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Observations from the FIFA Women’s World Cup – Part 1

By Dr. Natalie L. Smith (@NatalieLSmith)

Natalie is an Assistant Professor at East Tennessee State University, a former Sky Blue FC & MLS employee, and is currently recruiting a Graduate Assistant for Fall 2020.

For many former and current sports business professionals and academics, attending sporting events are often simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. Here are a few academic-professional observations from my 5th live Women’s World Cup, and suggestions for research. Watch for Part 2, an interview with interim GM of Sky Blue FC, Alyse LaHue.

Creation of liminal spaces

Many fans I spoke to felt a lack of atmosphere in most of the French cities, something I also felt in Winnipeg 4 years earlier. They strongly desired a feeling of togetherness, celebrating women’s soccer as a group. While there were fan zones, most whom I spoke to thought they were solely children focused. This may not be what the event organizers intended, but it is how many people felt. Once finally inside the stadium however, the feelings of community and atmosphere were different. USA-France was a magical combination of European fan culture and USA supporters. It was the best sporting event I’ve ever attended. Exploring women’s sporting events as liminal experiences may be a wonderful opportunity for academic-organizer collaboration.

Understanding your fan base

Regarding the 2011 WWC, Hallmann (2011) is a good read. I wonder do those findings apply to France? Or those who travel internationally? Thanks to a summer research grant from Clemmer College at my university, East TN State University, I conducted a small exploratory project regarding coaches who traveled to the WWC, and an interesting point came up: It isn’t just about the sport. These individuals who have dedicated their lives to soccer, also spoke of seeing the cultural sites, drinking good wine, and spending time with friends and/or family in a foreign country. It also included a focus on learning, it was about conversation with each other during games. Similarly, in my informal conversations with fans across the English-speaking spectrum, I noticed while they came for a variety of reasons, none of them traveled alone. Those who research this space are probably thinking, “yeah duh, Natalie,” but is that research translating to organizer decision-making?

Level of play differences

For all the press the 13-0 game received, no one seemed to notice that on average, the level of play has improved dramatically since 1999. While there is a great deal of Uncertainty of Outcome research related to various aspects of men’s sports, works such as Valenti et al. (2019), only recently published, addresses the dearth of generalizability for women’s sports. What will happen when the women’s game moves to 32 teams?

Sponsorship bundling

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WWC Commemorative Cup Collection

Some of the conversations around the games this summer was the “value” of women’s soccer, and finally someone pointed out what I’ve known since working at Soccer United Marketing, women’s soccer national teams are mostly bundled with their male counterparts. Anecdotally, there are vastly different approaches to this bundling paradox. Most of my supervisors in business development could’ve cared less about women’s soccer back in 2010 and sold it as an afterthought, however I’ve seen this bundling used intelligently to provide value for the whole National Team or international federation brand. Exploring those differences, a hybrid sponsorship-organizational behavior research exploration could provide valuable insight for sport organizations seeking to maximize all their properties.

 

Effect on domestic situations & leagues

Some previous work (Feng et al., 2018) in Chinese men’s soccer found Chinese Super League attendance actually went down after the men’s World Cup. However, the presence of star players can positively impact attendance after an event like the men’s World Cup. Indeed, an entire issue of Soccer & Society considered this issue, but as the editors themselves note the issue was entirely about men’s events. For the 2011 WWC, research indicated attendance improved dramatically at Women’s Professional Soccer games, however the league folding that year left many unanswered questions. The appearance of stability for the NWSL and other domestic leagues around the globe could provide a better opportunity to understand this relationship. Which is why I asked a current NWSL GM to update us on the situation, which you can read about in Part 2 next week…

In conclusion, so many questions remain about how our current management theories relate to the realities of women’s soccer, and perhaps women’s sport more generally. Fortunately, this seems to be a growing area of interest for scholars. In the past year alone, we have seen a book published on the business of women’s sport (co-edited by Drs. Nancy Lough and Andrea Geurin), and a call for papers with the International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing for a special issue on marketing in women’s sports (submissions due in December). This increased academic focus on women’s sport is needed and welcomed. Clearly those in the women’s sports space want more collaboration with academics, what an opportunity for us to provide much needed research.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, right here at nassmblog.com…

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