momentum for women in sport, as athletes leading a movement of health and wellness,” explained Amy Montagne, Vice President and General Manager of Global Categories at Nike. “We are more committed than ever to using our brand as a catalyst, celebrating athletes, supporting sports and building the best products for women. The landscape of sport is expanding, and Nike is invested in inspiring the next generation of female athletes.”
Women’s Soccer Popularity Is Much More Significant Than Most Realize
More than 2 million people follow the USWNT on Twitter. The men’s team has comparable, but slightly lower, follower volume. According to Twitter, 60% of Twitter football fans are planning to watch the Women’s World Cup. And, based on a Nielsen study, 43% of global soccer fans are interested in women’s soccer. This last estimate equates to a fan base of 105 million. With FIFA’s goal of 1 billion viewers for this year’s Women’s World Cup, clearly the women’s soccer viewer base is significantly higher.
While the USWNT has built a following as a unit, some of the players are downright stars. Alex Morgan has 3.56 million followers on Twitter. Retired players Syndey Leroux Dwyer and Hope Solo are also followed by millions. And there is a long list of current and retired players – including Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz, Mia Hamm, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Ali Krieger, Carli Lloyd, Christen Press, Christie Rampone, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Wambach – who each have hundreds of thousands of followers. Combined, these 15 women have a Twitter following that tops 12 million.
And though not on the USWNT because she’s still too young, soccer star Olivia Moultrie – age 13 – already has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram and a Nike endorsement valued at $300,000. “It’s just a shift in women’s sports,” Moultrie’s agent Spencer Wadsworth of the Wasserman sports agency said of the endorsement. “You see it more and more now where women’s soccer is catching up to the men’s side, and there’s more opportunities for them.”
Who Is The Women’s Soccer Audience?
During the Women’s World Cup, it seems the entire U.S. population becomes fans of the sport. The same is true when our women are leading during the Olympic soccer tournaments.
The rest of the year, the women’s soccer audience is difficult to define, and there is limited public information available on this topic. Broadly, the women’s soccer audience includes:
- Soccer fans
- Soccer players, especially girls
- Families, especially including those with parents who previously played soccer
The Inconsistent Popularity Of Women’s Soccer Is Being Addressed
The ups and downs of women’s soccer viewership make it challenging for brands to calculate future ROI for women’s soccer sponsorships. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup promises to be a well-watched global event. Next year’s Olympic soccer tournament should also draw well, especially since women’s soccer has taken off in host country Japan. But 2021 and 2022 are gaps for global women’s soccer events.
COPA90 Has Made An Investment In Creating Continuous Visibility For Women’s Soccer
COPA90, the London-based, self-appointed “home of global football fan culture,” recently announced their first Global Executive Director of the Women’s Game. Rebecca Smith, former New Zealand soccer player, has been tasked with “integrating women’s football [soccer] across the whole of COPA90’s business. This initiative is part of the COPA90 “drive to give the women’s game visibility and ensure that women’s football [soccer] is part of the conversation 365 days a year.
Now Is The Time For Big Brands To Invest In Women’s Soccer
In comparison to other marketing opportunities, women’s soccer sponsorships can be a steal, because the sport is seeking both the financial investments and the big-name prestige that comes from strategic partnerships.
Especially for brands looking to make emotional connections with women and young children, women’s soccer sponsorships can have tremendous value. The brands investing in women’s soccer are seen as leaders and supporters of the women’s movement. They’re recognized for their roles in advancing the sport of women’s soccer and helping young girls and women follow their dreams.
But tournament, league and team sponsorships are not the only way to leverage the growing popularity of women’s soccer. Especially during the upcoming Women’s World Cup, find an opportunity to be part of the women’s soccer conversation. Learn more about the sport and the players, discover what makes women’s soccer and its fans unique and publicly support the movement.
In the words of Mia Hamm, “I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.” For brands targeting women, it’s time to light the women’s soccer match, as this fan base can no longer be ignored.
Looking For Innovative Ways To Attract Women To Your Brand?
Interested in learning more about men’s soccer? Click here to read “Soccer Scores Big In The U.S.: A Look Into The Audience Causing The Sport’s Rising Popularity And Marketing Potential.”
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