Eleven-plus million viewers for a World Cup semi-final? (This is without including online streaming or pub-watchers.) Top headline story the next morning, listeners ringing radio stations to declare themselves converted, the front pages of newspapers filled with photographs from the game? Shown live on screens in Glastonbury, the maddest music festival in the United Kingdom?
It happened in England this week and my friend Joanne King called it a "game changer" moment for sport in her country, in the way women's sport is viewed and treated. Ian Henderson, businessman turned B&B owner, said he had followed the event closely over the last month with growing admiration for the sport he had paid little attention to in the past. The 11.7m semi-final figure comes from a five-minute "peak" with an average viewing of a not-too-shabby 10.3m from that game.
If that had happened to cricket in England, torrents of joyous tears would have flown in the ECB offices at Lord's. "The Masses are Won Over, Mandarins Overwhelmed." Those numbers, however, belong to the women's football World Cup where England made the semi-finals. Before losing to defending champs USA and, erm, missing an equaliser penalty. At our beloved cricket World Cup, the best numbers for England's once-in-a-few-generations kind of team were, at its peak, 500,000 viewers for a game.
Even if you are a sceptic about TV ratings figures, halve both those sets and still English cricket has reason to be red-faced. The England women's football team -- called the Lionesses, coached by Manchester United Class of '92 stalwart Phil Neville -- are the topic of everyday discussion in buses, trains, queues and pubs. It is football for sure, but this is women's football, which has never counted as a mainstream sport. The Football Association ban on women's football among its clubs as "...quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged" was lifted in 1971. Which to many ESPN.in readers may be in a period considered prehistory, but that is within my lifetime. (While we're on the general topic, the first women's marathon at the Olympics took place only in 1984.)
As of now it is established that the WWC2019 has beaten the CWC2019 to being considered England's No.2 television sport. In the United Kingdom, at this point in time, women's football has drubbed men's cricket as the No.2 sport in terms of TV audience alone. That has got to mean something for women's sport worldwide. Across the developed world there is no similar parallel across team sport. What on earth brought this on?
Henderson said he had enjoyed the women's game because it was played at a good pace, with enough skill, stepovers, dummies and free-kick benders on show and fewer stoppages. Fewer fouls, lesser diving, lesser theatrics, more active play. "It's football how you want it played," says lifelong Manchester United supporter and chartered accountant Ujjal Saini. Alberto Rastrepo, a Colombian friend of the Sainis, has revelled in the women's game, appreciating the skills on show, the physicality the game requires and the minimal histrionics it generates. A 17-year-old Newcastle boy talking to Radio Five Live after the semi-final said his mates and him used to dismiss watching women's football, but had found themselves drawn into the semi-final, emotionally invested and involved and, at the end, drained and weepy.
The semi-final was my first WWC match too after stepping away from the CWC, watched on a giant screen in the Rose & the Crown pub in Slaley, a village in rural Northumbria with my friend Steve Percy. Steve has been a long-suffering Newcastle fan who took me to see my first EPL match -- Crystal Palace v Arsenal, 1997. The Rose & Crown didn't really have a rowdy pub night planned for the Tuesday game, but very kindly set up their giant screen, with a handful of regulars watching.
A giant tattooed American man (apologies for the stereotyping), looking a bit like a Harley-Davidson metalhead, said he didn't support the Americans because he thought they were 'dum-dum.' When the game was on, the regulars were interested, the barman who had set up the giant screen cheered when England scored the first equaliser, the cook popped his head around to see what was happening and when England captain Steph Houghton missed the penalty, a chorus of groans rattled the glassware around the bar.
What the World Cup was able to do by being free on BBC TV, was allow people to, as my friend Guardian sportswriter Tanya Aldred describes it, "stumble" onto the event and get hooked. The CWC2019 has been the exact opposite, hard to run into whether on the road reporting it, an exercise eloquently highlighted by my colleague Andrew Fidel Fernando, or generally moving about without a premium cable TV connection. The Northern Echo newspaper published out of Darlington in County Durham has declared CWC the 'forgotten' World Cup.
In contrast, the numbers produced by the Women's World Cup have jumped over all the conclusions about live sport on TV being replaced by a streaming society. In England this has been a summer of WWC parties where friends gather around a TV set to watch the Lionesses live. Rosy Wilson, under-16 cricketer for Didsbury CC, said the matches were telecast live at the clubhouse and watched every day by a good number. "My entire cricket team is obsessed with it but the world of women's sport is quite small. But the difference here is that it has just been as many boys talking about the Women's World Cup as the girls."
The yawning abyss between the two world cups on air around the same time (the WWC on between June 7 to July 7) has been such a facepalm that cricket is scrambling to compensate. They're letting schoolkids into the Long Room and Sky have said the final will be free to air -- as long as England get in. Sweet, but episodic generosity can be a bit of a bummer. It has a horrible habit of showing up at the worst of times. Showing you up too.