Saturday, July 16, 2011

Women's World Cup TV Ratings

According to Soccer America, the best, yet still mediocre, American soccer publication around, the semifinal match between the United States and France last Wednesday got the highest-ever rating for a weekday Women's World Cup match. All those adjectival qualifiers — "weekday"; "women's"; "world cup" — made me wonder how the US-France game stacks up among other soccer matches.

In women's soccer, the all-time ratings leader by a huge margin, with 18.5 million households, is the 1999 WWC final between the United States and China. In that year, the organizers and sponsors of the tournament — the first Women's World Cup held in the United States — did a fantastic promotional job. Those of us who count as soccer fans still remember the ads from back then: "I will have two fillings."

The quality of play back then wasn't all that great. Most of the women's national programs in the world were newish things, with minimal organizational and financial support, but the '99 Women's World Cup was none the less a turning point for women's football, and not just in America. Here, though, ratings for three of the games were more than encouraging. The United States's come-from-behind win over Germany in the quarterfinal match was watched by two and a half million households; the semifinal romp against Brazil on the Fourth of July drew nearly twice that many, just shy of five million households. And the final against China six days later ... well, you know.

Two games from this year's Cup have broken into the all-time top five. The quarterfinal against Brazil, a much-anticipated match-up played last weekend, drew just under four million households to become the third-most-watched women's world cup match of all time; and the semifinal against France on Wednesday slides in just behind that, with about three and a quarter million households tuning in.

It's surprised me, how many people I know that have been watching these games. These are people who don't much give a hoot about soccer, and will take back a hoot over women's soccer, but they're following our national team now, and finding out how exciting a game it can be when played at this level.

So how does it compare with men's soccer in America?

Well, that 1999 Women's World Cup Final is still the leader in the TV ratings. More Americans tuned in to that match than have watched any other soccer match in history, men's or women's.

Coming second, with 14.5 million households, is the 1994 men's World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy, a tight match that was eventually resolved through penalty kicks. I suspect the game was widely watched not because of great intrinsic interest in soccer per se, but because it was being played in the United States and had been hyped out the wazoo after Brazil had barely beaten the upstart host team in an earlier round. That earlier match, which had Brazil squeaking by against our men, drew 13.7 million households and is the third most-watched soccer match.

Next, with 12 million households tuning in, is the 2006 men's World Cup final between Italy and France, famous mostly for being the final — and most ignominious — national-team appearance of Zinedine Zidane, the greatest player of his day. (Personally, I didn't watch that game. I had been so put off by the obtuse machinations of FIFA's officiating policies that I entirely quit watching the '06 World Cup halfway through the group stages.)

And rounding out the top five televised soccer matches is last year's US-England match, a so-so display of bare competence that drew 10.8 million households.

It would be pointless, I think, to deny that women's soccer is a much weaker draw than men's soccer — and men's soccer isn't all that great a draw in this country either, where Monday Night Football can routinely draw 17 million households, no matter how lame a match-up is promised. I'm sure that a lot of the difference in popularity between men's soccer and women's soccer is due to an ignorant assumption that women can't be as skilled as men at team sports.

And a larger part of it is probably due to that lack of organizational and financial support I mentioned. Most countries in the world still don't provide any real backing to their potential female athletes, in soccer or any other sport. In most cases, it's understandable: there are barely enough resources to back one national team, and men come first. (Whether it should be so is beside the point.) I don't see Somalia becoming a force in women's football any time soon; certainly not before they improve that nasty little starvation problem they've got going on.

But even countries that do provide support to their women's teams — and you can basically look at who's in this year's Women's World Cup to see who they are — provide that support at a much lower level than their men's teams. It's a function of popularity, and so a vicious circle.

The effect of that lack of support — the reduced training that it entails — explains one of the main differences between top-level men's games and top-level women's games. I've noticed in this world cup that, with a very few exceptions, female players are more likely to cluster around the ball like teenagers, a habit counterproductive to smooth, effective soccer. Young men on the path to professional clubs have this inclination trained out of them, but women's training, it seems, has not yet reached that point.

There is another fact that must be dealt with. While female athletes can be as technically skilled as male athletes — and some are; just look at the Japan-Germany match the other day — they aren't as physically strong or as fast as their male counterparts. We are still far, far away from the day when the best women's national team can beat a mid-table men's national team, or when the WPS champion can compete with a team like NAC Breda or Lyngby BK.

But then, they don't have to be as strong as men; they only have to be competitive with other women to make the contest interesting. Speed, though, is a slightly different proposition. The speed difference between male and female players is fractions of a second, but over the course of a 90-minute game, those fractions of seconds add up and make the women's game seem slower than the men's game.

There is a simple, if partial, fix for this situation. The rules of the game provide that the field of play can be anywhere from 100 to 130 yards long, and anywhere from 50 to 100 yards wide (provided that the length be greater than the width). Men's teams tend to make their fields as large as the stadium will accommodate, but if women's teams will mark out a field that is narrower, and maybe a little shorter, then the extra fractions of seconds that it takes a female player to gather in a ball, or close down an opponent, will disappear, and the game will be as fast-paced as that played by men.

Apologists for women's sports will decry that solution, saying that the fault lies not with the field but with the ignorant potential spectators. There is some truth to that, as I've already acknowledged. But if women's soccer is to grow into a commercially successful spectator sport, it will at some point have to cater to the prejudices of those potential viewers. It will have to take advantage of existing rules to make the game more entertaining, just as tennis requires less of its female players (and, I might argue, makes women's tennis more entertaining than men's).

Heather Mitts, for example...
And let's not overlook the fact that sex sells. Certainly the French know that; some of their players, I understand, have posed nude for publications in that country. (I haven't seen the pictures, but I'll just bet you there are some strategically placed soccer balls that keep you guessing.) The American team, for example, has some real babes playing on it, but mentioning that on television is like using the N-word. It's just not done. Too bad: a lot of guys might just tune in if they realized they were going to see some hot chicks sweating. And then maybe they'll get wrapped up in the sport instead of the players

1 comment:

  1. And now, ratings for the 2011 Final against Japan show that almost thirteen and a half million Americans tuned in to the game. That makes it the second-most-watched women's soccer broadcast ever, but only the 6th-most-watched soccer broadcast. Clearly women's soccer has a long way to go in acceptance by American sports consumers. So it's a good thing that, by the end of Germany '11, the US women's team were playing better soccer than the men have since their second-place finish in the Confederations Cup in 2009.

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