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The Women’s World Cup clash between Australia, who are co-hosting the tournament, and France is set to become one of the most viewed matches in the sport-obsessed nation’s history, the latest high-water mark for women’s football as its showpiece competition reaches the closing stages.
The quarter-final on Saturday will be played before a capacity crowd in Brisbane, but it will also be beamed live to homes and bars around Australia, as well as at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Sydney’s Olympic Park and other arenas associated with the country’s more traditional sports of rugby and cricket. Australian Rules Football games due to be held the same day have also been rescheduled to avoid a clash with a sporting event being billed as the most consequential in Australia since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Gen Dohrmann, president of Women Sport Australia, a sporting advocacy body, said the “phenomenal” success of the tournament, co-hosted with neighbour New Zealand, underscored the broad-based and growing appeal of women’s football.
“The broadcast trends are blowing other sports out of the water,” she said. “People are waking up to the fact that women’s sports aren’t just for females. A lot of those stigmas are being turned on their head.”
Ahead of the World Cup, the ninth instalment of a quadrennial tournament first played in 1991, market research group Euromonitor International forecast that it would draw more than 2bn broadcast viewers, up from 1.1bn at the last event held in France.
It is also expected to bring in $300mn of sponsorship revenue for Fifa, football’s governing body, according to analytics group GlobalData. Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s president, has said he expects the World Cup to generate about $500mn of revenue, allowing the governing body to break even on the tournament.
It is not just Australian fans who have tuned in. The World Cup has broken numerous broadcast records outside the host nations, with about 6.4mn fans watching the 1-1 draw between the Netherlands and the US on Fox, a record viewership for a women’s group stage match in the US.
The BBC said more than 5mn television viewers watched England beat Nigeria on penalties, with a further 2.6mn streaming, the highest figures yet in the UK. Almost 54mn people in China watched their country’s 6-1 loss against England in the group stages.
The success of the Matildas, as the Australian women’s team are known, had provided a “unifying moment” for the country, according to Craig Foster, a former Australian men’s international footballer turned sports broadcaster.
He said that the huge support among immigrant communities in Australia for many of the teams that qualified, such as Colombia, Ireland and Brazil, alongside the voracious backing for the home side, had been the hallmark of the tournament.
“It used to be the immigrant game played by people who happened to be here but weren’t seen as Australian,” he said of football’s history in a country where it traditionally struggled to compete with more established sports.
But the success of the diverse Matildas squad — who are seeking to secure a semi-final place against European champions England or Colombia — had delivered huge benefits to the social cohesion of Australia, with stars such as Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler becoming household names.
“That’s the biggest takeaway from this tournament,” said Foster. “It’s not about getting a ball into a net. It’s 1691761673 the Australian game — it’s the true face of Australia.”
The frenzy for the tournament has extended beyond the TV screen with a record 1.7mn tickets sold thus far. That has helped dispel fears that holding the tournament in the Pacific region would quell international interest in the event because of the time difference and the distance and cost for international tourists.
More than 500,000 fans have also watched games from the “fan zones” set up in city centres where supporters can watch on big screens with fellow fans. That has had a knock-on effect in promoting the game to new fans, particularly in expatriate communities drawn to the events.
Rena Baba, a 24-year-old from Japan, was among those watching her country’s Friday evening’s quarter-final against Sweden at the fanzone in central Sydney. While she had not been particularly interested in football before, Baba said she felt a sense of “empowerment” from the game, despite her team’s 2-1 loss, and was “inspired” by the performance of the “Nadeshiko”.
Stina Norlander, a masters student studying in Sydney, celebrated the result with a pocket of Swedish fans, some of whom had travelled to Australia for the tournament despite their early games being held in New Zealand. “I would love to see Sweden play Australia in the final,” she said.
With traditional heavyweights, including the US, Germany, Canada and Norway, already eliminated from the tournament, a first-time winner is guaranteed, increasing the stakes for the remaining teams.
If Australia were able to overcome a talented France side, the prospect of a last-four clash with arch-sporting rivals England would propel the women’s game in the country to yet another level, according to Foster.
“It’s going to blow TVs up across the country,” he said.