World Cup finals

by Eszter Hargittai on October 7, 2003

A soccer world cup championship is down to the finals, but you’d be hard-pressed to know it. I’m not surprised that here in Chicagoland it has not been at the forefront of sports headlines. With all the focus on the Cubs there would not be much coverage even if the US had made it to the finals. Alas, it didn’t. It’s down to Sweden and Germany.

It’s been interesting to watch the rise in the popularity of women’s soccer in the US. There are two things standing in its way: one is that it’s a women’s sport, which tends to be less popular overall (although we are seeing some change in that, but not too much) and it’s soccer, which is not exactly the most popular sport in the United States if you judge by media coverage. But it’s not that simple. Soccer is actually quite popular when it comes to participation and going out to see a game [pdf]. It is also a very popular high school sport in the US and many of those participants are girls. So no, it’s not because soccer is somehow inherently un-American that it has not gained popular appeal. I’m sure the fact that it is hard to break the game up into sections to accomodate commercials has to do with it. But I don’t want to get into too much popsociology here. There is a book on this, Offside, which the reviews on Amazon suggest is a good read on the topic. (The reviews will also give you an idea of the argument of the book. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on that since I haven’t read it myself.)

I was at the 1999 World Cup opening game and it was very exciting. This year, most of the games have been broadcast on ESPN2 or even less mainstream channels in the US limiting the size of audiences. I only happened upon the Canada-Sweden game today by accident. Are the games getting better coverage in other countries? The final will be broadcast on ABC so that should reach more people. How many will be watching is another question. I’m planning on throwing a Women’s World Cup Final brunch party to add to the fun.



Mike 10.07.03 at 11:01 am

I haven’t seen an inch of coverage in England. Probably because we didn’t qualify though.


Brian Weatherson 10.07.03 at 11:33 am

Here’s the most surprising thing to me about the final.

It’s being played at 1pm ET. That’s not surprising in itself – lots of major games happen then. But not normally games in California. The game is on at 10am local time. When was the last time a major sporting event started at 10 in the morning local time? (All day cricket games that have to start that early don’t count.)

The US-Germany game was pretty exciting. If the final is as good it should be lots of fun.


dmm 10.07.03 at 2:03 pm

There’s been good coverage in Canada. The victory over China in the quarter-finals made the front page of most of the papers I saw. The TV ratings are pretty good, too. This is, I’m sure, largely because the team has been winning more than they’ve been losing lately and not because the people of Canada are attracted by the team’s neo-Wimbledonian long-ball tactics.


eszter 10.07.03 at 4:21 pm

I’m assuming the early time is so people in Europe can watch it. It’s actually quite well-timed for both Sweden and Germany since it’ll be evening there. Of course, I suspect who qualified for the finals had nothing to do with the timing of the game.


Brian Weatherson 10.07.03 at 5:12 pm

I think the time has worked out well, but it was being advertised then before the teams were determined. I hadn’t really noticed how good a time slot it is for Europe though, so that sort of makes sense. (Even a USA-China final would have some European audidence I’d bet.) I still think it will be funny seeing a world championship game finish before midday.


Jamie 10.07.03 at 5:57 pm

All the games have been televised on the Hispanic channels — Telemundo, Univision and one other. I believe they’re using the same feed as ESPN2, but they offer clips that ESPN2 probably doesn’t have. For instance, in the heart-breaking US vs Germany game, they showed a clip from the US men playing Germany. There were some poor calls in that one, too, and some of the bad luck that plagued the US women.


Highway 10.07.03 at 6:35 pm

The 1pm ET start, as mentioned earlier, is probably set to place it in prime-time viewing for European viewers, no matter which teams are playing. The same thing is part of the impetus to bring another F1 Grand Prix to the US, since viewership in prime time is far, far higher than viewership mid-afternoon. Any later and it would be like Monday Night Football on the east coast: ending too late to keep viewership.


brayden 10.07.03 at 8:07 pm

I just wanted to point out that broadcasts on ESPN2 aren’t exactly marginalized sports events. ESPN2 recently showed some of the Major League Baseball divisional playoff series. ESPN2 also frequently shows the runaway hit, World Series of Poker, which apparently gets better ratings than the women’s World Cup.

