With no apologies to the Dallas Cowboys, the real-deal America’s Team visits Heinz Field on Sunday. It’s still football, just not that kind of football.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team is here, World Cup in hand, to play Costa Rica in an exhibition match, or friendly, in the first leg of a 10-game victory tour.
According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, about 20,000 fans were expected to attend when the game was scheduled in late June, before the Cup quarterfinals. As of Saturday, more than 44,000 tickets have been sold — a record for a single-game friendly by an American women’s team.
Amid the post-Cup hoopla, a parade in Los Angeles followed by a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the individual Sports Illustrated covers (all 25 of them), the talk shows, the award presentations and the on-stage appearance with Taylor Swift at Madison Square Garden, the love fest goes on. And on.
Competing once again since the 5-2 win over Japan in the Cup finals in Vancouver on July 5, the squad remains firmly wedged in American hearts and minds, crossing age and gender lines. The team’s popularity has become a phenomenon on the order of the feat, the first Cup championship for the United States in 16 years. Maybe more so.
The Americans, after all, were among the favorites. Richland’s Meghan Klingenberg, a defender who played every minute of every game, said she expected widespread national support, but not “the extent to which the country has gone to celebrate and be involved.”
The Cup-clinching game televised on Fox averaged 25.4 million home viewers, with a peak of 31 million, and another 5 million at venues outside homes, making it the most-watched soccer game ever in the United States.
“That’s like an NFL playoff audience,” said Fox senior vice president for programming and research Mike Mulvihill. “The ratings definitely exceeded what we were looking for.”
Mulvihill was among the hundreds of thousands who took in the parade up the Canyon of Champions in lower Manhattan, the first ticker-tape parade for a women’s team. Such parades tend to draw “boisterous male crowds,” he said. “This was different. This was families, young kids, mostly girls. It really had a warm, unique feeling to it.”
Fox began promoting its World Cup coverage during baseball’s World Series in the fall. The game turned into “a very special event that reached across generations and got parents and kids to watch together, which is a pretty rare thing for our culture,” Mulvihill said.
According to the Q Score, a measurement of the consumer appeal of celebrities, the team registers 40 percent awareness and a 31 percent popularity score among adults, both of which “are pretty high,” said Henry Schafer, Q Scores Co. executive vice president. He noted that celebrities average 29 percent awareness and 19 percent popularity.
“That 31 score is in the same ballpark as Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne (‘The Rock’) Johnson, people who are really hot in the entertainment world,” Schafer said.
Although the individual awareness numbers for the best-known individuals — Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd — are below average, Schafer pointed to the high Q scores for Morgan (24) and Wambach (23).
“You can see the strength Abby and Alex have generated in terms of their consumer appeal,” he said. “It’s significantly above the average.”
Morgan, who is injured and not expected to play against Costa Rica, landed a deal last month with EA Sports that will put her picture on the cover of the FIFA 16 video game, alongside men’s superstar Lionel Messi. Not only is Morgan the first woman to make the cover, the video game will include women’s national teams for the first time.
“It’s definitely historic,” said Morgan’s agent, Dan Levy.
The impact of the championship goes beyond video games, said Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, director of the University of Oregon Sports Product Management Program.
“Now we’re going to see women (athletes) who are inspirations to boys and men,” she said.
A former runner at Oregon, Schmidt-Devlin worked at Nike for 27 years and is executive producer of “We Grew Wings,” the story of Oregon’s championship women’s track and field teams. She said the appeal of the World Cup team was due to that, “They all came together to win. They didn’t do it because there would be a bunch of money for them. They didn’t do it for the glory.
“They did it because it was the right thing,” she said. “The beauty and authenticity of women’s sports is very attractive to people, and that’s what’s attractive about this team.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.