Finding the best way to cover women in sports invariably means grappling with why people do or don’t want to watch them.
It’s an unfair question with a whole swath of complex answers, but one that nevertheless continues to shape much of the way that they’re received as they fight for respect, attention and, most importantly, funding. Anyone who enjoys watching women play sports must first argue for their viability, and anyone who doesn’t leans on what are widely assumed to be more sophisticated preferences. If you understood sports, they suggest, you’d be watching the men (heaven forbid one does both).
On the ground — a place I’ve been for far less time than so many of my tireless peers — that battle can feel Sisyphean. Decades of women’s success and contributions within every sport imaginable get repeatedly erased with each new “first,” as mainstream coverage flattens unique individual success into gendered novelty. The problems facing women in sports off the field — woeful pay, systemic discrimination and biased press — still tend to attract far more attention than their victories on it.
Even in the lead-up to the Women’s World Cup, preview packages and hype-building advertisements positioned the U.S. Women’s National Team as more valuable for their potential as role models to young girls (boys, at least in the “empowerment” mythology favored by brands using women in sports to promote their products, seem to be on their own) than as athletes defending a world title. We’re still waiting for our time, they seemed to say; maybe those girls, the ones looking up in awe in all the ads, will be the ones to be celebrated for what they’ve achieved instead of for what their success can do for others.
But that battle felt millions of miles away on the Paris Metro to Park des Princes a little over a week ago, where a heat wave (and distinctly Parisian lack of air conditioning) hadn’t quashed the spirits of fans heading to see the U.S. take on France in the tournament’s quarterfinal. Boys and girls and men and women alike chattered excitedly in English and French, tugging at sweaty kits emblazoned with roosters and shields. A team of elementary-school-aged French boys loudly booed some American fans as they got on the train, gleefully transcending any language barrier.
It was a game billed as pivotal for the sport, a showcase for soccer at its very highest level. But in the moment, there was no sense that the enthusiasm had anything to do with the fact that the athletes happened to be women, or that records were being broken, or that ticket prices had reached thousands of dollars to be part of what would ultimately be a near-capacity crowd of 45,595 — tangible evidence of interest in the event.
The story of who was watching and why was delightfully mundane. People were into it simply because two great teams were facing off on an international stage — a chance to don face paint and cheer loudly and rib opposing fans and watch world-class soccer. I sat next to an American man who’d taken the train to Paris in the middle of a trip to the south of France just to see the game, and paid 260 Euros for his ticket. He’d been to the 2018 World Cup, and wanted to attend this one as well.
He wasn’t alone in his intrigue: 27 percent of TVs in use in the United States were turned to the World Cup final on Sunday, according to Nielsen, one facet of an overall one percent bump in ratings for the tournament compared to 2015. Internationally, the rise was considerably more dramatic: Italy, Germany, France and England set records for viewership of the women’s game during the tournament. In England, the semifinal matchup with the U.S. was the country’s most-watched program of the year so far with nearly 12 million viewers.
Those numbers suggest people were watching not because they wanted to be “empowered,” or because it was the politically correct choice, or for any reason besides the fact that the games were good and fun.
For a month, it felt like women athletes didn’t have to fight for their place; that it could be safely assumed they were relevant, and saying otherwise was self-evidently silly. Instead, people could debate things like VAR, like whether a player was offside — issues within the games themselves. For a month, whether the women deserved such consideration wasn’t questioned. I even began to notice people were dropping the “women’s” from the name of the tournament; after all, how many World Cups were going on?
I wish I could say that I hadn’t been surprised by the size of the crowd, or the fervor of the fans, or the glee I saw across social media. I wish I could say that when I picked a midtown Manhattan sports bar in which to watch the U.S./England semifinal game, I hadn’t expected to have to ask them to turn it on, and hadn’t been flatly shocked by the fact that the bar was jam-packed with fans at 3 p.m. on a weekday with every TV turned to the game. But I’ve spent enough evenings sitting in sparsely populated stands and begging bartenders to put on women’s games that I was.
Perhaps you’ve read this and are wondering why all of the above points are worth noting. Perhaps questioning the place of women’s sports or the taste of the people who watch them never crossed your mind, because their appeal is obvious. To me, your belief that this entire article is pointless would be the best possible outcome; a sign, like this year’s Women’s World Cup itself, that we’re much closer to appreciating women athletes on their own terms than it often seems.