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Social media lifts Women's World Cup to new heights

The 1999 Women’s World Cup was big, but it wasn’t Twitter big. It wasn’t a hash-tagging, trending topics, Facebook commenting, YouTube self-recording kind of epic.

Granted, none of those things were even part of people’s vocabularies in 1999. Media could not easily gauge the worth of a story by looking at trending topics – the most talked about stories – on Twitter. Fans could not instantly become “friends” with professional athletes on Facebook and follow their every emotion through a keyboard.

So in a way, 1999 never had a fair chance of standing up to today’s tech-savvy youngsters who have spurred a digital revolution. But social media, as it has done for so many other sports and organizations, has helped bring this Women’s World Cup to new heights that were previously unimaginable. In a numbers-driven society we now have a way to measure the impact of an event not only by TV ratings and newspapers sales, but unique visitors, trending topics and new Facebook friends.

Take, for example, Hope Solo’s Twitter account. The last 12 months have seen some well-documented tweets from Solo. She speaks her mind on everything from refereeing injustices to standing up for alleged fan racism (which was never proven after a series of back and forth public comments between Boston and Atlanta).

But despite Solo owning what was clearly the most interesting Twitter account in all of women’s soccer, she still only (read: “only” compared to athletes in major sports) had about 10,000 Twitter followers coming into the Women’s World Cup. That has since increased 10-fold as she has been lifted to heroic statures.

“You can see for yourself the effects social media has had,” Solo said. “It’s pretty clear cut that the numbers on my own Twitter account went from 10,000 to over 100,000 followers, so it’s obviously the evolution of not just this sport but the evolution of this time.”

Profound. Truly, this is an evolution – even a revolution – in behavior. Yeah, Brandi Chastain ripped her jersey off and celebrated in her sports bra, but that was Monday morning water cooler talk. That was Monday morning’s front page (along with the covers of a lot of magazines). But that was not the talk of the Twitterverse, the viral video or the photo that everyone shared on Facebook. None of that existed then.

In a society with a short attention span, social media is the bandwagon catalyst. Trending news topics are to Twitter as the prom queen is to the small town high school: Signs of being totally awesome for all of about 15 minutes.

Following the U.S.’ quarterfinal victory over Brazil on Sunday, six of the 10 trending topics on Twitter involved the U.S. women or had something to do with the match that had just finished. It was an incredible taste of relevance for the usually under the radar sport.

On Thursday’s U.S. Women’s National Team conference call, every player was asked about the support being received from fans stateside. Whether prompted or not, every player spoke about how social media has helped them feel that American support.

Rachel Buehler noted “outpouring support” on her Facebook page and defender Ali Krieger, whose inbox reportedly filled up at 4,000 emails following Sunday’s penalty kick win over Brazil (Krieger struck that winning PK), spoke of support via email, text message, Facebook and even blogs.

“It’s been really, really overwhelming,” Krieger said. “It just gives us all motivation to play really well.”

Even across the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Women’s National Team has the ability to tangibly view its popularity just as much as the residents of Small Town, USA. Forward Abby Wambach describes the emotional support as the “12th man” even from so far away.

“All the energy of the millions of people that are supporting us back home, that is something to be reckon with,” Wambach said.

Still don’t think players are paying attention? Some, like Eniola Aluko, are even giving interviews talking about their displeasure with fans and media on Twitter. Players really are taking social media seriously.

Would winning this Women’s World Cup on Sunday be the biggest victory in the history of this U.S. team? Maybe, maybe not. That’s no cop out, either. Everything is just so different now. The media – mainstream and social – has brought this tournament to new heights that the 1999 edition never had the resources to do.

Full-out hype from media giant ESPN has pushed this tournament so hard to Americans that they had to like it. Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media landscape have given the fair-weather fans a platform to talk about the latest digital fad, the Women’s World Cup.

Now Women’s Professional Soccer has to find a way to capitalize on this momentum. With 233,400 Twitter followers and growing, WPS has a decent sized social media imprint. At one time the league’s presence on Twitter was comparable to that of the four major sports, but they have all since boosted the amount of resources being put into their digital platforms (with NBA and its 10 million-plus Facebook fans, Twitter followers north of 2.7 million and the new NBA Legends fantasy game leading that charge).

Unfortunately for WPS, the attention right now is on the United States Women’s National Team. There has long been a disconnect between the two entities, which has carried over into their digital strategies. The onus is now on WPS and U.S. Soccer to bottle up this attention on the game.

The time for women’s soccer to thrive is here and now. The window is shorter than ever to lock in at least a portion of fan interest in world with such a short attention span that it moves onto the next topic after just 140 characters of talk.

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