By Rachel Joyner
REIMS, France (Reuters) – The U.S. women’s national soccer team on Tuesday launch their bid for a fourth World Cup, but beyond lifting the trophy the squad are also aiming for a cultural breakthrough for the game.
For decades, the enduring woes of the women’s soccer, from low pay in relation to their male counterparts to lackluster sponsorship endorsements, have shared a common source: the lack of a mass audience.
This year, however, the spotlight is on as France hosts the women’s World Cup. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, forecasts one billion viewers will tune in globally, up a third on 2015’s tournament in Canada.
It is not a challenge that daunts the team.
“That’s been a huge goal of this team — to continue to grow the sport,” midfielder and 2015 World Cup winner Julie Ertz told reporters in Reims. “It’s exciting to be a part of the growth of the sport.”
The U.S. are the most successful team in the sport. They have won three World Cups since the tournament began in 1991, four Olympic golds in the last six Games and have topped the FIFA rankings every year but one over the last 11 years.
They are therefore comfortable favorites against first Group F opponents Thailand. The last time the two teams met, the United States won 9-0. Tougher rivals await, however, such as France — bookmakers’ favorites for the tournament.
“I feel good, I feel confident,” starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “Good to go.”
At an open training session, French children swarmed the U.S. players for autographs, calling out in thick accents the name of Alex Morgan, the clinical striker whose fearless style has made her one of the biggest names in the sport.
Yet despite their dominance, the American women receive a fraction of the prize-money won by the far less successful U.S. men’s team.
In 2015, the women’s team walked away with $2 million after becoming world champions, while a year earlier the men banked $9 million even after only reaching the last 16 of their respective World Cup in Brazil.
In a sign of growing recognition for the women’s game — a result due in part to hard lobbying by the players — the prize-money has doubled this year to $4 million. There remains, though, a jarring gender discrepancy. France’s victorious men’s team walked away with $38 million in 2018.
“This tournament in itself is going to change things for women’s soccer, how we play and how the world sees us,” said midfielder Lindsey Horan, who plays for Portland Thorns FC.
Off the pitch, star-power sells, but the endorsement empire is male-dominated. Real Madrid and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo earns some $47 million annually from endorsements, according to Forbes. Morgan earns about $3 million a year from sponsorship deals.
Video game producer EA Sports only introduced women’s teams to its FIFA Soccer product in 2016, more than a decade after the launch. Ahead of the World Cup, it unveiled a free update featuring all 24 women’s teams competing in the tournament.
“The game is growing, and it’s evolving… A lot of other women’s teams around the world are trying to raise expectations and get more support,” Naeher said.
“And I think that support is coming.”
(Reporting by Rachel Joyner in Reims; Editing by Richard Lough and Christian Radnedge)