As the United States sees record TV viewing figures for the Women’s World Cup, what progress can be seen in Europe for the popularity of the women’s game?
Four years ago, hosts Germany also saw record TV audiences with domestic figures of just under 17 million viewers for their quarter-final loss to eventual winners Japan. Although seen as a huge disappointment for a team that went into the game as holders and favorites, the 2011 Women’s World Cup tournament was regarded as a watershed moment for the national sport. Major tabloid Bild wrote at the time that women’s soccer was now ‘finally accepted by the masses’ – the emotional journey of a nation experiencing compelling victories and defeat through new, female protagonists going a long way towards selling the whole show.
That’s not to say the battle has been fully won. Even at the time, leading periodical Der Spiegel complained that the tournament was over-hyped and showcased tactical imitations copied from the men’s game that simply weren’t attractive at the women’s slower pace. Earlier this summer, the Women’s Champions League final, staged in Berlin, even suffered the peculiarly German irony of being held on ‘Männertag’ – Men’s day, May 14. The public holiday has long been an excuse for young men to haul crate-loads of beer to the nearest park and drink with a hangover recovery safely in the bag due to the long weekend.
In actual fact, the date was perfect and the Women’s Champions League final was a huge success.
Although many of the young men dotted around the surrounding Mauerpark (‘Wall-park’, in which the venue sits) did not know the game was happening, the event was a confirmation of footballing power for the host country. Live on national television, a 92nd minute winner from super-sub Mandy Islacker saw FFC Frankfurt keep the title in Germany for the third successive year (Wolfsburg were winners in 2013 and 2014), and become champions for a record fourth time.
The general PR of the event was also a success. For the sixth year in a row since the women’s tournament dropped its two-legged format, the men’s and women’s finals were held in the same city, with Berlin following Madrid, London (twice), Munich, and Lisbon in building profile through UEFA’s shared branding with the men’s game.
Although the actual venue, as in the other host cities, lacked the prestige and capacity of the men’s final (Barca and Juve played at Berlin’s Olympiastadium in front of more than three-times Frankfurt and PSG’s live gate this year, and the Bernabéu, Wembley, the Allianz Arena and the Estádio da Luz were similarly exclusive), the women’s game is clearly capable of selling tickets.
In November 2014, an England-Germany friendly at Wembley outsold the English national men’s side’s most recent friendly at the same ground, as 55,000 topped the 40,000 bored by Norway going down to a Wayne Rooney penalty two months earlier. More recently, the prospect of the two countries meeting in the World Cup final wasn’t lost on the respective national media the weekend before the tournament’s semi-finals either.
In the UK, the BBC Sport website maintained England’s quarter-final victory over Canada as its major headline story into the opening Monday morning of the beloved Wimbledon Tennis tournament, and in Germany, a week after Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Berlin and Frankfurt, public broadcaster ARD excitedly reported her grandson Prince William’s support for the English ‘lionesses’ on its dedicated tournament site.
But aside from the TV glamor of major finals and the gate receipts for Champions League host cities, the European game is showing genuine growth from the grassroots up. UEFA’s latest report on women’s soccer across its national associations shows that the continent boasts 1.2 million registered players – a fivefold increase in the last 30 years – in 51 national leagues. This is grounded on development in youth participation and training in refereeing and coaching qualifications, as well as female representation at the administrative level.
Despite Germany and England getting knocked out of the Women’s World Cup semi-finals, the women’s game in Europe will continue to prosper. Interestingly, UEFA reported that of the 49 European football associations with a national strategy for the development of the women’s game, 25 have a specific marketing strategy as well. This is a sign of things to come in what could be a huge growth industry. In advance of the Wembley friendly last November, the English FA’s national director Kelly Simmons dismissed unfair financial comparisons with the men’s game with a reminder that the men’s game has a 150 years of professional history behind it. Comparatively, the women’s professional game has barely begun.
Germany currently lead the way in Europe in terms of live match attendance (averages of 15,000 for internationals and 2,500 for club games), and whereas the men’s game may be coming to a point of market saturation – club responses to supporter protests on ticket prices for example recognize the limits of how far live gates, at least, can currently be pushed – the marketing strategists of the women’s game surely have a vast horizon to explore.
But the women’s game has no need to be seen through comparison with the men’s. As the fan base for the Germany 2011 World Cup showed four years ago, and Canada has experienced this year, the sport is well worth its viewing figures.
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