Football is far from Australia’s biggest "commercial" sport, but the FIFA Women’s World Cup has the country hooked like few sporting events do. I’m totally swept up in the exhilarating vibe around the Matildas' campaign, as are countless fans after their triumphant match against Denmark on Monday night.
In a sign of these inclusive times, blokes are embracing the event as much as women and girls. I was speaking to a couple of 21-year-old males and they can't wait to see the Matildas' quest continue – and they don't normally follow soccer. "I think it's two things," said uni student Olly. "Firstly, the Matildas are actually really, really good at playing, and to be honest I don't even look at gender."
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"It's like the game, in the female comp, has globally come into its own, although for many, it has always been on top of their ball sport list," added fellow student George. Olly and George concur it's a perfect example of the strength, camaraderie and agility of female athletes that’s making this World Cup so enthralling.
Dr Kasey Symons, Research Fellow at the Sport Innovation Research Group says Aussies are so invested in the tournament because women’s sport is finally getting the spotlight it deserves.
"I'd say we're genuinely captivated by the Matildas and this Women's World Cup not only because the squad is so strong and Australia have a chance of doing really well, but also because this moment has been so embraced by sporting governing bodies, media, fans and advocates of women's sports, making it a bigger event than what happens on the pitch," Dr Symons tells me.
"This is reflective in how younger fans have been able to embrace the Matildas' journey as the media coverage, advertising and highly visible storytelling tells them this is special."
Matildas tapping into new demographic of sports fans
But the excitement goes beyond the Matildas. Dr Symons says the movement isn't only about seeing women succeed on the field, but also about seeing diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the sport, appealing to "fans who want to engage with the game outside of the aggressive supporter stereotype".
"It tells them, as well as fans of all ages, that women's football is valuable, exciting and offers a space that embraces fans of all genders, race, sexuality, religion, age, ability and level of fandom," Dr Symons says. "There is a place for you at women's football, and how this World Cup is amplifying that through storytelling and fan culture is playing a big role in bringing more people to the space who maybe thought sport wasn't for them."
Dr Symons adds that women's sport creates a different fan experience for supporters by engaging people who are there to champion the game and people who play it, rather than just a particular team. "The Matildas and this exciting event will change the game for women's football not only because it will showcase the exceptional athletes, but grow the audience through the visibility of the amazing culture women's football cultivates."
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