With the World Cup now long behind us, the promise of a new era for female representation in the sport beckons. The USA’s victory over the Netherlands in the final was a well-deserved outcome, and despite England’s chances for a World Cup victory being dashed by the eventual winners in the semi-finals, hope for a new attitude to the women’s game remains.
The viewing figures for the tournament surpassed any previous competition; England’s victory over Norway to progress to the semi-final attracted a peak audience of 7.6 million viewers. By contrast, the men’s Cricket World Cup, which took place at the same time, received an average viewing audience of 550,000; despite the tradition of cricket as a typical summer sport, and the fact that the world cup was held in Britain, the tournament has apparently failed to capture the public’s imagination in the same way which women’s football, usually underrepresented in the media, has.
As part of the BBC’s announcement last year to broadcast 1,000 more hours of sport every year, the increase of coverage of women’s sport is crucial. Where women’s football is concerned, it has truly been a case of out of sight, out of mind, and this tournament has thrown it into the limelight as never before. Having the World Cup on free-to-air television, with key matches playing on BBC1 at peak time-slots, raises the profile of the sport and allows it to reach even the most sceptical viewer. The stands themselves were largely full, with big matches such as the host nation France’s quarter-final against the USA yielding a packed stadium, and thousands of English fans taking the trip across the Channel to support their team.
What this tournament will mean for the future of the sport is an exciting prospect. Back in October of 2018, UEFA pledged to increase funding for women’s football by 50%, and asserted their aim to increase participation to 60 million by 2026; improving the accessibility of football for girls is a crucial step in widening the reach of the sport, and more funding for clubs at grassroots level will be key in dispelling the stigma around the women’s game. Most importantly however, this world cup will have succeeded in giving girls new role models, to have them aspiring to be the next Megan Rapinoe or Lucy Bronze, not merely a female Cristiano Ronaldo.
The matches in the latter stages of the tournament demonstrated the quality on show in women’s football; Ellen White’s elegant tap into the goal to put England 1-1 with the USA in their semi-final match was as thrilling a moment as one could hope for in a closely fought match which was reminiscent of the World Cup-fever from last summer. The USA have traditionally been the dominant force in women’s “soccer” – perhaps unexpectedly, given the somewhat sub-standard status of their men’s side – but this world cup has demonstrated the rise of the European force in the sport, increasing the global appeal of women’s football further still.
Will the publicity of this tournament – the global viewing audience of which is estimated to have been around 1 billion – increase awareness for the campaign for equal pay between genders in football? Hopefully, and England manager Phil Neville has been vocal about the change that needs to happen, revealing that the women’s team have to fly economy class to tournaments, where the men usually take a private plane. A Sporting Intelligence survey discovered last year that the salary of the 1,693 players in the top seven women’s football leagues in the world was roughly equal to the salary of a single male player, Neymar. Such stark figures will hopefully draw attention to the need for change, and if this competition has done anything, it has brought women’s football into mainstream consciousness and given a spectacle to rival last year’s summer in Russia.