There was something different about this Women's World Cup final. It wasn't just that it drew massive viewership numbers. Yes, they were bigger than previous ones, but we've seen huge audiences for soccer matches before, even ones featuring women.
What made this one different -- and possibly more important -- was why people were watching: No easy narratives or lovable characters driving the interest, just great athletes playing high-level soccer.
Ever since the 1999 Women's World Cup, we've known that the American audience was willing to embrace female athletes on a massive scale. But that tournament was also deceiving. Yes it broke attendance records and brought previously unheard of media attention and TV viewership numbers to women's team sports. It promised to do for women's soccer what the 1996 Olympics did for women's basketball, only it was bigger and seemingly more exciting.
We know how that played out, though. The WUSA started with big budgets and bigger dreams, but fell hard. The WPS followed a similar, albeit smaller scale, trajectory. We learned that while big events are one thing, they are often hopelessly tied to those specific narratives. Yes, the 1999 USWNT were wonderful athletes, but not nearly as good as the players that would come after them who had better training and more resources. What the 99ers had that set them apart was a media narrative that was heavily focused on their likable personalities, cute looks and charm. (Never mind that the likes of Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett were genuine badasses, we're talking about the media narrative here.)
Fans flocked to that team because they were perfect for that time, or at least were presented as such. The lasting image of the crowd at the 1999 final is of a face-painted little girl cheering alongside her approving parent. The magical summer of 1999 proved to be a time capsule, in a lot of ways.
That's not meant as a slight, as the 1999 tournament launched a new era of women's soccer and bore us a generation of soccer-playing kids. Since then, there's been a steady stream of recognizable stars and it has become possible to make a living playing for the national team. When the USWNT rolls into town, they can usually count on playing in front of tens of thousands of fans.
But they've never been able to break through in a meaningful way, either. We're now on our third professional women's soccer league. This iteration appears to be more sustainable, but only because it's effectively semi-pro and it's being heavily underwritten by national federations. While Portland draws nearly 14,000 a game, no one else pulls in a third of that and half the league averages fewer than 3,000 per game (including the Seattle Reign). For the most part, the NWSL is very much a minor league.
Which finally brings us back to this Women's World Cup team.
The 2015 USWNT is very different from that 1999 squad. There were probably four players the average sports fan could recognize among them: Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. All of them have featured heavily in various ad campaigns and have been the subject of much media attention.
But Wambach blew off the NWSL season and turned many woso fans against her; Solo played about as well as you could have hoped, but she was hardly a media darling for obvious reasons; Morgan was probably the biggest star but failed to make a huge impact while recovering from injury; and Leroux, well, she started two games but you probably didn't even notice. None of them turned out to be the stars of the tournament and were hardly the focus by the time the United States kicked off against Japan.
That honor fell to the likes of Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, Becky Sauerbrunn and, maybe, Megan Rapinoe or Julie Johnston. Aside from Rapinoe, can you honestly name which NWSL team they play for? (Houston Dash, FC Kansas City, Seattle Reign and Chicago Red Stars, in case you're curious.)
Despite the lack of star power, though, people tuned in. They tuned in not because there was this great story to tell, but because they were wonderful athletes playing the beautiful game (even if how they played wasn't always pretty). Viewers may not have recognized all the faces that were running around the pitch or scoring the goals, but they apparently liked what they were seeing anyway, being as the ratings only got better and better as the tournament went on.
It's probably being overly optimistic to think that NWSL ticket sales will suddenly double or that the TV ratings for their handful of Fox Sports airings will be substantial. But the knock-on effect of this Women's World Cup at least seems to have the potential to boost the domestic league in a way it never has before.
Hopefully, the soccer-watching public now understands that women's matches aren't just a chance to snag an autograph. This tournament proved that people are willing to watch women play on their own terms, without necessarily needing to compare them to their male counterparts or with the promise to get a souvenir.
And those people aren't just parents bringing their kids along for a good time. Look at the crowd shots of the final at BC Place. Sure, there were adorable kids with face paint among them. But there were also a lot of young adults, a huge swath of American Outlaws and the kind of demographics that advertisers drool over. You can say the same thing about the crowd at LA Live where the USWNT had their homecoming, you'll probably see an even more diverse crowd cheering them on during the ticker-tape parade in New York City on Friday and you'll surely see a wonderfully mixed audience at the Reign's possibly sold out match on Saturday.
At the very least, this tournament showed us a glimpse of a bright women's soccer future. It's one where the sappy narratives are our own personal ones, but the stories on the field are about world-class athletes doing world-class athlete things. And lucky us, there's plenty of that going on in our very own backyard.