Today’s guest columnists are Roger Bennett and Miranda Davis of the Men in Blazers Media Network’s “The Women’s Game” podcast.
In all the time we have been covering the rise of the game we love—football—in the nation we love—America—by far the most thrilling storyline we have witnessed is the explosive growth of women’s football over the last decade. That growth has accelerated both globally, and domestically, through the National Women’s Soccer League.
On one of our first podcasts back in 2010, we joked that “Soccer is America’s Sport of the Future… as it has been since 1972.” We had sensed a surging growth in the young audience flocking towards football, with every World Cup ratcheting up the incremental rise of fandom in America.
While the 1994 World Cup was meant to turn football into an overnight success in the U.S., it instead ushered in slow and steady growth, World Cup by World Cup. A growth reinforced by the Premier League and Champions League being broadcast regularly starting in the late ’90s, which enabled the audience to become hooked on the weekly narratives of global football—that wild telenovela, played out live with the world watching. The internet reinforced that connection, making it possible for fans in LA to follow transfers and rumors as closely as those in Liverpool. The gaming juggernaut EA Sports’ FIFA sealed the deal—the silent hand that grew the game in the U.S., exposing a generation of young Americans to the personalities and Star Wars cantina of teams that play the game in Europe. The net effect, according to a recent study by Two Circles, is that soccer rates as the third favorite sport among American fans aged 6-24 (behind only football and basketball).
The women’s game is a crucial part of this story. The 2011 Women’s World Cup was held in Germany at the end of our first year of podcasting, and we had to beg ESPN to allow us to cover it. A young Alex Morgan and the U.S. team finished second, losing on penalties to Japan in one of the most electrifying World Cup finals in recent memory. The tournament narrative, characters and breathtaking achievement were as transcendent as anything in the men’s version, peaking with Megan Rapinoe’s 122nd-minute Hail Mary cross butted home by Abby Wambach in the quarterfinals against Brazil. It felt like America was obsessed—but within a week of the final, after the players had cycled through the late night talk show circuit and returned to finish out their seasons in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league, that interest had all but evaporated. The game felt like a circus that came to town, then left.
For a long time, that was the narrative of women’s football. A fleeting crescendo that built then receded around World Cups or the Olympics; a spotlight that craved the consistent shine of a financially stable weekly club game to enable it to hold. Now, finally, that club game—the NWSL—not only exists, but is poised to explode, with deep foundations of celebrity-studded ownership groups, and passionately devoted supporter cultures. That this has happened without comprehensive brand promotional support or mainstream media coverage makes it even more impressive.
And it is not just inside the United States. In England, where the Women’s Euros are currently playing to rapturous crowds, the Women’s Super League has been transformed from underfunded afterthought to budding cultural juggernaut, as Premier League teams have invested in their women’s sides. Superclubs across Europe—Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG—have done the same, attempting to replicate what Olympique Lyonnais did with their women’s team in the early part of the last decade, bringing the tactical analysis and infrastructure of the European men’s game to build compelling, world-beating women’s teams. European leagues are growing and thriving, and fans are pouring in. When Barcelona Femeni played rivals Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals last season, more than 91,000 fans showed up at a delirious Camp Nou. The record crowds at this month’s Women’s Euro show the numbers aren’t lying, they are growing.
In the NWSL, the Portland Thorns have long displayed what women’s club soccer could and should look like—a cauldron of fans, tens of thousands strong, turning up with passion for every match. New NWSL expansion teams like Angel City FC in Los Angeles are following in their footsteps, creating delirious scenes as a sold-out crowd of 22,000 bellowed while a tiff was raised proclaiming “A New Dawn.” The Kansas City Current’s soon-to-be-completed $117 million stadium promises to be another such atmosphere. We have watched the Washington Spirit blossom under the new ownership of Michele Kang, as the league is lifted up by an influx of female owners who understand the potential on offer. The NWSL is now tasked not just with internal growth, but with keeping pace with the exponential growth of women’s leagues across the globe—the best kind of problem to have.
Additionally, our partners at For Soccer Ventures, who own and operate Alianza de Futbol (the largest Hispanic soccer program in the U.S.), continue to see tremendous growth in female Hispanic soccer communities around the U.S. as well. In 2021, Allstate Sueño Alianza, Alianza’s scouting program, opened its first female division with extraordinary results.
More evidence? Fans from all corners of the globe are demanding constant coverage of the women’s game. As proof of that, FIFA is selling international broadcasting rights to the 2023 Women’s World Cup to the highest bidders, responding to the ramped-up competition to own the rights to what has become an increasingly enticing jewel.
We are grateful to be able to cover these storylines through our Paramount+ podcast, “The Women’s Game,” celebrating not just the NWSL and women’s leagues across the world, but also the quality of play. Brands getting in now, such as Budweiser, have a first mover advantage. Matt Davis, Budweiser’s head of U.S. sport marketing, told us: “Together, we’ve been able to create incredible social conversations around the women’s game. The entire ecosystem of the sport has embraced our brand.”
The NWSL and that entire American women’s soccer ecosystem is primed and ready for investment. It stands on the cusp of reaching a new level after more than a decade of patient growth. Watching it all at MiB, we have a magical sense of deja vu, as brands and sponsors begin to wake up to the immense opportunity they have on their hands, much as they did when we began this journey with men’s football back in 2010.
Roger Bennett is the founder of the Men in Blazers Media Network. Miranda Davis is the producer of MiB’s “The Women’s Game” podcast, which covers women’s football on a weekly basis. Bennett is the host. The duo co-authored Men in Blazers Present Gods of Soccer: The Pantheon of the 100 Greatest Soccer Players (According to Us).