Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks living under a rock you can’t fail to have missed that one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world has been taking place… and no I don’t mean Wimbledon.
I am, of course, talking about the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. The tournament was pulling in an incredible number of UK viewers per game until last week, when the England women’s team sadly crashed out of the semi-finals with a 2-1 loss against team USA. But despite this, the game tipped the scales during the semi-final with a whopping 11.7 million viewers, making it not only the most watched game of women’s football in the UK ever, but the most watched British broadcast of the year so far, full stop.
The fact that one in six people across the UK watched the game is an astonishing feat when you consider that the Women’s World Cup has been going since 1991 — which I’ll be honest was news to me — and had never before come close to achieving the level of interest that the 2019 tournament has attracted. In the past it came and went every four years with very little fanfare, but not this year. This year has felt different. This year, seemingly out of nowhere, we all seem to really really care.
The excitement is surprising to say the least when for the last 28 years no one seems to have given two hoots about what was going on in the world of women’s football. So, what on earth is suddenly going on and why the change in attitude? Is it Brexit? Is there something in the water? Did we all collectively fall over, bump our heads and wake up in a world where there’s no such thing as the patriarchy?!
All interesting if not probable theories. But what’s much more likely is that a combination of a cracking PR campaign — played out through social media, broadcast and national press — modern technology, and a heightened interest in gender equalities (for example, #MeToo and the gender pay-gap issue) is behind our sudden attack of national pride.
A quick scan of the official Instagram feed @lionesses is a real eye opener, and quite frankly a bit of a game changer. It offers open access to players that many of us may not have been familiar with before. Putting names to faces, showing us who they are as people, how they feel about football, their fans and their world cup journey. Basically, giving a Meghan Markle worthy masterclass on how to use social media to its best advantage, crafting an image that leaves no one in any doubt that these women are in no way a poor man’s version of the boys’ team. And we as the audience are invited to feel all the emotion of a roller-coaster tournament from a perspective that is radically different in a sport that is usually dominated by testosterone.
Technology was also used in other ways that helped make this the most accessible Women’s World Cup ever. Free fanzones meant fans across the country could enjoy all the excitement on big screens outside in the sunshine (please no jokes about the British summer) with their mates, Pimm’s in hand. And in a sign of the times the young tech savvy players also got in on the action achieving a first when Lioness midfielder, Georgia Stanway, tweeted the Glastonbury festival organisers direct, and in 110 characters convinced them to broadcast the England vs Norway quarter final so that her brother who was at the festival could watch! The result was an endless stream of newsworthy images depicting happy cheering crowds of united people. Which I think most would agree is pretty brilliant news content especially at time when Britain is better known for the things that we disagree on rather than the things we celebrate together.
The success of this world cup tournament has been palpable. True, the England Lionesses didn’t win the cup, but boy did they win the PR war. They have trended on Twitter, made the evening news, featured in endless news articles in print and online and enhanced the reputation of the women’s game in the UK beyond anything that could have been predicted; all while showing a whole generation of young girls exactly why a football isn’t just a boy’s toy. Now the only challenge left is to maintain the momentum created using all the tools that PR and technology combined can offer. And in a world where we check our phones before saying good morning to our other halves, staying relevant and building on the legacy created over the last few weeks should be a piece of cake.