U.S. players pose for a group photo during a training session on Saturday. (Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty…)
Four of the top five most-viewed women's sporting events happened at the Olympics, and the other one is the 1999 Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl.
What this tells us, said Daniel Szew, who is president of LA Sports Management and before that worked for the Wasserman Group and AEG, is that many viewers of women's sports get invested in a big event in which they get a chance to be patriotic.
"I was born in Argentina and moved to the U.S. when I was 5," he said. "My feelings about this are born of my background. Soccer overall, not just for the women's game, is more about country pride and I suspect that's part of figure skating too."
The most-watched women's sporting event remains the short program in the figure-skating competition at the 1994 Winter Olympics.
It was the first time that Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan had competed since the Olympic trials, where associates of Harding clubbed Kerrigan on a knee. More than 78 million watched the short program, and two nights later about 73 million watched the decisive long program.
The third most-watched women's event (about 43 million viewers) is the figure skating long program from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics won by Sarah Hughes and fourth is the women's gymnastics team final at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the group dubbed the Magnificent Seven earned gold (about 42 million).
The 1999 soccer game from the Rose Bowl, televised by ABC and won on penalty kicks by the U.S. against China, drew about 17 million viewers.
ESPN, which regularly carries the largest amount of women's team sports, such as the WNBA and college basketball, has its own list of most-watched events, and the NCAA championship game between Connecticut and Oklahoma in 2002 is tops with more than 5.6 million viewers. Eight of the other top 10 events are NCAA tournament basketball games, with the 1999 soccer game in fourth place.
Debbie Waitkus, president of Women in the Golf Industry, said she wasn't surprised that there was no LPGA representation, even historically, in the numbers.
"For women to get crossover from male viewers takes something spectacular," Waitkus said. "In women's golf you'd need Michelle Wie really taking off with a bunch of wins.
"What you saw this week was everybody, men and women, reacted to the U.S.-Brazil [World Cup quarterfinal] game. There was the perception of dirty plays and missed calls and you could even see it in Germany. By the end the whole crowd was pulling for the U.S. Controversy like that pulls at your heartstrings. Now I hear everybody, men and women, talking about watching Sunday's game."
The U.S. team, which defeated Brazil on penalty kicks and then beat France in the semifinals, faces Japan in the final on Sunday.
By the same token, Waitkus said, "The ugliness surrounding the Tonya-Nancy story crossed gender lines, age lines, every line," she said.
John Meindl, president of New York-based SportsBrandedMedia, a company that cross-promotes media and entertainment product, said the sudden popularity of this women's soccer team is the kind of "perfect storm" that women's sports needs.
"I think people at some level are fed up with talks about strikes and lockouts," Meindl said. "And here come these women who are sort of the girl next door. They're not multimillionaires. They've conducted themselves well, even with some controversy. They haven't gone out of their way to talk about the bad calls or dirty play."
Meindl also has an idea of why figure skating historically has done so well. "Women, we know, come out in great numbers. To get the men, you need competition of course, but also, let's face it, men like beautiful people and skating has that element as well."
The World Cup final, which starts at 11 a.m. PDT Sunday, will air on ESPN, so reaching numbers comparable to what the 1999 team got on ABC will be difficult, Meindl said.
"But it's going to do well," he said. "The drama and story line is there. That's what the women need."