By Georgina Turner
July 08, 2011

This summer's Women's World Cup in Germany has caused quite the buzz, with one of the biggest stories being the gigantic television ratings. As well as selling out stadiums for all of its own games (and several others), Germany can boast average TV audiences close to those that watched the men's World Cup last year. By the end of the opening game against Canada, 18 million people -- a quarter of the German population -- had tuned in, and the figures for Germany vs. Nigeria were even better, up against the prime time market.

And it's not just because Germany is so good. Canada recorded its highest ever Women's World Cup audience, while more than 10 percent of the Swedish population watched Sweden vs. USA. Bars in China have been showing highlights, despite their own team's failure to qualify. All of this is being tentatively hailed as a watershed for the women's game. So it feels odd that in the US, where we saw the last and arguably biggest such moment, the figures aren't really comparable.

The first 16 matches averaged a 0.4 rating, with a jump to between 0.9 and 1.2 for USWNT games. That's double the average audience recorded by ESPN for the 2007 women's World Cup, when the games aired from China in the middle of the night, so U.S. viewers aren't bucking the trend for growth even though some obstacles (time difference, cable access) remain. But while other countries are hitting record figures, the U.S. has yet to get close to such levels.

Soccer is not the broadcast beast in the U.S. that it is in Europe. But last year, audiences for the men's World Cup were up by about 60 percent from 2006; USA vs. Slovenia, which kicked off at 10 a.m. ET on a Friday, was watched in almost four million households. It's also significant that the famed 40 million-strong audience for the 1999 Women's World Cup final was a great deal larger than the audience for the semifinal, which was, itself, far larger than those for the group games. It set the bar extraordinarily high.

Still, globally, women's soccer is more competitive and more watched than ever, and the USWNT is ranked No.1. It's not that the U.S. viewing figures translate to disinterest, but in the context of the past, and the blockbuster numbers elsewhere, they look odd.

This leaves two questions: first, what was so peculiar about 1999? And second, are we looking at the right numbers?

Officially, the FIFA Women's World Cup started in '91, but for many people the clock starts in '99, about the time Brandi Chastain put her penalty kick past China's Gao Hong. Chastain's joyous, unrestrained celebration, in unison with 90,185 people at the Rose Bowl, remains the most iconic moment in the story of women's soccer. Which is both a blessing and curse for members of the USWNT 12 years on. On one hand, "they know that that kind of buzz is possible," says Jenna Pel, who runs women's soccer fan site All White Kit. "On the other hand, they will always be held up to that impossible standard."

Impossible because the triumph of that summer was part of a meta-narrative that no future team could replicate: the 99ers were pioneers, emerging post-Title IX to lift women's sports from nothing to unprecedented heights. "They truly paved the way, and fought for everything they had," says Pel. "That carried a lot of weight, and Americans responded."

The idea of a team of ordinary heroes charmed the nation. "We can see ourselves on the field," Lain Ehmann wrote in The Boston Globe. "The women out there, even with their All-American good looks, highly trained muscles and 100 watt smiles, could be us."

Though the U.S. had won the first women's World Cup in '91, it was the gold at the Olympics in Atlanta in '96 that started the upward curve in public attention. A World Cup so soon afterward, back on home soil, elicited an amplified patriotism -- particularly in the wake of a horrible '98 World Cup for America's men, which included defeat to Iran (Iran!); the success of the women's team was doubly welcome. As Pel says: "The USWNT was the U.S. national soccer team."

The notion of packaging was crucial. Between Olympic success in '96 and the start of the finals in '99, Nike teamed up with Mia Hamm and made her a household name. (Of course, there were sizable commercial imperatives for Nike, with a potentially profitable World Cup on the way, but for the public, soccer was Mia Hamm.) Stick the sugar of a Nike campaign, the tang of triumph-over-adversity, and the punch of a World Cup in a cocktail shaker and you've got something bars in every state can sell. Despite everything, our glamorous amateurs are better than everybody else! Cheers!

By contrast, today it's the USMNT that gets the headlines, especially since it beat Spain (Spain!) at the '09 Confederations Cup. Those '10 viewing figures, which looked promising for all soccer, may instead signal a shift of attention.

"This is a relatively unknown USWNT squad to the average American fan," says Ryan Wood, assistant editor of Our Game magazine. "Relatively speaking, only Abby Wambach and Hope Solo have been heard of outside of the diehard USWNT fan base. You've got 14 first-time World Cup players this year."

It has been eight years since a world tournament was played in America (interestingly, Megan Rapinoe's goal celebration seemed almost designed to push star-spangled buttons from afar). There is no Hamm-style superstar. Though professional women's soccer has been beset by difficulties, the casual viewer no longer sees players in the context of struggle; they are "athletes" in a more humdrum sense than the 99ers. At the same time, the U.S. has lost its aura of invincibility. Germany is the world force. Mexico, England and Sweden have all beaten the U.S. in the past year. They're doing this professionally and they're not even the best? What else is on tap?

"The USWNT used to be an example of American exceptionalism, and now it isn't," says Jennifer Doyle, associate professor at UCR and author of the From A Left Wing blog. "This is a good thing, and it should make for more interesting stories. But to appreciate them, you need to actually know the story of the current squad, as well as the stories of their opponents." For Doyle, the media hasn't worked out how to produce these stories (notice the current USWNT Nike campaign still refers to "Mia"). Pel, however, has doubts about how they would play to a broad audience, accustomed to tales of world domination.

In any case, none of the networks broadcast the U.S.' World Cup qualifying campaign, though the unexpected defeat to Mexico got some attention. Hair-pulling in a 2009 regional university match got more coverage than the average Women's Professional Soccer game. According to a study of TV sports broadcasting by the Centre for Feminist Research (CFR), air time dedicated to women's sports has actually dropped since '99, from an already trifling 8.7 percent to a minuscule 1.6 percent. "Around the world, more women play now than in '99," Doyle points out. "I have no explanation for the drop in media coverage of women's sports."

In a recent article for the Financial Times, Simon Kuper presented an interesting theory on those stats: that men watch sports to see "ideal men", whereas women turn to glossy magazines to see their own ideal image, leaving women's sports without an audience.

But why assume that the drop in media coverage of women's sports reflects a lack of audience interest? There is an arguably more straightforward take on the CFR statistics: the coverage doesn't serve any audience.

ESPN has made a considerable commitment to broadcasting the tournament across its channels, using some of its best commentators. And feedback on the coverage has been overwhelmingly positive. It's the years in between major tournaments, when virtually nothing is broadcast by anyone, that do the damage. Tournaments arrive with virtually no immediate-to-mid-term backstory to give them color. This doesn't encourage anything like the kind of audience, in terms of numbers and behavior, that well-reported sports get. Do you buy your favorite cereal from a store that only stocks it once in a while?

To gauge the U.S. or even worldwide, audience, more accurately, perhaps it is online, not in the overnights, where we might do so more reliably. Accessing and sharing multiple sources (from both journalists and fans; Pel reports a 300 percent rise in visits to her site and hundreds of new followers on Twitter), savvy users have created DIY coverage with a depth of opinion and information that short-term, finite programming simply cannot match. On the Guardian's daily women's World Cup blog, readers have used the space "below the line" to collaboratively produce match reports for the benefit of those without the subscription TV channels required in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. This is World Cup 2.0.

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