July 10, 1999; Pasadena, CA, USA; Members of the US soccer team parade around the Rose Bowl carrying the American flag after defeating China to win the Women’s World Cup. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

The 1999 World Cup was a breakthrough moment for women’s sports. The United States Women’s National Team and the tournament itself was the sports story of the year. In many ways, it was a cultural touchstone that defined the decades of work to grow women’s sports and the decades of continued growth that would come afterwards. Given the ratings success and cultural impact, the 2024 NCAA Women’s Tournament may be remembered in the same way. 

Few things go together like March and basketball and this year’s tournament was the treat of a lifetime for fans of women’s sports. The numbers say as much–although women’s sports is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the world, viewership was truly historic for women’s college hoops this postseason with fans watching over 4.8 billion minutes of women’s college basketball, just one of numerous ESPN records broken over the course of the women’s tournament.

An average of 18.7 million viewers watched the championship between South Carolina and Iowa—an 89% increase from the 2023 women’s championship and up 285% from 2022–for the most-watched women’s basketball game on ESPN and the most-watched basketball game on ESPN for men’s and women’s college and pro leagues since 2019.

It’s no secret that women’s sports have been gaining momentum lately and we’ve seen this happen before, but in a different sport—much like women dominated March Madness in 2024, the USWNT made huge strides in viewership and exposure in 1999, a feat that would have been impossible just 30 years prior in the pre-Title IX era.

The games were aired on ABC and the network was shocked by the results of the final in particular. The WWC final garnered what was considered an “astonishing” 13.3 rating—more than double what the network projected for the game. An average of 40 million viewers watched some or all of the game, outperforming the previous two men’s World Cup finals as well as the 1999 NBA Finals, and the “controversial” photo taken of of Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off after her game-winning penalty kick is still considered one of the most iconic Sports Illustrated covers today.

The iconic Brandi Chastain Sports Illustrated cover from the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

”It’s very gratifying to know that huge events still have the power to bring in huge ratings on network TV,” said Mark Mandel, a then-spokesman for ABC, after the final. ”Clearly there are still opportunities for networks to bring in huge numbers when games are highly dramatic.”

The 1999 WWC essentially put women’s soccer on the map and showed the world that women’s sports could draw massive crowds and ratings—even more so than men. Today, with continued pushing for increased coverage, exposure, and funding, women’s sports as a whole are still just beginning to realize their potential and sports media has improved for it. So much so that two of the biggest stars in college hoops–Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark–have been compared to two of the NBA’s best: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively.

Sports are comparative by nature–it’s why we have statistics, standings, and rivalries–so it makes sense that when big stars take the stage, fans like to look to the past.  However, what gets lost in this comparison is the context that surrounded these athletes. While Bird vs. Johnson was must-watch TV that revitalized the NBA, a hugely unpopular league in the 1970s, the same can simply not be said for the modern-day WNBA, which, like the rest of the women’s sports industry, is only scratching the surface of what it’s capable of. 

There are some good parallels in this comparison though. The NBA didn’t really take off until the 1980s, thirty years after its first game, thanks in large part to the Johnson/Bird rivalry. The WNBA will be entering its 28th season in May, on the heels of one of its most popular years yet with plenty to look forward to in 2024—notably, a likable Las Vegas Aces team vying for a third-straight championship, and a Steph vs Sabrina three-point rematch in the works (with the potential additions of Caitlin Clark and Klay Thompson). Women’s basketball may well be entering its golden era thanks not only to Clark and Reese, but to increasing investment, exposure, and resources that have recently been allocated to women’s basketball–even if there’s still a long way to go to fully close the equity gap.

Even more encouraging for fans of women’s sports is the fact that history is on the side of women’s basketball, as the same springboard momentum we’re witnessing today happened in women’s soccer in 1999, just shy of 30 years after the most monumental piece of legislation surrounding women’s sports was passed. 1972 marked the passing of Title IX, the educational amendment that mandated that federally-funded educational institutions could not deny anyone access to education and educational activities (including sports) at federally-funded institutions on the basis of sex. 

