When the players hit the field, they were greeted with a wall of noise. There were blobs of red and blue in the packed stands of New Zealand’s largest stadium but most of the fans were neutrals; thousands of New Zealanders without a specific horse in the race. This was an equal-opportunity crowd, there for the moment, and the game.
The final match of the Women’s World Cup to be hosted in New Zealand – a tense semi-final between Sweden and Spain – was played before a record-breaking, sellout crowd. Any lingering doubts about whether New Zealand would muster enthusiasm for football – or about the rising status and mass appeal of women’s sport – were put to bed.
“It takes a while for things to catch alight here,” said New Zealand women’s sport commentator Alice Soper. “But once they do, and once people decide to jump on that bandwagon, there’s kind of no stopping it.”
The New Zealand-hosted games had been initially plagued by fears of sluggish ticket sales, to the point where sponsors gave away 20,000 free tickets, and the former prime minister Jacinda Ardern urged New Zealanders to “jump online and join in”. A week before the first kick-off, just half of the tickets to New Zealand matches had been sold. Sports columnists speculated about whether the country’s physical isolation, its smaller host towns, the lack of a domestic fanbase for football, and its stable of older stadiums would stop the competition fizzling.
Since kickoffs began, however, New Zealand fans have fallen in love with women’s football. Tuesday night’s semi-final match was at capacity, a spokesperson for Eden Park stadium said, the latest in a series of record-breaking crowds. The tournament’s games had broken the previous national record for the biggest crowd at any men’s or women’s football match five times over. And while thousands of international fans made the trip, local people were dominating the stalls: 82% of sales to Eden Park matches were to people living in New Zealand. A million New Zealanders – or one in five – tuned into the opening game, and by the tournament’s end, 700,000 fans had attended the New Zealand games in person.
The tournament heralded “a colossal change in the way football – and particularly women’s football – is seen in Aotearoa New Zealand”, Andrew Pragnell, the CEO of New Zealand Football, said on Tuesday.
“It’s a massive result for women’s sports in general,” Soper said. “Considering everything working against this tournament: that it’s not a sport that is well known [in New Zealand], that people supposedly don’t like women’s sports – well, the numbers speak for themselves.”
While football is popular as a team sport in schools, it hasn’t previously garnered a mass audience in New Zealand. Professional rugby has tended to dominate as the country’s spectator sport of choice, spurred on by the All Blacks’ dominance on the world stage. Enthusiasm for women’s football, however, has managed to jostle rugby’s long-term supremacy in New Zealand stadiums. Turnout for this Women’s World Cup has far surpassed many All Blacks games of recent years, and is on a par with the last Rugby World Cup hosted by New Zealand.
According to analysis of crowd sizes at the first 10 matches of the Fifa tournament, Soper said, “We’re tracking at about 97% of the attendance of the same first matches of the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2011.”
“We’ve seen massive decline in attendance across the board when it comes to live events here in New Zealand – but women’s sports are the only part of the market that’s bucking that trend,” she said.
Throughout the stadium on Tuesday night, hundreds of fans twirled poi. The balls on cords, traditionally spun in Māori dance, appeared in large numbers at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2022 and have now been adopted as a kind of unofficial symbol of support, and pride, at women’s sport matches.
“I feel incredibly proud that New Zealanders have embraced this competition,” Ardern said on Monday night, speaking at an event on equality in women’s sport. “What a magnificent job New Zealand has done.”