The United States women's national team likely strengthened its case for pay equity as its 2-0 win over the Netherlands to win the FIFA Women's World Cup was watched by 15.6 million viewers on Sunday.
The contest had an average of 14 million viewers on Fox and 1.6 million viewers on Spanish-language network Telemundo, according to Nielsen data. The audience was down 38% from the 2015 USWNT final against Japan in 2015, which with 25.4 million viewers remains the most watched soccer match in U.S. history.
But the audience was larger than the 2018 Men's World Cup final in which France topped Croatia 4-2, which was seen by 12.4 million viewers.
Sunday's World Cup final audience of 15.6 million viewers was also larger than four of the six 2019 NBA Finals contests between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.
What's more, the size of the U.S. audience for Sunday's final was likely limited by the 8 a.m. Pacific start time for the contest from Lyon, France. The 2015 final aired in prime time in the U.S.
The USWNT's win — and the strong ratings showing — comes four months after the lawsuit 28 female players filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging gender discrimination that affects their pay, training, travel, scheduling and medical treatment. The women are seeking compensation and working conditions equitable to the men's national team. They are also seeking back pay and damages.
"Certainly their winning reinforces this point that within the United States Soccer Federation, women are generating ratings and attendance that is on par with the men's matches," said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. "Most of [the federation's] corporate partners are basically paying to be part of men and women's soccer, there is no argument that you can make to say the men deserve to be paid more now."
The U.S. Soccer Federation has denied the lawsuit claims. In a May court filing, the organization argued that the pay differential between the male and female players is "based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex."
The sides are currently in mediation.
Fox said the women's tournament averaged 1.66 million viewers across its broadcast network and cable sports channels, down 9% from 2015.
Underscoring the rising popularity of women's soccer globally, several European countries including Sweden and the Netherlands saw record TV audiences during the tournament.
ESPN has already taken notice of ratings and buzz surrounding the performances. Last week, the Walt Disney Co. unit signed a deal to carry the professional National Women's Soccer league games.
Along with a dominant performance that delivered a second straight World Cup title, the USWNT's visibility was likely helped by its high-profile personalities.
The team's star, Megan Rapinoe, made headlines with her pronouncements that she would not visit the White House if the team was invited by President Trump. Her teammate Alex Morgan, who set a record for most goals in a Women's World Cup game, became a viral video sensation with her tea-sipping hand gesture during the semifinal game in which the U.S. defeated England.