The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why hardly anyone sponsored the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history

The U.S. national team celebrates its 5-2 victory over Japan in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup soccer final at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, B.C. (Frank Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

For the U.S. national team's stunning 5-2 win over Japan at the Women's World Cup on Sunday, a rout that made the Americans the first team ever to win three world championships, soccer's global governing body will award the team $2 million — about 5 percent of the $35 million FIFA gave to the German victors of last year's World Cup.

And while viewers made the Sunday match by far the most-watched soccer game in American TV history, little of that excitement could be seen in the tourney's marketing deals. Fox grabbed an estimated $17 million in ads from corporate sponsors of the elite women's matches — a tiny fraction compared to the $529 million ESPN pocketed in sponsorship revenue from last year's tournament in Brazil.

The World Cup matches over the last month proved to be a showcase of dominance for international women's soccer, led by the powerhouse American team and stars like Abby Wambach, the game's all-time leading scorer, regardless of gender. Attendance for the games in Canada surpassed 1.2 million, a Women's World Cup record, while U.S. ratings for the final game topped even the viewership of this year's NBA Finals or Stanley Cup.

But the financial details also showed how some of the ugliest imbalances between the sexes still prevail, even in The Beautiful Game. The Women's World Cup attracted far fewer of the marketing blitzes or mega-deals seen in men's tournaments, and far less of the cash or corporate support, a glaring loss for players and fans of the world's most popular sport.

Critics have slammed the tournament from the start for its strange disparity between men's and women's play. While male World Cup players ran across fields of grass, women's teams played on artificial turf, leaving them scarred with nasty turf burns (and sparking an ongoing gender-discrimination lawsuit from some of the top players last year).

[The terrible, sexist tweet that shows how far women’s soccer still has to go]

But the financial rewards for women's teams and their players at the end of the tourney revealed a more subtle gulf. The $2 million prize, though double the purse from the 2011 Women’s World Cup, is only one-quarter the $8 million that men's teams earned from losing in the first round of last year's World Cup.

Men's teams played for a total of $576 million in World Cup prizes last year, compared to the $15 million up for grabs from women's teams this year. For perspective, that's less than what FIFA paid to make "United Passions," the league's $27 million history film, which was almost universally panned and made only $918 (yes, less than $1,000) at the American box office.

FIFA has defended its bigger prize pool by pointing to the mens' tourney's size and age: The World Cup brings in $4.5 billion in direct revenue and has been played 20 times, compared to the seven Women's World Cups.

But the extra millions would have gone a long way for the National Women's Soccer League, America's most elite professional soccer corps, which set minimum salaries this season at $6,842 — about one-ninth what male players in Major League Soccer make at the low end, about $60,000.

It's not for lack of talent. The U.S. national team won the Women's World Cup two times before, in 1991 and 1999, the latter of which was immortalized when defender Brandi Chastain whipped her jersey off after a shootout win. Wambach's 183 international goals dwarfs those of the top U.S. men's player, Landon Donovan, who has scored 57.

Nor for a lack of name recognition: Popular players such as Wambach, Mia Hamm and goalkeeper Hope Solo have laid the foundation for rising stars like Carli Lloyd, who on Sunday netted the first hat trick in a World Cup final, for men or women, since 1966.

Yet even for all of their success, the players have gotten next to none of the backing or recognition of their male counterparts. Before winning the Golden Ball, an award for the World Cup's best player, Lloyd's few sponsorships included a deal last year with Usana Health Sciences, a seller of dietary supplements, and an agreement last week to represent Visa during the 2016 Olympics.

(For comparison: Last year's Golden Ball winner, Argentine star Lionel Messi, is one of the world's highest-paid athletes, expected to take home $74 million in winnings and marketing deals this year.)

That odd disparity has led some companies to change the way they roll out offerings for a growing pool of fans. For the first time this year, Nike started selling jerseys for the Women's World Cup-winning team in men's sizes, quashing a long-running double standard; men's team jerseys have sold in women's sizes for years.

Meanwhile, other changes have helped highlight just how far the sport still has to go. Video-game giant EA Sports said it will, for the first time ever, include women's national teams in its latest edition of one of the world's best-selling video-game franchises, FIFA 16.

The change was announced after years of petitions in which signers said they wanted young girls "to be able see themselves in the games they love." Still, only a smattering will be included: 12 women's teams are expected, compared to the more than 600 men's teams (and more than 16,000 male players) in last year's edition, FIFA 15.

[Women are one of the sporting-goods industry’s biggest-growing markets — and one of its most ignored]

The business of this year's Women's World Cup saw some big gains over the 2011 tourney. Fox aired 16 matches live with ads from more than 20 corporate sponsors, including Fiat and Nationwide Insurance, and brought in sponsorship revenue that was nearly three times as much as in 2011.

But companies that invested exhaustively in ad blitzes and social media around last year's tournament, like Adidas, proved staggeringly quiet during the Women's World Cup. And some of the ones who took up the slack, a FOX executive told Ad Age, were "non-traditional" advertisers relatively unseen in sports broadcasts, including grooming and personal-care brands like Clorox and Tampax.

Many companies, analysts said, remain skittish to spend money on a sport without the proven returns of a bigger spectacle, like professional football, or the market power other sports can command on shelves.

"The fan base is growing for the Women's World Cup, but it will take some more time," Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, director of the University of Oregon Sports Product Management Program, told the Oregonian. "Translating watching sports into buying sports products is more direct for men than women."

But others argue that it's all part of a bitter cycle: Women's sports are seen as lesser moneymakers, ignored in media and merchandising deals, given less dramatic coverage, fewer cameras, less airtime — all of which might help explain why the sport is overlooked in the first place. An updated 25-year study in the journal Communication & Sport last month, titled "It’s Dude Time!," found that women's sports were featured in about 2 to 5 percent of all sports coverage last year, less than even in 1989.

The women's tournament's strong ratings and increased visibility, analysts said, could compel more networks and sponsors to take notice. But for now, players and boosters of the sport may have to continue to fight for cash and recognition off the field.

"It’s like anything: There is always an evolution, there’s always a process to go through before equal footing is gained," U.S. coach Jill Ellis told the Guardian earlier this month. "I hate to say money is the driving factor in a lot of things, but this is a very popular sport. Sponsors understand it, the general public understands it, so hopefully the establishment takes note and understands that."