For women’s soccer to truly catch on it needs more than just momentum from what will undoubtedly be a landmark tournament in France
Women’s soccer is having something of a moment across the globe.
In Europe, awareness of the women’s game is at an all-time high as fledgling leagues begin to establish themselves in areas of the world that are already passionate about the sport.
In March, 60,739 fans watched a league match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. A week later, 39,027 showed up for a Juventus league game against Fiorentina. Earlier this month 43,264 watched Manchester City defeat West Ham in the Women’s FA Cup final.
Meanwhile, the National Women’s Soccer League continues to establish a foothold in the United States as it reaches its seventh season and looks to expand in 2020.
This all leads up to the Women’s World Cup in France, which is set to kick off next week. France, one of the favorites to lift the World Cup and home to the world’s best club team in Lyon, appears to be another country ready to be overtaken by a wave of interest in the women’s game.
“The viewers, the knowledge about French soccer, especially the women is incredibly different now,” said USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan, who played at Paris Saint-Germain between 2012 and 2016.
“The fact that it’s getting more and more popular is Europe is amazing, especially because it’s such a soccer culture in Europe.”
That culture has been dominated by men’s soccer for decades though and as U.S. forward Alex Morgan found during her time at Lyon in 2017, it isn’t going to simply change overnight.
“Playing there two years ago you saw that it was growing but there was still sort of that untapped potential as well, and I think that things were being held back a little bit culturally,” Morgan said.
“I think that this tournament can change a lot of people’s minds.”
There will undoubtedly be new fans drawn to the women’s game by the World Cup, and increasing cultural openness to women’s sports has brought us to what seems like a tipping point for women’s soccer worldwide. But there is only one thing that will ensure the sport continues to grow after a jubilant team lifts the World Cup trophy on July 7 in Lyon.
The World Cup has the power to create a flood of interest in the sport, but history has shown that kind of surge can’t be sustained on buzz alone.
In 1999 the Women’s World Cup came to the United States and generated massive crowds and money, as the U.S. team became a nationwide phenomenon en route to winning the title.
In the wake of that tournament, the Women’s United Soccer Association was formed the next year. Initially propped up by millions of dollars in investment, the WUSA went belly-up just three years later as investors grew skittish at the prospect of sinking more money into the league.
At the same time Major League Soccer, the men’s league formed in 1996, lost massive amounts of money and would have gone out of business in the early 2000s were in not for a huge injection of capital by a few owners. Today, MLS is thriving and looking to expand beyond 30 teams in the near future.
Quite simply, the women’s game needs more investors like those involved in MLS, and fewer like those involved with the WUSA.
“You’re getting these incredible moments but the thing that’s going to sustain that is big investment,” U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said.
“I think it’s investment, big-time investment, not just from a financial perspective but from an intellectual perspective as well.
“You have to build a solid business and oftentimes women’s sports has just bootstrapped so hardcore and the budgets are so tight that you can’t expect to have a business and increase your budget like a half a percent every year. That’s just not going to work.”
Rapinoe spotlighted two teams, one at home and one abroad, who can be examples for other owners to follow.
“I think that teams like the Utah Royals, teams like Lyon really put an investment in it and then the product on the field can grow with the product off the field.”
Outside of those two teams, in the French top flight, the NWSL, and other leagues in countries where there will be a flood of interest after the World Cup, a rising tide will lift all boats.
“In France having a competitive league will help,” Morgan said. “I think for now there are only two or three teams that can really compete at the top. Obviously Lyon is just incredibly dominant and just the best club team in the world, so it’s kind of getting the rest of those teams up to speed.
“For all of us it’s just continuing to create a stable and growing league in our own countries. In the U.S. we’re seeing that as well. We want to make sure that it continues to grow at a pace that’s not too accelerated but is not stagnant.”
The World Cup is going to be a huge event all over the world and will – once again – spark questions about whether the women’s game has truly arrived.
To get a real answer to that question, one only needs to follow the money.
“It’s exciting to have these huge crowds and the game growing as much as possible but I think the next step needs to be taken, otherwise you’re just going to get these exciting moments that don’t have any way to really be fully realized or sustained,” Rapinoe said.
“I’m hopeful for the next part of it.”
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