It took just 16 minutes for Carli Lloyd to secure her place in the recurring nightmares of the Japanese women’s national team. By the time she was finished, millions of Women’s World Cup final viewers hadn’t even turned on the game yet.
Lloyd and the US women’s 5-2 dismantling of Japan Sunday night drew the highest TV ratings of any soccer match (men or women) ever aired in the United States on a single network, according to preliminary ratings data from broadcaster Fox. Approximately 17 million viewers tuned for the final’s 7 p.m. EDT start, but that number swelled to about 21 million by 8 p.m. and just under 23 million by 8:30 p.m., when the game was just about wrapped up, according to TV Media Insights. Viewership peaked between 8:45 and 9 pm, as more people turned on the telecast to watch the trophy presentation and celebration in Vancouver, according to Fox.
The rating blew past previous records for all televised US matches: last June, 18.22 million viewers watched the US men‘s team tie Portugal. The 2011 final, which the US women lost to Japan, drew in about 13.5 million viewers for ESPN. The last time the women’s team won the World Cup, in 1999, about 13.3 million Americans watched on ABC.
As far as ratings go, Sunday’s match had a few key advantages over those games. Unlike 2011, the final aired on a major network, meaning a larger pool of viewers had access than to a cable outlet like ESPN. The 2011 final, too, was held in Frankfurt, so it aired in the US much earlier in the day. The American men, meanwhile, have never made it past the semifinals of the World Cup, which they reached in 1930.
Beyond those factors, however, is the fact that the US women, unlike the men, carry with them the outsized expectations that typically accompany a dominant world power. We’re happy with the men’s team when they make it past the group stages, but following two World Cup victories and multiple close calls, anything short of the trophy at this tournament would have been considered a defeat.
That feeling was fully evident in the tournament’s early days, when the US slogged through its group stage matches looking not quite like the offensive wrecking crew fans have come to expect. As the team struggled to find a rhythm up front, the defense carried the team from one draw or narrow victory to another. The offense didn’t catch up until the semifinal match against top-ranked Germany, when coach Jill Ellis reworked her lineup to a midfield-heavy scheme that left Alex Morgan as the lone striker and freed up Lloyd to go on the offensive prowl. That was bad news for Germany, and for Japan? Well…
Going forward, too, there are plenty of good reasons Team USA’s prowess as a TV draw should grow. Soccer is quickly surpassing American mainstays like baseball and football among youth sports leagues. This is the last World Cup for some of the US’s most recognizable faces, particularly Abby Wambach, but younger veterans like Morgan, Llyod,, and Megan Rapinoe, as well as newcomers like Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian, ensure that the team won’t want for star power.
And as Slate pointed out Monday, the focus on play and strategy during this team’s World Cup run indicates its level of acceptance (and scrutiny) in the sports world at large has come a long way since the 1999 team, who were regarded chiefly as a novelty and scrutinized for their looks and potential as role models for girls. Now, if FIFA can just get the turf, pay, and hotel rooms on par with the men in four years, the 2019 Cup in France could be yet another step forward for the women’s game.