My question is: if beer-guzzling men can find the World Series of Poker with their remote, why aren’t more viewers tuning in to women’s soccer? I don’t think it’s necessarily a result of poor coverage; it probably has more to do with women’s soccer failing to establish itself as a brand-name sporting event among potential consumers. This just highlights the distinction between sports as recreation (little league and high school soccer) and sports as a commodity. The sociologist Eric Leifer has said a lot of interesting things about this subject.


Harry Tuttle 10.07.03 at 9:31 pm

What I want to know is how the absolutely godawful MLS manages to survive while the WUSA doesn’t. Given the choice between watching every american male not good enough to play in Europe with a levening of over the hill foreign stars playing on pitches 20 yards too thin or watching the very best female players in the world on real fields, I’m going with the women every time. The girls play the beutiful game, American men barely play the game at all.

Oh, and both leagues have stupid team names.


Zizka 10.07.03 at 10:29 pm

The obstacles to acceptance of women’s soccer are glaring here in Portland, OR, where some of the games have been played. High school women’s soccer is thriving here, and two of the American players and one of the Canadian players attended the U. of Portland, which recently won the national title. Yet the local TV station which might have shown the games preempted one of them for, of all things, a gardening show (which easily could have been postponed). And one of the local sports columnists, the infamous Dwight Jaynes, mentions women’s soccer frequently, but always sneeringly. (He also went on record that HS sports programs could easily be preserved simply by eliminating calculus and other classes he hadn’t been interested in in HS.)

I believe that the relevant TV station is absentee owned by a corporation, and managed by carpetbaggers. This strikes me as a clear case when the media are NOT “giving people what they want”.


Chris K 10.08.03 at 12:16 am

That’s how many people watched the 2003 WC on German TV:

GER-ENG prelim. (early afternoon):  1.11 mio. - 11.3% share

GER-CAN (6:00 PM):  1.31 mio. - 14.7% share
GER-JPN (11:45 PM): 0.87 mio. - 14.9% share
ARG-GER (9:30 PM):  0.81 mio. -  ?
GER-RUS (1:30 AM):  0.58 mio. - 16.9% share
USA-GER (1:30 AM):  0.70 mio. - 25.7% share

This is quite good especially when the games take place late at night. The final will take place at 7:00 PM on Sunday and doubtlessly the numbers will go through the roof. The games involving Germany were all seen on the public TV channels and Eurosport does broadcast the whole thing (thumbs up!).

The 3:0 quarter final victory all of a sudden fired up the media and the girls are now everywhere. The DFB (soccer federation) and the whole Fußball establishment (=men) is also suddenly very attentive and full of praise.

I’m just left to wonder why about 3 million people regularly watch TV in the middle of the night. So much insomnia?


reuben 10.08.03 at 12:34 pm

Regarding the inability of soccer to become a major spectator sport in the US (I’m not counting moms and dads waiting in the SUV), I wonder if one of the reasons (in addition to the lack of network-acceptable commercial time) is that there just isn’t any space left in the calendar. Also, I’m just guessing here, but aren’t the non-soccer playing nations those that cast off the heavy yoke of British tyranny before the Victorian-era rise of organised spectator sports?


Antoni Jaume 10.08.03 at 5:24 pm

“Also, I’m just guessing here, but aren’t the non-soccer playing nations those that cast off the heavy yoke of British tyranny before the Victorian-era rise of organised spectator sports?”

Neither Spain, France nor Italy were ever under the “heavy yoke of British tyranny”, and football is very popular there.



Thlayli 10.09.03 at 11:10 am

I read Offside. It’s pretty good. The one part that stuck in my mind was an experiment one of the authors did with a university class they were teaching in Germany. The author asked the students to name as many members of the West German lineup in the 1954 World Cup final as they could. Every male in the class could name at least one player, and more than one got all eleven. Meanwhile, none of the female students got a single one.

As for the “heavy yoke of British tyranny”, the countries that were affected by that tend to prefer rugby and/or cricket.


Reuben 10.10.03 at 9:32 am


I should have been clearer. (But as I thought France, Italy, etc’s playing of football goes without saying, I didn’t say it.) I meant of those nations that were once British. My point being that had the US still been under the British (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say under any western European nation), then perhaps we would have taken up the motherland’s game, ie soccer/football. As it wasn’t, and was geographically isolated from Europe, it came up with its own sports (similarities to rounders, cricket and rugby duly acknowledged). This is more a query than an assertion, mind you.

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