Record TV audience will be great, but it’s still all about building base

By Paul Kennedy, @pkedit

One of the big winners when the USA beat Germany, 2-0, in Tuesday’s semifinals at the Women’s World Cup was Fox.

If the last two U.S. finals are any indication, that U.S. victory could be worth an extra 10 million viewers for Fox on Sunday when the USA faces Japan in the final.

That bump between the audiences for the semifinal and final — 14.1 million in 1999 and 10.1 million in 2011 — could set up Fox to approach the all-time viewing record for a soccer match on a U.S. network.

Already, Fox has built its base by more than 5 million viewers for its U.S. coverage since the start of the tournament. The 8.4 million viewers who watched on Tuesday night represent a record for a non-final women’s game on U.S. television and rank behind only the audiences for the USA-China final on ABC in 1999 (17,975,000) and the USA-Japan final on ESPN in 2011 (13,458,000).

As I wrote in May, Fox is primed to break the U.S. viewing record set last year when 18,220,000 viewers watched the USA-Portugal World Cup game on ESPN. (Including the Univision viewers and those who watched streamed coverage of the match, the total viewership for USA-Portugal exceeded 25.5 million.)

If you add another 10 million viewers to the 8.4 million who watched on Tuesday, that would put Sunday’s game on course to smash both the all-time U.S. viewing record as well as Women’s World Cup viewing record set in 1999.

It would be a huge coup for Fox and the women’s game if the record is broken. The 7 p.m. ET kickoff works in Fox’s favor to draw from a wider television audience — indeed, favorable time zones have been a huge plus throughout the 2015 Women’s World Cup — though that will be somewhat mitigated because the final will be played for the first time on Sunday of a July 4th weekend when many families are traveling or just returning home.

Just like in the men’s soccer — where winning a knockout game at the World Cup translates into an extra game the USA plays and adds millions of new viewers — Sunday’s final will draw millions of casual viewers — which is great for Fox and its advertisers.

That’s important for exposing viewers to women’s soccer and its stars but not as important in the short term as building the base. Thanks to Fox’s heavy promotion of its Women’s World Cup coverage, the audiences for last five U.S. matches in Canada rank as the top non-final women’s soccer audiences in history. Throw in Fox’s superb pre-game and post-game and evening wrapup shows from its studios in Vancouver, and that’s more than twice as many fans as ever before getting wrapped up in the drama of the U.S. women on their road to the final.

The U.S. women were a big hit in 1999. The 11.4 household rating — 11.4 percent of all households with televisions were watching — for the final at the Rose Bowl is the highest rating ever for a soccer game — and by today’s standards a remarkable rating for any program. The U.S. women’s national team was on the cover of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated — the only time the same subject graced the cover of those four publications in the same week.

Their fame was fleeting, though. A six-game celebration tour in 1999 averaged 30,000, but the next year the U.S. women averaged only 13,000 for 16 home games. The first attempt at a women’s pro league — WUSA — was a spectacular failure. Owners burned through $100 million and the league folded after its third season, days before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Win or lose, another post-Women’s World Cup tour kicks off in August. Tickets for the second of two U.S. games against Costa Rica in Chattanooga, Tenn., sold out in less than a week. As many as 10 games will be played in the aftermath of the Women’s World Cup. They will follow what were great crowds in St. Louis in April and for the three send-off matches in May. That’s the growing base showing up in numbers.

Still, the challenge remains turning those new women’s soccer fans into NWSL fans, willing to show up week after week.  The NWSL has the greatest players in the world but struggles to draw more than a few thousand fans a game in every city except Portland, where the fan experience for the Thorns is as good as at any MLS game. Frankly, women’s pro soccer would not survive but for the support of U.S. Soccer, which subsidizes the salaries of national team players.

MLS has those hard-core fans the NWSL so desperately needs, but it took years and years of investment by owners willing to absorb huge annual losses and build soccer stadiums to create the fan experience that makes MLS soccer — now in its 20th season — so saleable.

The good news for women’s soccer is that it is growing its base — thanks to Fox and its Women’s World Cup coverage — but it will need the same commitment of owners to ride out years and years of heavy losses and turn women’s pro soccer into a viable proposition.

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