Rise of the Women’s World Cup: From playing for peanuts to 1bn viewers

Once sponsored by M&Ms, the tournament has come a long way, but still has a way to go

On the eve of the 2019 World Cup, with hosts France playing South Korea in Paris in the opening game on Friday night, it’s hard not to reflect on how far the women’s game has come since 12 nations gathered in China almost three decades ago to compete for what was only subsequently branded as the inaugural Women’s World Cup.

Among Fifa’s official marketing “partners” for the 2019 tournament are behemoths of corporations such as Visa, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Qatar Airways and Hyundai. Back in 1991, though, Mars was the sole major company to take an interest in the event, its target market most likely soccer moms back in the US of A who it hoped would take a shine to chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand – hence the event being lumbered with the less-than-snappy title of the “Fifa Women’s World Championship for the M&Ms Cup”.

It was only after the event that Fifa actually bestowed the title of “World Cup” on the tournament, once it had proved to be a success.

The United States beat Norway in the final in front of a crowd of 63,000, although they only had to play 80-minute games en route to their success. As their captain, April Heinrichs, told Sports Illustrated, football’s overlords “were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90”.


Stirred from slumber

Fifa subsequently granted the women’s game those extra 10 minutes and, by all accounts, ovaries have remained in position ever since, but, while the governing body has been stirred from its slumber through the years, leadenly realising the commercial potential of the women’s game, it still has a way to go.

Associated Press journalist Rob Harris has been in Paris for the Fifa Congress this week and noted that six of the football associations represented there didn’t even know the World Cup is about to start, in the same city. They would have been none the wiser if they took a stroll around Paris, Harris added, the place festooned with advertising for the French tennis Open and the French footballing men’s games in September, with barely a sign of promotion for the World Cup.

The women's game is indeed progressing, but more often than not it's been in spite of the powers-that-be

There have been further frustrations in the build-up for the hosts, not least French president Emmanuel Macron using an event promoting the World Cup to rail against Uefa for its plans to re-shape the (men’s) Champions League (there’s a time and a place, Emmanuel), while reports a week ago that the women’s squad had to vacate the French national training camp at Clairefontaine because the men’s squad were moving in ahead of their friendly against Bolivia prompted a whole lot of head-shaking.

The women’s game is indeed progressing, spectacularly so in some areas, but more often than not it’s been in spite of the powers-that-be, and certainly not because of them.

Roll of honour

On the cheerier side, this World Cup promises to be the highest-quality and most-competitive ever, with nations such as France, the Netherlands, England and Australia all having the potential to win the tournament for the first time and add their name to a roll of honour that so far only features the United States, Norway, Germany and Japan.

If the 2019 World Cup lives up to its promise it can give the women's game the mother – so to speak – of all boosts

Many of those nations’ players now have the opportunity to play professionally at club level, if not to make their fortune, and the club game has earned some terrific publicity over the last year in particular, with several bumper crowds – none more so than the record 60,739 that attended a league game between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona back in March – showing just how much potential it has.

And if the 2019 World Cup lives up to its promise it can give the women’s game the mother – so to speak – of all boosts. Fifa’s confident prediction that the global television audience for the tournament will top a billion for the first time had more than Mars pricking up its ears.

Visual impact

The attendances are key. The visual impact of packed stadia – or, at least, near-full grounds – for the 52 games would be huge, and, while Fifa hasn’t updated news on ticket sales since mid-April, they were encouraging at that point: 720,000 sold – 60,000 more than at the same stage in Canada four years ago.

The media coverage has vastly improved, too, and many of the previously untold stories are absorbing – not least the struggles of some of the weaker qualifiers such as Chile, whose football federation was so disinterested in their efforts they went 981 days without a game.

And then there’s Brazil’s Cristiane Rozeira de Souza Silva who, the Guardian told us, was so besotted with the game, much to her mother’s alarm, she would chop the heads of her dolls and use them as footballs. You’d guess her Ma’s ovaries nearly fell out.

Let the games commence – there’s much more than an M&Ms trophy up for grabs.