2015 WWC: Huge in the US, Sidelined in the UK

21 Jun

e089b863-fdcc-4194-a6b2-532014d5a58e-2060x1236A few days ago I brought you an article detailing why Brazil doesn’t care about women’s football. Here’s a similar article from The Guardian, focusing on a similar situation in the UK. You’d think the UK would be more progressive when it comes to football, and they are in some respects. Just not necessarily with developing their female players.

England played their most important women’s game for years on Wednesday, although you would have hardly noticed. Mark Simpson’s side needed a result against Colombia – arguably the surprise package of the 2015 Women’s World Cup – to make sure of their place in the tournament’s quarter-finals, and yet hardly a ripple was felt in the United Kingdom: the supposed hottest of football hotbeds. Even with the European season on its summer break, the women’s game still can’t find mainstream coverage.

But while England’s decisive final group game was broadcast back home on some TV backwater (live coverage was bumped to the soon-to-be online only channel BBC Three, with a DIY show instead shown on BBC One), the match was taken elsewhere as something much more significant. In fact, the Women’s World Cup – which is predicted to set a new attendance record of 1.25 million – is seemingly a big deal everywhere but the UK.

Nowhere is that felt more than the United States – where the success of the women’s national team is regarded with just as much gravity as the men’s side. Unlike in the UK, primetime broadcasters are concentrating on the Women’s World Cup, with interest nearly as high as it was for Jürgen Klinsmann’s team at last summer’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Traffic to the Guardian’s minute-by-minute reports reflects this equality too – there were twice as many readers in the US for the women’s team’s victory over Australia this month than there was for the men’s team win over world champions Germany.

And it’s not just in North America that the Women’s World Cup is considered a truly marquee event. Colombia has taken a contingent of thousands to Canada, with northern European nations like Germany, Sweden and Norway also boasting strong support for the tournament, both at home and on the ground. Even in France – a country which hasn’t always embraced the women’s game – best-selling sports newspaper L’Equipe splashed the national team’s 5-0 thumping of Mexico on the front page last week.

“In Sweden, the tabloid newspapers and TV stations have had extensive coverage of the Women’s World Cup,” explains Sven Bertil Liljegren, a journalist with Swedish broadcaster TV4. “In fact, for TV4 one of their best ratings ever was when the women’s national team played in the World Cup final [in 2003].”

So why is such a global event generally ignored by the United Kingdom? Some insist that the women’s game is indeed finding traction there, but coverage of this year’s Women’s World Cup has been scant. “It is not as if there is Premier League column inches to compete with,” says Laura Montgomery, manager of Glasgow City – a women’s soccer side that made the Women’s Champions League quarter-finals last season. “It is very frustrating that women’s sport continues to be denied anywhere near an equal footing in the media.”

Media figures would probably claim that interest in the UK does not justify widespread coverage, while those who are interested in women’s football might argue that the fanbase doesn’t exist because it isn’t given fair coverage. And without compromise that stand-off is unlikely to ever change. So why is it different in the United States – the world’s biggest media market?

Is the US so caught up in the Women’s World Cup because their team has a genuine shot at winning? After all, by the very nature of sport the best teams tend to have the most fans, attracting a higher degree of attention than those nearer the foot of the pyramid – in this case, like England. “We are a small country by population and when we are successful it automatically becomes interesting,” says Liljegren, elaborating on Swedish interest in its national team in Canada this summer. Would England boast a similar support if its national team had a chance at glory?

Of course, in the US, the time zone and proximity to host country Canada obviously helps – particularly with television ratings and travelling fans respectively – but the country’s enthusiasm for the Women’s World Cup stretches much farther back than just this summer. In fact, the 2011 final between the US and Japan set a new national record at the time as the most watched soccer match in cable history – with 13,458,000 viewers tuning in. And in a pre-cable age the 1999 Women’s World Cup final between the USA and China was watched by a staggering viewership of 17,975,000.

But how much of that is down to the success of the USWNT – and how much of it is down to the country’s consumerist culture? How big a part do sponsors play in the regard of the Women’s World Cup in respective territories? For instance, in the US Nike has made billboard stars and headline acts of players like Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan. Perhaps the UK struggles to engage in the women’s game simply because it doesn’t have the same celebrity attraction.

There is a general apathy towards international soccer in Britain, with the England men’s team in particular no longer the countrywide, common passion it once was. Given this, it’s possible that such an attitude has seeped into the women’s game from the men’s side. Or maybe British fans don’t care about the international game, regardless of whether it’s men’s or women’s.

In the UK, soccer is predominantly a male-orientated sport, with 12 men regularly participating in the sport for every one woman. Just 5.6% of British club members are female, with soccer just the ninth most popular sport among women (badminton, equestrian and athletics all rank higher). The same trend does not apply to the United States, where soccer is truly a unisex pursuit. This is especially true through school into college: in 2008, 48% of registered youth soccer players were female. By getting in at grassroots level, the women’s game in America has a grounding that England and the UK as a whole doesn’t.

“Most girls grow up playing soccer so all these girls are possibly looking up to the USWNT as role models,” says Caitlin Murray, who is covering the Women’s World Cup for the Guardian US. “Time zones also make a difference to ratings, but Americans care more about women’s soccer than other countries anyway. Americans don’t have antiquated and long-held views about women playing soccer the way countries with long footballing histories do. We’re not entrenched in the idea that soccer is a man’s sport.”

Perhaps the most fundamental – and most common – criticism of the women’s game, and by an extension this summer’s World Cup, is the quality of play. That point is debatable (and was brilliantly skewered by the Norwegian team in a parody video earlier this week) But even if those stereotypes were true, when it comes to international competition, where patriotism and tribalism are driving factors, the quality of football isn’t always a driving factor for fans. For instance, fans still support substandard national teams in the men’s game: look at Scotland and the long-suffering yet committed Tartan Army.

Of course, finding flaw with the Women’s World Cup doesn’t make you a sexist, but the deep-rooted disregard for the women’s game in the United Kingdom has origin in antiquated ignorance. It will take more than just a BBC One primetime broadcast for that culture to change, however, with the grassroots structure of the British women’s game lagging generations behind North America

The Three Lionesses (as they are dubbed, in reference to the men’s Three Lions nickname) face Norway in a crunch round of 16 tie on Monday (the same day as USA face Colombia), although the result will probably be bumped off the back page for another tedious Raheem Sterling transfer tale – or perhaps some paparazzi pictures of a holidaying Premier League star at a Dubai pool party. Because in England that is still considered football – while the Women’s World Cup is not.

– hopechaser

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