To say that Title IX changed the game for female athletes is an understatement, but it still took decades after its passing for advocates of the law to see the fruits of their labor. Although sports participation among young girls exploded right off the bat–before Title IX, under 300,000 girls and women played sports and by 1977, that number ballooned to 2,000,000–female athletes in the wake of Title IX faced similar barriers that female athletes face today: a lack of respect and investment, coupled with general sexism that saw women in sports as threats to men who saw sports as an inherently male domain.

Enter 1999. Although there had been massive developments in women’s sports before then–the WNBA was freshly launched, the UConn/Tennessee women’s basketball rivalry was in full swing at this point, UCLA softball was in the process of winning its eighth national championship with heated competition from Arizona, and the USWNT had already played in the most-watched women’s sporting event in history at the time in the 1996 Olympics–the 1999 Women’s World Cup is largely regarded as a cultural turning point for women’s sports.   

Much like the 2024 women’s March Madness tournament, there was no shortage of storylines leading up to the 1999 World Cup. Not only was it the inaugural event, but it was hosted on American soil coming off a wildly popular 1996 Olympics, and showcased domination in women’s soccer like the world had never seen. The USWNT didn’t only win–they dominated every team on their way to the top, outscoring opponents 49-0, not unlike Dawn Staley’s 2024 South Carolina team who went a perfect 37-0 before taking the championship this year. 

After the USWNT’s Olympic win, the American public took note and soccer’s popularity exploded, particularly for women and girls. In 1971, the year before Title IX was passed, only 700 girls played soccer in the U.S. That number ballooned to 270,000 in 2000, which accounted for over 40% of female high school athletes. Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain became household names much like Clark, Reese, Paige Bueckers, and Juju Watkins are today.

The effect was so profound that although the 1996 Olympic field featured only eight teams, the WWC was expanded to 16 teams. In June 1999, 460,000 advanced WWC tickets sold and that July, 90,000 fans gathered in the Rose Bowl stadium to watch the “largest women’s sporting event in history,” the WWC final, which culminated in the USWNT taking down China for the inaugural win. 

Although the success felt almost instantaneous, it took decades of advocacy, activism, and investment for women’s soccer to truly take off over twenty years after Title IX passed.

It’s a familiar theme in the sports industry–progress in sports doesn’t happen overnight for men’s or women’s leagues. Decades before Larry Bird and Magic Johnsin squared off, the NBA was on life support–in its first few seasons, teams had to reduce their travel schedules because the league was losing so much money. This context is why so many women’s basketball fans today are frustrated with the barrage of internet trolls, commentators, and just plain haters who claim that nobody cares about women’s sports or that women’s sports aren’t as popular as men’s sports.

Every women’s sports season can be as electric as the 1999 Women’s World Cup or this past season’s women’s March Madness tournament if offered the same exposure, opportunities, and funding as men’s leagues.

2024 NCAA Women's Tournament South Carolina
Apr 7, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes in the finals of the Final Four of the womens 2024 NCAA Tournament at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an unfortunate shadow that follows women’s sports through no fault of the athletes, coaches, and media members who make women’s sports great: consistently, these leagues have had to prove their worth before being granted an opportunity, while it is often assumed that men will succeed by default. It’s unfathomable that as recently as the 1970s, even the most crucial NBA games were aired on tape delay, showing the demand for even the top men’s sports leagues wasn’t always as high as it is today. It’s easy to forget these details today, but they’re crucial to remember as women’s sports continue to grow.

Thus, the history surrounding the 1999 Women’s World Cup teaches us a key lesson when it comes to women’s sports: if you build it (and really fund it), they will come, as the superstars of women’s sports have proven time and time again. And although historically, women have had to show the numbers before getting support, that work has already been done for decades now.

Women’s sports is a booming business–and it would have been immensely profitable and popular all along if not for the gatekeepers who have relegated women’s sports to the edges of sports media—like just last year when women’s March Madness teams only received 38% of total news volume compared to their male counterparts.

So instead of comparing athletes to athletes, we should be comparing eras to eras when we talk about March Madness 2024. We’ve known since the 1999 Women’s World Cup that the best time to invest in women’s sports was decades ago. Luckily for women’s basketball, the second best time is right now.

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.