While attendance numbers may not be massive, the tournament has drawn hardcore fans from across the continent.
Photo courtesy Nicole Winfield
After the U.S. Women's National Team defeated Nigeria 1-0 on June 16 to secure the top spot in the "group of death," nine tired U.S. fans boarded The Canada Line train near BC Place and rode out to the house in Vancouver, British Columbia they had rented for the month. This group wasn't a family or group of friends on vacation. They hailed from various cities and knew each other mostly through social media. Once they arrived, most of them collapsed onto chairs and couches in the living room, exhausted from hours spent standing in the sun and cheering on athletes who were doing real work.
Kelsey Miglioretto, 29, grabbed a whiteboard from the kitchen and scribbled down information from a chart on her phone to determine which third place teams in each group might advance to the knockout rounds. Stephanie Yang, from Boston, typed up game notes on her laptop to send to SB Nation's The Bent Musket, a blog where she writes about her local National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) team, The Boston Breakers, and the U.S. women's team. The rest of the group pulled out their phones and opened Twitter feeds to read what others thought of the game.
This group in Vancouver is a rare breed. They're not just followers of the USWNT, nor soccer fans looking to get in on a major international event. They describe themselves specifically as women's soccer fans—or as they call it in social-media friendly shorthand, "woso" fans.
Data on attendance for this summer's Women's World Cup has been varied. The tournament organizers in Canada claim that one million tickets have been sold so far, surpassing the 845,751 tickets sold four years ago in Germany. However, half of this year's matches were played as double-headers, meaning two tickets were counted as sold even if the ticket-holder only attended one of the games.
In any case, television viewers saw half-empty stadiums in Montreal and Moncton in the early matches. With 95 percent of tickets sold to North Americans, according to The New York Times, it's no surprise that the best crowds so far have been for games featuring the U.S. and Canadian teams. The United States has long been a women's soccer powerhouse, but this tournament unfolds as the NWSL—the country's third attempt at a women's professional soccer league—is in its third year and still struggling to draw consistent crowds in most cities. In the eyes of U.S. fans, it seems, not all women's soccer is worthy of the same attention.
But an ardent fan base does exist, even if it's small in numbers.
Miglioretto, a season-ticket holder for the NWSL's Portland Thorns, planned her trip to the World Cup for more than a year. She rolled over a week of her vacation days from last year from her job as a software developer just so she could attend the entire tournament. Yang spent the last two years saving money so she could spend this month focused just on woso. Five others are joining them in the house for the whole month. Other diehards from around the country who couldn't get as much time cleared, are dropping in when they can: for a week, or a weekend, or just a game. A few of them, like Miglioretto, are from soccer-crazed Portland, but their real connection is the social media community where most woso supporters read coverage of the sport, which is radically underrepresented by traditional sports media.
"We're kind of a niche group," Yang says. "When we found each other online, we bonded."
Earlier in the week, a group of high school girls filled four rows of seats on the Northeast end of BC Place during the doubleheader featuring one match between Switzerland and Ecuador, and another pitting Japan against Cameroon. The girls, a soccer team from Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles, weren't seeing the USWNT play that day, but they were decked out in head to toe American flag gear anyway.
The father of one of the players wanted to buy tickets for his family when he realized the tournament would be in Canada this year. Then he thought some of his daughter's teammates might like to go too. Soon they were looking into group tickets. In the end, 19 girls plus seven chaperones flew to Vancouver. They stayed at the dorms at University of British Columbia and the girls even practiced on their field. One chaperone, Kim Cosgrove, said they took advantage of the good timing, summer vacation, and the proximity of a tournament that's only a relatively short flight away. Without a professional women's team in Los Angeles, the options for watching women's soccer are usually limited to the women's teams at USC or UCLA. "A lot of them have been to Galaxy games of course," Cosgrove says, referring to L.A.'s MLS team.
High-school soccer players get understandably starry-eyed watching the best women in the world play. "It's pretty inspiring," says Grace, Cosgrove's 15-year-old daughter. She says she thinks about maybe playing professionally someday. "I mean, if I can."
There are contingents of fans not from the U.S. or Canada at these games, aren't there? Higher in the stands at the same double-header, where the Swiss thrashed Ecuador 10 to 1, a small but enthusiastic contingent of Swiss fans gathered, holding signs and inflatable balloons bearing the slogan: "Hopp Schwiiz!"
Raphael Lamon is Swiss, but he didn't make the trek all the way from Europe. He lives in Canada with his Canadian wife and their two small sons, who sat next to him. For Lamon, a European soccer fan who's raising soccer-playing boys, the excitement of the first World Cup appearance for the Swiss women's team was enough to get him to the game with his family. "Oh I love it," he said of watching the women play. "There's less diving."
In the wake of the excitement for the Women's World Cup four years ago, when Team U.S.A. took second place in a tournament that came down to penalty kicks against Japan, attendance surged at Women's Professional Soccer league matches around the country. But the interest driven by the World Cup was too little, too late for the cash-strapped league. It folded after the end of the season.
This is the NWSL's third season. The previous two leagues didn't make it to four. The NWSL has taken some extreme steps to keep costs under control, including tight caps on player salaries. All the same, attendance last year for most teams averaged less than 3,000 at each game (excluding the outlier, Portland, where games drew 13,320 on average). If the World Cup piques interest in women's soccer again, it could make a big difference.
To some fans, soccer is soccer no matter whether the players are men or women, and a chance to express good old American patriotism is not to be missed. Before the U.S. match on Tuesday, four beer-wielding, shirtless young men with red, white and blue body paint strolled through the BC Place concourse. They wouldn't have looked out of place at any number of sporting events. They started chants when other U.S. fans walked past. Shawn Rupp, 24, said the group drove to Canada from Colorado for the tournament.
"We love representing America and we love soccer, so why not?" Rupp said. The four follow different soccer teams, some MLS, some foreign clubs, and though they're aware of the NWSL, they don't follow a team. "I'll occasionally watch an NWSL game, if it's a good matchup," Rupp said.
Back at the Vancouver house, Luke Howitt, 45, a lawyer in Long Beach, Calif., explained how he jinxed Alex Morgan. The Thorns star forward, who had missed the runup to the World Cup and didn't start the first two games while recovering from a spate of injuries, was finally in the starting lineup, but failed to put one in the net.
"This morning I said I've never been to a game where Alex Morgan didn't score," he said. Though he lives in California, Howitt is a Thorns fan in part because he and Morgan share an alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley.
Howitt, who is English, grew up in London rooting for Arsenal of the Premier League and later West Ham. Eventually the hooliganism turned him off of men's soccer.
"You shouldn't be worried about people getting bottles broken over their heads while you're trying to watch a match," he said. He stopped watching the sport altogether for a while.
Around the same time Howitt was explaining why he came to Vancouver, the USWNT social media accounts posted a video of Abby Wambach. "I want to thank all of the fans for coming and crossing the border here in Canada, you're making this World Cup amazing. Thank you guys so much!" she said.
The team, the U.S. Soccer Federation, and the various groups working to promote women's soccer in the U.S. are acutely aware that no matter how many U.S. fans are filling the stands, there's still an opportunity to keep growing support for the game. After all, many fans here fell in love with the sport in 1999 when the U.S. Women won their last World Cup title.
The win came shortly after Howitt moved to California. "It sounds cheesy, he said, "but women's soccer in the U.S. really helped me regain my love for the game."