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For broadcasters, Women’s World Cup rallies record audiences with an event and a cause

Media member interview Spanish midfielder Amanda Sampedro. (Fernando Villar/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Telemundo, the Spanish language broadcaster for the Women’s World Cup in the United States, has been running promotional commercials for the summer tournament featuring the tagline “Unstoppable Women.” The spots highlight statistics such as that 50 percent of global professional female soccer players receive no pay; that one-third of them need a second job to make ends meet; that nearly 20 percent report some form of gender discrimination.

The campaign features players such as American striker Christen Press and Argentine goalkeeper Vanina Correa talking on camera about needing to maintain a second job. “It is very difficult,” Correa says in Spanish directly to the camera.

“It couldn’t be a better moment to showcase women,” said Karen Barroeta, the network’s head of marketing. “What we want to do is own the narrative of empowering women because it helps promote the visibility of the tournament.”

As the world readies for perhaps the most anticipated match of the World Cup — Friday’s quarterfinal showdown between the United States and host France in Paris — the backdrop for the tournament is the activism of many of its participants. And for a global audience that experiences the event mostly through television, it’s impossible to miss.

Johnson & Johnson launched a campaign called “Because She Can.” The Mars company unveiled a #SupportHer hashtag to “galvanize fans Across UK.” And in Australia, Hyundai launched a “Thank You Letters” campaign, in which several members of the Australian national team give thanks to mentors who have aided their careers.

The brands are only taking their cues from the teams participating in the tournament, which FIFA expects to be viewed by a record 1 billion people. Buoyed by such growing interest in the sport, a number of teams have pressed their national federations for more equitable treatment in recent years, including the United States’ high-profile lawsuit for equal pay, the Spanish team rising up against an abusive coach, and Australia canceling a summer tour to protest low pay. Such actions have elevated this World Cup from an increasingly popular athletic event to something of a cause to rally around.

“The me too movement is a trend line through the tournament,” said Karen Weaver, a sports business professor at Drexel University. “It’s a moment for women’s empowerment, both in sports and beyond, and it’s coming through on multiple levels. Advertisers and TV platforms want to tie themselves to that message and what this tournament stands for right now."

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Four years ago, when the Women’s World Cup was played in Canada, the tournament opened with complaints about its games being played on artificial turf fields, which affect the quality of play, present higher injury risks and have never been used in men’s World Cup games. There were also half as many games on broadcast television in the United States as there are this year. But as the American women blazed through the tournament and set an American soccer viewership record in the final (25.4 million), the event transitioned in the United States from one that was treated as a complement to the men’s tournament to a premier showcase on its own.

The ad sales for 2019 back that up. Four years ago, at this point in the tournament, according to a person with knowledge of the sales, broadcaster Fox was still selling ads on a game by game basis. This year, the network is virtually sold out.

As for specific rates, the average 30-second ad cost around $40,000 when the American team met Colombia in the round of 16 in 2015. When the United States played Spain this week, the source estimated that number ballooned to around $140,000, similar to the price of a 30-second spot for the U.S. men’s round-of-16 match in 2014.

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The women’s tournament has the potential to offer advertisers something else, according to Minal Modha of London-based research firm Ampere Analytics: a broader audience. Nearly 4 in 10 followers of women’s soccer in Britain are women, a higher number than men’s soccer.

“That means FIFA can look beyond just male-focused brands for sponsorships,” Modha said. “It’s a much bigger range.”

Added Andre Schunk, who has been involved in advertising at several World Cups as part of the global marketing team at sports marketing firm Octagon: “World Cups draw the biggest brands, spending their biggest dollars with their biggest talent. What you see this year is they are investing in big campaigns and approaching the women’s tournament the same way as the men’s World Cup in terms of the power of the platform. That’s a material change.”

When Fox paid FIFA $425 million in 2011 to broadcast the men’s and women’s tournaments from 2015 through 2022, this wasn’t the expectation.

“We didn’t realize what we had,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox executive turned media consultant. “Nobody envisioned it being this big when we first got the Women’s World Cup.”

But the confluence of the U.S. team taking off, becoming a juggernaut on the field and a rallying cry off it — as well as the recognition that the women’s competition is every bit as compelling as the men’s game — has helped Fox to give the tournament more visibility. The network aired 22 group-stage matches on broadcast TV vs. 11 four years ago, which has helped TV viewership for the early part of the World Cup outpace four years ago, despite those games being played in prime time in the United States. (Tournament-to-tournament comparisons are impacted by time zones, matchups and broadcast vs. cable schedules.)

Women’s World Cup bracket

Through the group stage, average viewership on Fox was 969,000 per game, up from 916,000 four years ago and from 559,000 eight years ago, when the games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2 from Germany. Round-of-16 telecasts averaged 1.7 million on Fox, up from 1.1 million four years ago.

The American players have taken notice.

“We’re interested in all those TV numbers and seeing how many people are watching and tuning in, and we felt like this was going to be the biggest World Cup that we’ve had,” Megan Rapinoe said at a Thursday news conference. “I think every World Cup does that, especially in the women’s game, which seems to be growing so exponentially every year.”

Around the world, there have been a number of notable milestones for viewership. France’s opening match against South Korea was the most-watched women’s soccer game in French history, drawing 10.6 million viewers, nearly half of TV’s nationwide. Airing on the popular free-to-air Globo station, Brazil’s round-of-16 match against France was viewed by more than 35 million people in Brazil, the largest domestic audience to watch a women’s soccer game, surpassing the 2015 World Cup final in the United States.

“What we’re seeing, first in 2015 and now this year, is that with this tournament if you build it, they will come,” said Crakes, the former Fox executive. “If you put the resources and the infrastructure behind it, whether you’re an advertiser or a network, the response is going to be there.”

He added: “And in the United States, that means you get to wrap your arms around these women and the flag at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”