As defending champions of the Fifa Women’s World Cup and a three-time winner in the last seven tournaments, the US women’s national team enters the 2019 event beginning June 7 in France with heavy expectations and momentum.
It is an historic time in women’s soccer as it steadily rises to new levels of popularity globally, both in terms of spectator interest and corporate sponsor support. But for the US women’s squad, their dominance in the sport arrives at a critical juncture for women’s soccer and women’s sports overall – with continued debates over pay equality with men, challenges to build American fan interest in the WWC following the US men’s team failure to quality for last year’s Fifa World Cup, and ongoing debates on how best to capitalize on the women’s team’s brilliant success.
The foremost flashpoint has been an ongoing battle over the imbalance in prize pools and pay rates between the men’s and women’s World Cup draws. This year’s overall prize pool money in France is $30m (€27m), double the amount in 2015, when Canada played host to the tournament. But that sum still pales compared to last year’s men’s World Cup in Russia, where the prize money pool was $400m.
Former US goalkeeper Hope Solo recently told British press that “male chauvinism is entrenched in our global federation and these disparities are a reflection of that.” But even before outspoken Solo’s last remarks, the women’s team had already acted domestically, filing a lawsuit against US Soccer in the US District Court in California, alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination” not only related to pay but other elements such as travel accommodations. And the upcoming World Cup games will happen with this legal battle occurring in the background.
“The female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts,” the lawsuit reads in part. “This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players – with the female players, in contrast to the male players, becoming world champions.”
US Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said in an open letter response that he was “surprised” by the complaint, and maintained that the current agreement with the players is “fair and equitable”. Resolution on the case is at least several months, and perhaps years, away.
Meanwhile, the women’s team is also continuing to push for heightened media exposure. Fox, which holds the US rights to both the men’s and women’s World Cups through 2026, plans to show all 52 matches live in the US, similar to its all-live programming for the men’s tournament last year. Twenty-two of those games will be on broadcast television, more than any WWC ever, with 27 more on FS1 as part of a programming plan of more than 800 total hours of coverage across linear and digital platforms, including two daily shows from Place du Trocadero in Paris.
Such an investment of time and resources will be critical for the women’s game, said Marla Messing, president and chief executive of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
“We had all our matches on television [in 1999] and it helped build interest as the tournament progressed,” she said. “That importance has not changed, and now with streaming games, you are seeing an extension of that.”
Compared to 1999, though, the US women’s team has the advantage of social media to boost their profile. And the squad has been adept in this area. Star forward Alex Morgan alone has nearly six million followers on Instagram.
“The ability to tactically utilize social media to both disseminate information and build brands, especially those of individual players on a global basis, will be vital in order for the continued growth of the women’s game,” says David Carter, associate professor of sports business at the USC Marshall School of Business.
It is on Twitter that much of the social media action around the WWC will be concentrated. The platform will feature every tournament goal moments after it is scored, and will supplement that integration with Fox Sports with additional shoulder content before and after matches, including athlete features and memorable moments from prior tournaments.
“We acknowledge that sports fans all over the globe want, and deserve, more coverage of women’s sports. Yet the content continues to be under-served,” says TJ Ashedola, Twitter head of US sports partnerships.
For Twitter, such efforts follow similar initiatives with larger entities such as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
“The Women’s World Cup is certainly one of those properties that our users are excited about, and our objective is to feed their passion,” Ashedola says. “This presents a huge opportunity for Twitter.”
The US women’s team dominance has also helped create a group of a dozen official US Soccer sponsors that includes top-tier brands like AT&T, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson. All are paying upward of $1m per year, with new arrival Volkswagen, designated as the federation’s exclusive presenting partner, paying just under $7m annually in a deal facilitated by Major League Soccer entity Soccer United Marketing.
“Our program is about helping to grow this great sport in the US” says Scott Keogh, Volkswagen Group of America president and chief executive. “The first step is making it easier for women to stay with the sport and pass on their wisdom and passion and love to the next generation of players.”
But even with all that heightened media and sponsorship exposure, does that extensive legacy of the US women’s team success serve as a double-edged sword? And could American viewership flag if there an early exit by the US team? Back in 2017, Fifa president Gianni Infantino placed an aggressive global target of one billion in total TV viewership for the 2019 tournament, up from 750 million for the 2015 event, and US eyeballs are a key component in those numbers.
Messing, however, believes the American viewing audience will still show up in force.
“We’ve enjoyed very good results, and there are the obvious expectations,” she says. “Should the American women hoist the trophy in France, it will be an added bonus. There is well-entrenched significant corporate sponsor support, as well as a tremendous social media following. So as long as we play well and advance to later stages, I don’t feel coming back home without the crown will have a significant negative impact on its popularity here.”