PARIS - When the U.S. played Norway in the semifinals of the second Women's World Cup in 1995, fewer than 3,000 people showed up at a minor league soccer stadium in Sweden to watch. And that was one of the bigger crowds of the tournament.
"To everyone outside of friends and family and the players themselves, it was like a tree falling in the woods that nobody sees or hears," said Briana Scurry, the U.S. goalkeeper said of that World Cup. "It happened. But nobody saw or heard it."
They're watching and listening now. Because where once there was indifference about women's soccer, now there's excitement.
In fact the sport has enjoyed such massive growth in recent years, when the eighth edition of the Women's World Cup kicks off Friday in Paris, the coach who won the title four years ago in Canada says it might as well be considered another game.
"It's so different than it was even two World Cups ago in terms of just the depth and the talent and the level of players out there and the level of teams," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "It gets more and more competitive and more and more fun and exciting."
Lieke Martens agreed. A former world player of the year from the Netherlands, Martens is one of several World Cup players who had to compete against boys growing up because there were no girls' programs where she lived. Now the opportunities for women are plentiful.
"The game's getting smaller and smaller," she said. "In Europe especially a lot of countries have progressed. The level of women's football is getting higher and higher."
As a result, the 24-team field for this summer's monthlong tournament is the deepest and most talented ever. An event long dominated by a small number of well-supported elites - the U.S. and Germany combined to win five of the first seven world championships - is now wide open, with at least half a dozen teams heading to France believing they have a chance to climb to the top step of the podium next month.
And one big reason is money. Corporate sponsors, national federations and even individual clubs - spurred, in many cases, by players loudly demanding more support - have spent heavily in the women's game, expanding domestic leagues and investing in training facilities and grass-roots programs.
At the same time, women's soccer has gained unprecedented recognition. Whether that investment brought the game more attention or whether the attention has brought the investors is a chicken-or-egg thing. But the progress is undeniable.
In the last two years, games in Mexico, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and elsewhere have drawn record crowds of more than 30,000 for a women's match, topped by the 60,739 that packed a stadium in Madrid to watch Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona in March.
"There is an audience," said Mia Hamm, a two-time World Cup champion and a former world player of the year.
The size of the corporate investments that have poured into the women's game often amount to a rounding error compared with what is spent on the men's side, but for a sport that has long been starved for resources, a tiny amount can make a big difference.
"With even the smallest investment, the return is so great," Hamm said. "The impact it has on these players and their families and their communities, in terms of opportunities, is huge."
And it shows little sign of slowing. FIFA, soccer's governing body and the organizer of the World Cup, says the global television audience for this summer's tournament could top 1 billion for the first time, which has advertisers rushing to cash in. A record nine countries have expressed interest in hosting the next Women's World Cup in 2023.
In the last year alone, Visa agreed to a seven-year deal to become the first UEFA sponsor dedicated solely to the women's game; the Women's Super League in England signed a three-year marketing contract with Barclay's worth more than $12.5 million; and France's domestic league negotiated a five-year agreement to have its games shown on national TV each week.
"There's attention from sponsors, TV," said Laura Georges, a three-time World Cup participant and now secretary-general of the French soccer federation. "In every country we have more and more players. We want to grow the attention on women's football."
That why officials like Georges and others have made sure much of the money flowing into women's soccer has been funneled back into the game, paying salaries, funding leagues and building infrastructure where none existed. That's already making the game more competitive.
In the Netherlands, where women's soccer was an amateur sport until 2007, a pro league was formed and a decade later the national team won its first European Championship. When players from Argentina return home from the World Cup, they'll have an opportunity to play in the country's first professional league. Most left for France as amateurs.
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Salaries and opportunities have grown in a number of other countries as well, allowing players to stay home and make a living while playing the game.
Consider France and England. For much of the 20th century, women were banned from playing organized soccer in those countries. Now both have popular domestic leagues and their national teams are ranked among the top four in the world.
England's Lucy Bronze was making pizzas at a Domino's and sleeping on friends' couches before England's Women's Super League took off, allowing her to make a living from the game.
"I never considered being a player a career path," she told the magazine FourFourTwo. "There'd been a point when I was wondering whether it would be better to get a normal job or carry on playing."
Less than six years later Bronze is widely considered one of the best players in the world.
In Spain a poorly funded women's league was reorganized in 2011, helping teams gain sponsors and exposure that funded development programs. Four years later the country played in the Women's World Cup for the first time, and in 2018 its teams won the U-17 World Cup and finished second in the U-20 tournament.
"Things have changed massively. And each day is a big new step for us," said midfielder Victoria Losada, whose club team, Barcelona, last summer signed a generous sponsorship deal with U.S. toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker. "Now people in Spain look at football, women's football, without another perspective. People now respect this sport."
That's not to say everything's gone perfectly. The U.S. women's team sued U.S. Soccer twice in the last three years charging gender discrimination in pay and working conditions. Nigeria's players staged a sit-in at their hotel over unpaid salaries and bonuses after winning the 2016 African Women's Cup of Nations. And national teams in Argentina, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Puerto Rico, Norway, Canada and elsewhere have waged public campaigns seeking more money and support from their federations.
In most cases, they've won. Eighteen months ago, the Norwegian federation struck a historic deal that mandated equal pay for its men's and women's players. Canada's federation reached a two-year deal with its women's players in March after the players demanded increases in pay, bonuses and per diem; Argentina agreed to fund a professional league; the Danish team saw their pay doubled; the Irish said all their demands were addressed; and the Nigerian government released $1.2 million to the federation to pay bonuses to its players.
FIFA, meanwhile, which would seem to have the most to gain from the growing interest in the women's game, has instead struggled to keep up. It didn't even have a women's division until 2016 and it wasn't until last October that it announced a coherent strategy to enhance the commercial value and strengthen the foundation of women's soccer.
"The women's game is a top priority for FIFA," Secretary-General Fatma Samoura said at the time.
FIFA has yet to match those words with deeds. Although FIFA doubled the prize money for this summer's tournament to $30 million - $4 million of which will go to the winner - the French team alone got $38 million from FIFA for winning the men's tournament last summer. And the overall prize-money pool in Russia was $400 million, more than 13 times larger than the women's purse this year.
The world players union reacted harshly to that news. "Football remains even further from the goal of quality for all World Cup players regardless of gender," it said in a statement, adding that "the pace of change has not been fast enough nor the changes progressive enough to make up for decades of neglect of the women's game."
Still it's progress. FIFA didn't award any prize money in the first four Women's World Cups.
The challenge now will be to manage the unprecedented growth of the women's game while also maximizing opportunities to close the gender equality gap. Until FIFA gets a handle on that, domestic clubs, leagues and federations will continue leading the way. That's already happening in France, where earnings from the men's and women's World Cups are being funneled into organizations that invest in programs for girls.
"We want to be the leaders. To inspire all this, to build it for the girls," Georges said. "We need to grow the base. If you want elite players, you need to grow the base.
"Now we're working on more women in management, more women trainers. More referees too."
Because the next time a tree falls in the forest, Georges wants to make sure it's heard.
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