Where were you when Lionel Messi made his debut with Inter Miami? For plenty of people, the answer is: watching the United States Women’s National Team team shut out Vietnam 3-0 in the group stage of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. To be precise, 5,261,000 million people tuned in, up 99 percent from the last equivalent (USA-Thailand) match in 2019. From a viewer standpoint, surges in numbers during the group stage of the Women’s World Cup likely won’t tell close to the whole story either, as it is projected that two billion people will tune in to the matches between July 20 and August 20. That means that over a quarter of the world’s population will watch the Women’s World Cup.
Women’s soccer is the event of the summer, and other numbers surrounding the tournament prove as much. The opening rounds of the group stage broke attendance records, with 42,132 fans showing up to watch New Zealand vs Norway, and 78,754 fans watching Australia defeat Ireland in Sydney. Prior to play, Australia’s national team, the Matildas, outsold the men’s team in jersey sales both during and since the 2022 Men’s World Cup.
Overall, in addition to selling 1.5 million tickets, the Women’s World Cup is set to generate $500 million and these feats can be at least partially attributed to increasing investments. For the first time, this year’s Women’s World Cup has 10 venues, 64 matches, 32 teams (up eight from 2019), two hosts, and $110 million in prize money (triple the pool from 2019).
It’s no wonder the Women’s World Cup is on track to become the best-attended and most-viewed women’s sporting event in history–invest in women’s sports and the payout grows exponentially time and time again.
There are many contributing factors that could point to such high numbers. The tournament’s expansion cannot be understated, and the fact that the Women’s World Cup is a global event in and of itself increases eyes. Then, there’s impressive marketing surrounding the WWC, including a mega-viral ad courtesy of French telecommunication company, Orange, that pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch on the viewer.
The first half of the ad shows highlights from the men’s team overlaid with dramatic music and exciting sound bites that are typical sports branding fodder for familiar audiences. However, halfway through, it is revealed that the viewer was tricked–the ad was airing women’s highlights that were photoshopped to appear as if the athletes were men.
There’s solid research to back up the spirit of the ad. Just days before it aired, a group of scholars published a piece in Sport Management Review on gender bias in soccer viewer habits that backs up what the ad likely set out to prove. Although viewers in the study preferred men’s soccer highlights, they only said so when they knew they were watching men. When the athlete’s features were blurred to obscure gender, there were no differences in viewer ratings.
Cara Hawkins-Jedlicka, a scholarly assistant professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University isn’t particularly surprised by the research and calls the French ad “incredible.” But even so, global advertising has its limits. “I don’t know if that ad would play in the US,” she said. “I think there is a large like soccer culture–women’s soccer culture, in particular–that actually thinks the women’s game is a little bit better than the men’s game.” One reason? “There’s a lot of complaints about the men’s game,” she said. “I mean, flopping is definitely one of them.”
Flopping in the men’s game has been a long-running stereotype and it’s perfect for social media, so much so that searching “flopping soccer” on Tik Tok reveals hundreds of videos mocking the practice with “Flop 10” Countdowns and other creative takes–all featuring male athletes.
J.J. Watt, a former NFL defensive end and husband of Chicago Red Stars forward Kealia Watt, praised female soccer players for playing the game without “embellishing” earlier this year on Pardon My Take.
“When I watch my wife play and I watch the women play, they pride themselves on not embellishing,” he said. “Like, they’ll have a broken leg and just keep playing.” He then discussed Lynne Williams who scored the game-winning goal in her debut for Gotham City FC earlier this year with one arm in a splint.
“I’m not one to pull myself out of the game,” Williams said afterward. “It’s an arm. I need my legs to play soccer, not my arm.”
Still buzzing about Linds Horan taking the foul. Telling van De Donk to “shut your f*cking mouth” then savoring vengeance with her Colorado Forehead of Justice. Incredible moment of skill, power and fury on field. Followed by respect and hugs between two club teammates off it ?? pic.twitter.com/7XkZke95sI
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) July 27, 2023
Another key difference that makes the USWNT so popular? The team’s success. The USWNT have won four of the eight World Cups played since 1991 and are going for a three-peat in Australia and New Zealand.
David Berri, a professor of economics and co-author of the academic paper on gender bias in soccer viewing habits, agrees that in terms of a team’s or sport’s popularity, “what fans care about is winning.” So although conventional wisdom might suggest that female athletes have to play like men to be popular–by, say, dunking in the WNBA–Berri disagrees.
“Dunking is not really all that relevant to the story,” he said. “The Phoenix Mercury are not gonna be that popular with Brittany Griner dunking because they don’t win anything. And so dunking’s not gonna change that. No one’s gonna go to a Mercury game and see their team lose by 20 points.”
By this logic, the USWNT not playing like the USMNT might actually be a good thing. Regardless of the style of play, fans truly care about outcomes. But well-organized teams can earn style points with fans as well.
“For me personally, the women’s game seems a little bit more strategic,” Hawkins-Jedlicka said. “I think the men’s game sometimes seems a little haphazard. I think the women distribute the ball better. I will take a Rapinoe corner kick over anything [so] when I went back to look at the [French] ad, I was trying to figure out if I could actually see if it looked more like the women’s game. And I think you can a little bit.”
Hawkins-Jedlicka emphasized that even though women might play a different style of soccer than men, that isn’t a bad thing, especially when typically, the underlying assumption when female athletes are compared to men is that they are inferior athletes because they play differently. What makes the French ad so interesting is that it seems to suggest the opposite. And, while the ad is eye-opening, holding women to the exact same athletic standards as men can sometimes be problematic.
These ideals underpin key conversations in women’s sports like the iconic “Battle of the Sexes,” showcases of softball pitchers striking out Major League Baseball players, today’s cries that the WNBA needs to lower the rims so the women can dunk more (aka, play more like the men do) and attract more viewers, or comparisons of Caitlin Clark to Steph Curry or even Simone Biles to Michael Phelps. Women shouldn’t have to play like men to be respected like men, but it is so often demanded they do. And while it could be argued that the French ad feeds into these stereotypes, Hawkins-Jedlicka has a different take.
“I think what they’re trying to say is like ‘you can’t tell that this isn’t the men’s game because of the level of play,’” she explained. “But I think some of us could probably tell that it isn’t the men’s game because the level of play is different.”
Different in the world of sports isn’t always a bad thing–and when it comes to women’s sports, we have to account for the fact that women’s sports operate on a much more recent timeline than men’s sports do. Plus, to Berri’s point about winning, the French ad makes a lot of sense when you look at the history of the French men’s national team that has won two World Cups versus the women whose best finish was fourth in 2011.
For the women’s French national team to be compared to the men isn’t to say that they have to play like men to be respected–it’s saying that they should be viewed as equals.
It’s a similar energy to the USWNT’s “equal pay for equal sport” motto, and these campaigns not only raise awareness, but promote critical thinking using sport as the vehicle to explain–and correct–complex societal issues. With the athletes at the forefront, this year’s Women’s World Cup is commanding attention to these issues of gender inequality around the globe in a profound way that will be remembered for decades.