July 10, 2015 / By Bryan Harris
That laser-guided goal scored by Carli Lloyd from midfield during the USA’s rout of Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final last Sunday had more than just air and heat behind it.
Trailing the magical trajectory of the ball, which gave Lloyd a hat trick and her team an unsurmountable 4-0 lead once it blazed across the goal line, was the promise of opportunity and good fortune that may last well into the future for Lloyd, her teammates, the sport of soccer in this country and women’s athletics. Of course you can argue that the match was really over once Lauren Holiday registered the USA’s third goal minutes earlier, but Lloyd’s 50-yard blast was the resounding exclamation point on what will go down as a seminal moment in American sports.
No doubt, many of the millions watching the championship rematch between the USA and Japan, who met in a much closer, more intense confrontation during the 2011 World Cup Final (won by Japan), may think little more of women’s soccer until the next World Cup in 2019, but the true impact of the USA’s month-long march through Canada en route to its record third World Cup title will be lasting for many reasons that fans, media and especially sports marketers, should take note:
• The ratings on Fox for the final match were through the roof, making it the most watched soccer match on a single network in US history. With more than 25 million viewers, it surpassed the ratings for the 2014 men’s World Cup Finals and any of the US men’s matches in Brazil. Fox also generated $40 million in ad revenue for the tournament, far exceeding its estimate of $17 million. National pride and ideal timeslots were contributing factors, but the huge viewership and brisk ad sales reinforced the power and appeal of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) brand.
• Carli Lloyd became an overnight superstar. She outshined the bigger names (Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, etc.) and saved her best for the biggest moment. Visa took a bold step in signing her to a deal the week before the final match and more leading brands are sure to follow. If Lloyd can demonstrate the prowess that her teammates Morgan and Wambach, as well as the legendary Mia Hamm, have as brand ambassadors, she and others will continue to open the eyes and warm the hearts of marketers to the USWNT.
• With the 2016 Olympic Summer Games a year away, another tent-pole opportunity awaits for the USWNT. Winning the Olympic gold may not carry the weight of a World Cup title, but it is still a very big prize in women’s soccer, more so than the men’s Olympic tournament, which largely features under-23 stars from the competing nations. Most of the top players from this USWNT will again be on the world’s stage as the Red, White and Blue sets its sights on a fourth consecutive Olympic gold. A great opportunity for marketers in the build-up to Rio.
• With the tournament field expanding to 24 countries, there may have been concerns that the World Cup completion would be watered down. That, however, was not the case. The women’s game is growing more and more competitive around the world. Regional and global rivalries will continue to blossom and exciting new stars will emerge. This can only bode well for the future of the sport.
• The popularity of soccer at the grass roots level in the US has been growing for decades, especially among girls. The success of this 2015 USWNT will no doubt help maintain or even spur that growth further, much like the 1999 World Cup champions of Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. How many young girls (and their parents) who were dazzled by the power, skill and heart of the US Women will begin looking into soccer camps and other grass roots opportunities to nurture their newfound or growing passion for the world’s most popular sport? Lots.
• Soccer is here to stay, in case you haven’t noticed. Like the exploding popularity of the recent men’s World Cups, as well as the steady ascent of MLS, the growing multilingual broadcast options for foreign soccer competition and the success of European club summer friendly tours, this Women’s World Cup demonstrated the continued growth and fanaticism – yes, fanaticism – of soccer (or shall I say, football) in the US. I’m tired of hearing those who say soccer will never be “big” in this country. Since 2010, the number of adult soccer fans in the U.S. has grown by 34%, according to Adweek. Fans, media and marketers who have not recognized this (or are simply in denial) need to open their eyes.
• As reported in the New York Times, sales of women’s soccer merchandise on Fanatics.com were up 3,000% in the 24 hours following the US team’s win over Japan. By the next day, the site had recorded almost double the sales of the highest-selling day for men’s gear during the 2014 World Cup. Additionally, Fanatics reported that 65% of all sales for USWNT merchandise this year came from mobile devices, including 50% from smartphones, much higher percentages than most online retailers.
• The elevated levels of social media engagement during the World Cup speak to the fan passion around the USWNT. According to Amobee Brand Intelligence, there were more than 2.8 million tweets about the US women’s team and World Cup in the six hours after the finals, including 1.08 million Tweets around the hashtag #USA and 668,511 Tweets around the hashtag #USWNT. Nike, an official sponsor of the Team USA, was the most high-profile brand during the World Cup. Nike received 121% more mentions via digital channels than official FIFA sponsor Adidas. As for Carli Lloyd, she attracted 120,951 Tweets in the six-hour post-game period. By way of comparison to the MLB All-Star selections which were announced the same day, Lloyd was 201% more visible across 600,000 Web sites and social media than all 30 MLB teams combined.
• The National Women’s Soccer League, like its predecessors, the Women United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), has struggled for relevance. The USA’s win has generated a big spike in ticket sales recently, which should carry through for the rest of the summer. It remains to be seen, however, if the World Cup has a long term positive impact on the future of women’s professional soccer in the US. Even the legendary 1999 World Cup team could not provide enough momentum to sustain the WUSA for more than a few years. Perhaps national pride and the drama of a big international stage will always be the driving forces behind the appeal of women’s soccer in the US, but it will be interesting to see if what transpired Canada over the past month can generate greater appeal and demand for the professional game. The fact that US soccer now funds player salaries and the league does have at least one profitable franchise with a large fan base (Portland) gives the NWSL a better foundation from which to grow.
• The FIFA scandal will linger over the sport for some time and, no doubt, the sport’s global governing body must get its house in order before it can fully gain the trust and confidence of its corporate partners (or prospective partners) and other key constituents. The success of World Cup 2015, however, as well as the performance of Team USA, reinforced the fact that the passion, drama and beauty of the sport will shine through even the darkest clouds of impropriety.