Dave Dew of Victoria, the former assistant Canadian coach, can recite from memory the attendance numbers for Canada’s games in the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden.
“Against England, there were 112 fans, against Nigeria 332 and against Norway 1,001 because it was played in a town close to the Norwegian border,” Dew said.
What a difference to the scene in Vancouver today, where a capacity crowd will fill B.C. Place to watch Canada play Switzerland in a round-of-16 playoff game of the 2015 tournament.
“We had no massage therapist, no physiotherapist, no team psychologist, no goalkeeper coach,” said Dew, who was later Canadian Under-17 women’s coach and is now coach of the Victoria Highlanders men’s team. “[Head coach] Sylvie Beliveau and I were also the equipment managers, picking up the jerseys and rounding up the balls. The standard of play in women’s soccer is so much higher now.”
Among those who have brought along the younger players who have emerged for Canada in this World Cup is Neil Sedgwick, coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Victoria Prospects Academy, who assisted the Canada U-17 women’s team in 2012 and 2014. Out of that group came Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and Jessie Fleming.
“The athletic and technical ability is the highest standard we have seen in a women’s World Cup,” Sedgwick said of the play to date.
“For Canada, we are seeing the fruits of our development system.”
But problems remain in the women’s game. Most notably is that fans clearly will pay to watch the women’s game every four years in the spectacle setting of the World Cup, but women’s club pro soccer remains a tough sell around the world. “The World Cup is an event and everybody wants to be part of an event,” Dew said.
He coached an Island team, the Peninsula Co-op Highlanders, in the second- highest club level of women’s soccer in North America. The teams were not well supported at the gate. “The Pali Blues [of Southern California] were three-time W-League champions and they drew between 15 to 50 fans a game,” said Dew, whose Highlanders team folded.
Dew noted the highest North American women’s pro league now is subsidized by the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican soccer federations.
Few fans could name Christine Sinclair’s club team. In ads and marketing, she is almost always shown in a Canadian team jersey.
“The CIS [Canadian university soccer, and in the U.S., the NCAA] is the high point for most female players,” Dew said.
“At the pro league level, people are not paying to watch women’s soccer. They will in the World Cup. Outside that, I don’t see it.”
The general theory at the grassroots level is that Canadian youth soccer organizations are going to see a spike in registrations this September because of the saturation coverage with Canada hosting the 2015 World Cup.
“Maybe we need more of these kinds of events to grow interest,” said Sedgwick, who has been USC Trojans women’s assistant coach in the NCAA and head coach of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux and University of Montana Grizzlies.
The trouble is the World Cup only comes around once every four years, and hosting it likely only once in a lifetime.