The Kickoff

The game isn't over.

The fierce match between Japan and the U.S. for the Women's World Cup ended Sunday with a win for Japan, but the women are still throwing up impressive numbers.

A sold-out crowd in Frankfurt watched Japan win 3-1 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 score in regulation, and about 13.46 million viewers watched on ESPN3, making it the second most viewed daytime telecast in cable history. It's also the highest-rated soccer telecast on ESPN ever, men's or women's. Excluding NFL games, the women's final was the fifth most-watched telecast of any sport on the sports channel, with only the 2011 college bowl games ahead of it. Online, 548,000 visitors to ESPN3.com streamed the game, which is the most ever for a women's sport.

Fans weren't just watching; they were talking about the game. Twitter announced that the women's final broke a new record for a trending topic with 7,196 Tweets per second worldwide.

Not bad for a national team that got barely a whisper of serious media coverage until its brilliant quarterfinal win over Brazil on July 10.

It's no secret that many of the fans of the U.S. women's national team might not have paid attention if the basketball courts weren't empty and we didn't have the potential NFL lockout to portend a disappointing fall. And that is okay. Sports enthusiasts love to cheer for a beautiful game played well, and it took an unusual conflation of circumstances for many of them to turn the channel to women playing soccer. The numbers show that once people pay attention, they're interested and engaged.

And angry. As Adi Joseph writes at SportsFeat, pundits, professional and amateur, called it when one opportunity to score after another rolled by the U.S. Women's National Team: choke. "That language isn't an everyday occurrence in women's sports; the stodgy men of sports journalism tend to grade women on a curve. This time, things were different." The millions watching the final cared enough to take the team seriously, celebrating its marvelous moments (those Wambach headers!) and criticizing its maddening lapses.

Casual fans are where passionate fans come from. The three-year-old Women's Professional Soccer league now has the chance to nudge the excitement over the game into the sort of passion for a women's sport that is usually reserved for men, but it's a formidable task. After the unprecedented hype around the 1999 World Cup championship team, officials formed a pro league that folded by 2003. Despite the passion inspired by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and company, barely anyone noticed the brief life and death of the Women's United Soccer Association.

The new WPS is brimming with talent, including 36 athletes who played in the World Cup. All but one member of the women's national team plays for the WPS; South Florida's magicJack (a team bizarrely named for its owner's company) can boast of having some of the biggest stars -- Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and Christie Rampone -- on its roster. Brazil's Marta and Canada's Christine Sinclair play for the Western New York Flash. Japan's Aya Sameshima, now a world champion defender, dirties her cleats for the Boston Breakers.

But WPS is struggling, forced by unstable finances to move teams and close franchises at a speed hardly conducive to developing a fan base. Four teams have folded in its three-year life, two of them in the past year. This leaves just six East Coast teams competing in the current season, which culminates in its own championship on August 27.

To try to jump on the World Cup excitement early, the league scheduled a match tomorrow night between the magicJack and the Flash in Rochester, New York, which just happens to be Wambach's hometown. Fans hoping to greet the new world champions, bought more than 9,000 tickets before the World Cup Final aired. That's triple the number of an ordinary WPS match. Meanwhile, Friday's match between the Atlanta Beat and magicJack sold 1,200 tickets in the two days following the U.S. win over Brazil. USA Today reports that, according to WPS Commissioner Anne-Marie Eileraas, traffic to the league website has quadrupled and there is rising interest in expansion franchises. The league can also look forward to another boost next summer when the women's team defends its gold medal at the London Olympics.

This is important not just to support a league for the sake of the league; it's crucial for elevating the level of play on the field. The impact of fans on athletes is a fact of the game: They do better when they're charged up by supporters, less well when surrounded by people rooting against them, and they turn tepid when playing before empty bleachers. During a media conference call, Abby Wambach said: "The goal against Brazil, the win against France, literally people are jumping out of their seats. People are e-mailing, Twittering, texting, you name it. I can't tell you how important it is to have that 12th man."

All fans in the U.S. have to do is show up and enjoy the game. We can't lose.

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