Oct 23, 2014 4:58 AM
Next Women's World Cup a big chance for US soccer
The Associated Press
The chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" can rev up again next summer.
And this time, they won't conflict with the workday.
A year after the World Cup transformed millions of Americans into red-white-and-blue-wearing soccer fanatics, another chance to cheer for a national team will arrive.
The Women's World Cup kicks off in Canada in June and if the favored U.S. advances far, expect some more massive TV audiences.
"Any time you get to wrap yourself in the flag and root with other Americans, it doesn't really matter if you know what offsides is," Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said.
The biggest games will air in prime time in the U.S., unlike this year's men's tournament. While Brazil's time zones also were favorable, matches took place in the afternoon to ensure that they ended before bedtime in the lucrative European markets.
But for the women's event, the U.S. market is the most valuable.
American fans were going crazy for their women's team long before they jumped on the bandwagon for the men. The 1999 Women's World Cup final remains the highest-rated soccer game ever on U.S. English-language TV.
When the United States beat China on penalty kicks at the Rose Bowl and Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey to celebrate the ABC broadcast was watched in 11.4 percent of American homes with televisions. This year's U.S.-Portugal group-stage match on ESPN, which broke another record with 18.2 million viewers, was on in 9.6 percent.
The last Women's World Cup final, when the Americans lost to Japan on penalty kicks in Germany in 2011, was watched by nearly 13.5 million people on ESPN on a Sunday afternoon. At the time, it was the highest-rated soccer telecast on the network.
A year later, the U.S. and Japan met again for the 2012 Olympic gold medal in London. In the middle of a workday in the U.S., the match was seen by almost 4.4 million viewers on NBCSN, then the largest audience in the cable network's history bigger than any of its prime-time Stanley Cup Final games.
Many sports fans may be able to name more players on the women's team than they could for the men before last summer's World Cup. Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux all appear in prominent commercials.
On top of all that, next summer's story lines are especially intriguing.
The domestic violence case against goalkeeper Hope Solo has been much-discussed in the context of NFL star Ray Rice's punishment.
Star players are suing to compel organizers to install grass at all the stadiums, saying the plan to use turf is discriminatory because the men don't play World Cups on artificial surfaces.
A testy rivalry is simmering between the top-ranked Americans and host Canadians, who are still rankled by calls that went against them in their Olympic semifinal overtime loss. Fans north of the border have booed the Canadian-born Leroux for her choice to play for the U.S.
Wambach, the top scorer in the history of women's soccer, has yet to win a World Cup. Hard to believe considering all of the Americans' success, but they haven't raised the trophy since that 1999 run.
"The planets are aligned perfectly," said David Neal, the executive producer for Fox's World Cup coverage.
Fox has little experience airing women's sports in the United States, so there's not much precedent to predict the tone and vigor it will use in its coverage. Neal, though, produced nine Olympics in his three decades at NBC.
Fox hired him more than two years ago after the company won U.S. English-language World Cup rights from ESPN. Its first men's World Cup isn't until 2018 in Russia.
Neal said the dedication of Fox's top executives to covering the women's tournament is "breathtaking."
"It's not meant to be a boutique event. It's not meant to be a lab for the event in Russia," he said.
"Is there a deep history of covering women's sports? No, there's not," Neal added. "But there's a deep and abiding commitment."
That includes the unprecedented coverage of the current CONCACAF qualifying tournament, in which the U.S. faces Mexico in Friday's semifinals. Every game from the event is airing live on a Fox Sports network. There's a pregame show before each U.S. match and an embedded reporter covering the Americans.
Women's soccer is benefiting from the company's desire to boost Fox Sports 1, its fledgling cable sports channel. Live events are the best way to draw new viewers to the network.
Soccer neophyte Gus Johnson was originally supposed to call the Women's World Cup along with the 2018 men's tournament. But he recently decided to step down as Fox's lead announcer for the sport.
The network has yet to announce its new plans.
John Strong, also NBC's lead announcer for Major League Soccer, and former U.S. defender Cat Whitehill will call Sunday's CONCACAF final. Tony DiCicco, who coached the Americans to that '99 World Cup title, is among the other analysts.
Qualifying is the first of many steps for the U.S. team to potentially reach another final and the attention that would come with that.
"It's been fascinating to watch the excitement get wrapped into these World Cups," Wambach said. "So we know we have an opportunity. We know we have a responsibility to do the very best we can."
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.