By Amy Tennery and Maria Caspani
(Reuters) – A throng of football fans, office workers and curious tourists crowded into New York’s Times Square on Friday afternoon to watch a giant screen show the United States defeat France in one of the hottest matches in the history of the women’s World Cup.
The quarter-final game, pitting the No. 1 seeded Americans against the host of this year’s World Cup, was considered the best matchup yet in a tournament that has generated unprecedented excitement and TV ratings for the women’s game.
The crowd that filled the square, best known for its annual New Year’s Eve celebration, watched the Fox Sports broadcast on the largest TV display in the world, mounted on a skyscraper at the head of the so-called Crossroads of the World.
Most of the fans in Times Square were rooting for the powerful U.S. national team, and they were not disappointed by the 2-1 final.
Sitting on one of the improvised seating areas clad in a red, white and blue jersey, Alex Schnur followed the U.S. team’s every move.
“I am a huge football fan,” said the 20-year-old student from Connecticut. “The talent that the women’s team has displayed – everything they do both on and off the field – is what a lot of Americans want to see; it’s inspiring.”
Cheers erupted when Megan Rapinoe, the violet-haired star of the U.S. squad, fired a shot into the goal in the first five minutes of the match, giving the Americans an early advantage over their opponent.
But Sophie Jimenez, 41, a nurse from France’s Brittany region who was visiting New York with her children, was unfazed when her home country fell behind in the match broadcast from Paris.
“I want to see France win! In the United States!” Jimenez chirped cheerfully.
Television ratings for this year’s broadcast have been strong in the United States and abroad, with a record-breaking 1.5 million supporters expected to attend the matches in France, underscoring the growing popularity of the women’s game.
“We want to give it absolute big-game treatment,” said David Neal, executive producer of Fox Sport’s FIFA World Cup broadcast.
Neal said that a possible France-U.S. bout had been on his team’s radar since December as a potential marquee event and that once the match was set his team decided to “pull out all the stops.”
Through the round of 16, ratings for this year’s women’s World Cup were up 21% compared with 2015 – the year of the previous women’s World Cup – Fox Sports said, with France’s victory over Brazil earning the highest-ever ratings for a non-U.S. women’s World Cup match.
“Coming into this event, we knew that the bar that we all collectively set was very high,” said Neal. “It’s extremely gratifying the numbers exceeding even our lofty goals.”
(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Amy Tennery in New York; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)