It’s game on for the 2015 Women’s World Cup: soccer’s most prestigious tournament opened on June 6 in Canada, with 24 teams—eight more than ever before—competing in the beautiful game.
Good news for sports media, right? After all, the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany lured in more than 400 million viewers worldwide. The final between the US and Japan was ESPN’s most-viewed soccer match ever, and the second most-viewed daytime telecast in history. It also broke a record for trending Twitter topics, with 7,196 tweets per second worldwide. Total viewership of the match exceeded that year’s Stanley Cup Finals and Daytona 500. And this summer, not only is the US a favorite to win it all when the tournament concludes on July 5, but the Canadian games are in time zones that suit American viewers. Plus, with the FIFA corruption scandal playing out, the Women’s World Cup is unfolding on a particularly dramatic stage, one that is ripe for robust enterprise reporting.
For the first time ever, Fox Sports and Telemundo have the television rights to the tournament. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets are covering the 2015 games with a patchwork of news and analysis. Sixteen of the 52 matches will air on the main Fox channel, the most ever on broadcast television for any World Cup, men’s or women’s. Five of those matches will be in prime time. In total, 28 on-air broadcasters will contribute to Fox’s coverage this month, and one reporter has been embedded with the US team since the quarterfinals. “We have devoted significant time and resources over the last year marketing the Women’s World Cup to emphasize the important role it plays for fans and specifically female athletes,” Lou D’Ermilio, Fox Sports’ senior vice president for media relations, told CJR in an email. The channel will also air more than 60 pre-produced features. And it signed on as a five-year partner of AYSO, the country’s biggest youth soccer club, to grow the game at the grassroots.
But even with the tournament’s proven popularity, and sizeable advances in coverage, the Women’s World Cup can’t quite outrun a media trend that relegates women’s sports to niche status. ESPN, for example, will be on-site for all 52 matches—but its digital coverage is kept under the umbrella of espnW, “ESPN’s brand for women who love sports,” which effectively affirms a stereotype that women’s sports are not of general interest. Likewise, World Cup coverage is buried as a sub-listing under the “More” tab on CBS Sports’ homepage, even as “High School” and off-season NCAA basketball are featured as standalone tabs at the top of main page.
“I don’t know what’s worse: if it was a deliberate decision not to do brackets, because they thought nobody would care, or if it just slipped their minds.”
Organization like this means only the most dedicated people will dig to find it. It also perpetuates a troubling pattern. An update on a 25-year longitudinal study published this month in the journal Communication & Sport showed that “the quantity of coverage of women’s sports in televised sports news and highlights shows remains dismally low”—hovering between 2 and 5 percent of total sports coverage. That’s an even lower rate than when the study began in 1989, despite the growth in both 24-hour coverage and athletic opportunity for women.
And there’s something else missing in the 2015 Women’s World Cup: brackets.
Kate Goldwater, a soccer fan in New York City, went online to fill out her Women’s World Cup brackets a week ago, and was astonished to find that there weren’t any. Not on Fox, or ESPN, or any other outlet that typically offers interactive brackets for high-stakes sport tournaments. “It didn’t even occur to me that it would be an option (to not have brackets for fans to fill out),” Goldwater told CJR. “I don’t know what’s worse: if it was a deliberate decision not to do brackets, because they thought nobody would care, or if it just slipped their minds.”
Brackets, of course, are a way for a media outlet to engage audiences in a series of games while hyping up its related coverage. They cultivate fan bases by giving them a rooting interest in each match, providing an incentive to follow the stories of a large number of teams. March Madness brackets are the archetype: More than 40 million people filled out 70 million brackets this past spring, betting more than $2 billion on their picks. President Barack Obama has made an annual ritual out of filling out his own brackets for both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments.
But the model isn’t just for basketball. For the 2014 men’s World Cup, several broadcast outlets, including Fox, encouraged fans to fill out brackets on their slick interactive platforms, which made it simple for families, workplaces, and other social networks to design their own pools. Several broadcasters offered prize money in bracket challenges that rewarded fans who made the best predictions.
But for fans of the women’s game in 2015? Nothing, despite proven interest in the tournament dating back to the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, which remains the highest-rated soccer game on American English-language television, men’s or women’s.
Frustrated, Goldwater launched an energetic Twitter campaign on June 4, targeting every major network, urging them to rustle up a platform for the millions of Women’s World Cup fans. “Really disappointing that @CBSSports @ESPN @espnW @YahooFantasy @FOXSports aren’t offering Women’s World Cup brackets. #WWC2015 #USWNT,” she tweeted. She emailed a network of supporters of women’s sports (including me), asking them to join the push. She even asked a friend who codes to make a unique pool website, but learned it was an enormous job that “would take him like a hundred hours.” Some smaller outlets, like the blog AfterEllen, are offering brackets as a printable PDF. But that doesn’t have the polish, interactivity, or accessibility of classic brackets from the major networks.
When asked why a bracket wasn’t part of its coverage, Fox’s D’Ermilio pointed me to this—but that online bracket amounts to an infographic, rather than serving as a participatory tool for fans like Goldwater. As for ESPN, a rep said the network was prioritizing on-the-ground coverage. “ESPN does not have television rights, so we are focusing our resources on serving fans in the best way possible, with news, information, storytelling and insightful analysis,” said Tara Chozet, senior publicist for ESPN, in a written statement. Curiously, brackets did make a cameo on ESPN when it posted a story on June 5 that featured soccer star-turned-sports reporter Julie Foudy’s brackets. She picks USA to win a final against France, after besting England in the semi-finals. “This one will be fun around the family dinner table,” Foudy writes of the semi match. Maybe so. But it would be a lot more fun if the family had their own brackets to pore over along with Foudy.
The oversight might be classified as another example of how women’s sports can’t win for winning. While 40 percent of all athletes are female, the Tucker Center for Girls & Women in Sport affirmed that women’s sports receive only 4 percent of the overall sports coverage in a 2013 documentary. The skewed numbers are also reflected in who is making the media. Women produced only about 10 percent of the sports coverage in 2014, according to a recent report from the Women’s Media Center—and that’s a seven-point drop from the previous year. Even in Hollywood, sports films featuring female athletes play against a set of especially limited tropes.
Broadcasters can take credit for popularizing brackets, especially in the last 15 years. It’s become a tradition for even the most casual fans. That is why it’s frustrating when they choose not to offer them for the biggest event in women’s sports.
To be fair, Fox has done a great deal to prove skeptics wrong by covering the Women’s World Cup with rigor and enthusiasm. Its early broadcasts are getting high marks from the soccer community for devoting “enough resources, glitz, and glamour to this event to make it feel truly major league.” But it’s disappointing that its coverage is tuned one direction in this instance, neglecting to give fans the opportunity to engage in a way they’ve come to expect with major sports tournaments. Just like any other fans, supporters of women’s soccer don’t just want to watch the game; they want to participate.