England’s heroic run in the Women’s World Cup ended in theatrical fashion on Tuesday as the Lionesses lost 2-1 to the reigning champions, the United States.
“Obviously I’m devastated not to get to the final,” said a tearful Ellen White — the first England player ever of any gender to score in five consecutive World Cup matches. “But all I feel is pride, to be honest, for my teammates.”
But while England has now been knocked out of the semi-final for the second Women’s World Cup in a row — and for the second time in a major tournament across the last two beautiful, devastating summers after the success of the men’s side in the European Championships last year — there’s some comfort to be found in one shared hangover.
England’s opening match against Scotland had already become the UK’s most-watched women’s football match in history.
But with every single game that followed, the record kept on getting broken — and last night, England’s defeat at the hands of the US wasn’t just the biggest recorded audience for women’s football in this country.
It was Britain’s most-watched television moment of the year so far.
More than we could possibly have imagined a month ago: 11.7 MILLION viewers for the @Lionesses game last night, an astonishing 50.8% share of audience and the most watched TV programme of the year so far 💫 Champions League final on BT had 11.3m #FIFAWWCpic.twitter.com/71OwEztsl8— Rebecca Myers (@rebeccacmyers) July 3, 2019
At its peak, 11.7 million people tuned in to watch the match, while an average of 10.3 million stayed for the whole thing — and that’s excluding anybody who streamed the game online or gathered in groups to see it in pubs across the country.
In fact, over half of the available audience in the UK (50.8%) watched the dramatic semi-final — according to data measured by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) by analysing 12,000 people across 5,100 households representative of the whole country.
"What's been so different and great about this tournament is the sheer number of people watching the Lionesses on TV,” said Martin Glenn, former chief executive of the Football Association (FA). "It's moved from being an interesting Olympic-type sport to an absolute mainstream sport.”
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“The importance of that is that adds attraction, it pulls girls and women into playing,” Glenn continued to BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "At the top end, what will make the product of the Women's Super League more attractive is getting more exposure in the millions — so being on terrestrial TV is important — making sure the games are played in the elite stadiums that the men play in, and continuing to improve the quality of the football.
"At the end of the day it's a leisure pursuit and if people see great quality football being played then they'll come and watch it."
Another semifinal loss for an English side in a World Cup, but heartbreaking as it is, @Lionesses you did us proud. Well played.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) July 2, 2019
The historic viewing figure is more than triple the audience for the opening episode of Love Island — the most successful show in ITV2’s history — watched by an average of 3.3 million people.
And you can triple that again, or rather “nonuple” it overall, to compare the popularity of Phil Neville’s side with the average number of people who have watched the men’s England team play in the Cricket World Cup, even though that’s being hosted in the UK.
The previous viewing record for the year was held by the finale for BBC drama Line of Duty, which attracted a peak of 9.6 million viewers when it aired in May.
But that’s just a snapshot of the incredible global reach of the tournament: FIFA has predicted that by the time the champions are crowned on Sunday there would have been a total audience of 1 billion on all platforms across the whole tournament.
It’s a sweeping declaration of victory for women’s sport and gender equality in general.
To those who have recently fallen in love with our #Lionesses and to those who have been here since the beginning. Your support means the world. This thing that is happening, doesn’t end here.— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 2, 2019
Thank you x pic.twitter.com/u0qLERb7IS