AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — International visitors are greeted at the arrivals hall in Auckland’s airport by a display promoting the Women’s World Cup with such detail it includes carpeting resembling a soccer pitch.
After that, though, the hype trails off.
There are banners downtown and an occasional big-screen advertisement, but other than that, one of the globe’s major female sporting events could easily be missed.
The tournament kicks off Thursday but seats for many games are still available. One day before the co-host nation faced Norway, many sports fans and media seemed more interested in analyzing New Zealand’s decisive 35-12 win in men’s rugby over South Africa last weekend before a sellout home crowd.
“We’re a rugby-crazy country, and rugby is seen as our No. 1 sport. You haven’t always seen visibility in terms of being able to watch football on TV, exhibitions, women’s football,” New Zealand midfielder Annalie Longo said. “We’ve only just now got our first professional team here in New Zealand, the Wellington Phoenix. So things are shifting, just obviously not as quick as around the world.”
As of Wednesday, 1.375 million tickets have been sold for the World Cup, exceeding the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. Last week, just 320,000 of the sold tickets were for matches in New Zealand with the rest going to Australia. That prompted World Cup partner Xero to distribute 20,000 free tickets among the four New Zealand host cities.
To be fair, the smaller cities where matches will be played — Dunedin, Hamilton and the capital city of Wellington — have more signage welcoming the tournament. The buzz in those communities is palpable, even if ticket sales have lagged.
Sales have been better in Auckland, where the United States plays twice and is expected to draw thousands of visiting fans.
Belated interest is typical from New Zealanders with non-men’s rugby events, said University of Auckland sport and sports media professor Toni Bruce. She said the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand had early interest but did not reach its peak until the home team started its march toward winning the gold medal.
“We know that Kiwis are late ticket purchasers when it comes to tournaments that are played on their shores,” Fatma Samoura, FIFA secretary general, said Wednesday. “We still have tickets available for some matches. So my only plea is don’t wait until the last moment.”
A combination of the “island time” mentality, as University of Auckland student Connor Magatogia called it, and the country’s historical lack of soccer success is a likely source of the nation’s apparent indifference.
Magatogia said the upcoming “Barbie” movie, opening the same day as the tournament, has received more attention around his campus than the Women’s World Cup.
“We don’t see soccer as our sport. That’s the bottom line,” Bruce said. “That link to nationalism is harder to make with a team that’s not likely to compete in the semis and the finals.”
The Football Ferns are World Cup regulars and are making their sixth appearance on the world stage. But they’re also winless, with an 0-12-3 record.
Despite the clear emphasis on professional rugby, soccer is New Zealand’s most played sport between youth and adults, according to a 2019 Sport New Zealand survey. It’s the most popular team sport for males of all ages and second for women behind netball – think basketball without the backboard.
“Unfortunately, it does come at a time where we’re in the middle of winter, said Brooke McDonald, owner of Soccer United Football Supplies in Hamilton. “A lot of the games, especially here in Hamilton, are on what we call a school night. So some of the parents might be a bit reluctant to drag the younger kids out to a game that doesn’t finish till 10 o’clock in the middle of winter.”
Even if support is sometimes underwhelming, women’s sport as a whole is receiving more investment in New Zealand these days. The country has won bids to host the women’s rugby, cricket and soccer world cups in 2021, 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“We’re in a moment of significant change,” said Holly Thorpe, professor of sport and gender at the University of Waikato. “Finally, women and girls sport is being seen by the wider public as something to celebrate.”