Thursday 21 February 2019, 07:29

The 1999 gamble that paid off

  • USA 1999 smashed FIFA Women’s World Cup attendance records

  • Giants Stadium pictured during USA's group game against Denmark

  • Initial plan had been for a much smaller event

Vast, packed, sun-kissed stadiums such as this one would become the defining images of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup™. But this wasn’t how the tournament was supposed to look.

Initially, the plan had been for an event on a far more modest scale, played across small stadiums and based entirely on the east coast. Then USA won gold at the 1996 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in front of a crowd of 76,489. The American public’s enthusiasm made organisers think again.

Nonetheless, the switch to a coast-to-coast format, using many of the same mammoth arenas that had hosted the men’s FIFA World Cup™ in 1994, represented a major risk. After all, the 1995 Women’s World Cup had ended with an average crowd figure of less than 4,500, and a total attendance of 112,213.

Even the players feared the worst. "We were worried,” admitted Kristine Lilly, a US star of the time. “We didn't want to play that World Cup before empty stands in big stadiums.”

As it was, the gamble paid off handsomely. Instead of empty stands, Lilly and Co found themselves playing before sell-out crowds in the 90,000-capacity Rose Bowl and New Jersey’s colossal Giants Stadium, captured beautifully in the above photograph. Other images – of Brandi Chastain’s iconic, title-winning celebration, Jennifer Lopez at the opening ceremony and Bill Clinton at the final – helped this edition take the Women’s World Cup to new heights.

EditionTotal AttendanceNumber of GamesAverage Attendance
China PR 1991510,000 2619,615
Sweden 1995112,213 264,316
USA 19991,194,215 3237,319
USA 2003679,664 3221,240
China PR 2007 1,190,971 3237,218
Germany 2011 845,711 3226,428
Canada 2015 1,353,506 5226,029

"It's going to have a bigger impact than people ever realise,” Clinton predicted at the time. And he was right. The tournament has never looked back, and stars of today still speak about the indelible impression USA 1999 left on them.

Sydney Leroux, who lifted the trophy four years ago, went as far as to say at the time: "[The 1999 tournament] is why I'm here, it's why I'm in the US and playing for the US. After seeing that as a nine-year-old I knew what I wanted to do and who I wanted to play for."

As for those stadium records, one fell at Canada 2015, but the average attendance figure of 37,319 remains unsurpassed. Whenever it, too, crashes, the pioneers of ’99 are sure to be found leading the applause.

Did you know? In unprecedented coverage for women’s football at that time, USA’s 1999 title win, and Chastain’s famous bra-baring celebration, was splashed across the covers of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Time. A copy of that edition of Newsweek features in the FIFA World Football Museum’s 1999 showcase.