Why is Lyon, not Paris, getting all the love in this year's Women's World Cup?

Stade de Lyon is the home of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals and final. ROBERT GRAHN/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS -- France has a long history of hosting major sporting events, and the common thread through nearly all of them is this: The centerpiece is Paris.

The 1900 Summer Olympics was in Paris. The 1924 Olympics was in Paris, and the 2024 Olympics will be in Paris. The championship games of the 1938 World Cup and the 1998 World Cup were in Paris. The finals of the 1960, 1984 and 2016 European soccer tournaments were in Paris. Even the title game of the 2015 World Handball championship was in Paris.

All of this makes sense. Paris is, well, Paris.

So why, then, are both semifinals and the final of this summer's Women's World Cup not being played in Paris, but rather in Lyon?

"The main reason," Erwan Le Prevost, the head of the tournament's organizing committee, told ESPN, "is because Lyon deserves it."

That may sound strange, particularly for those who think of Lyon as little more than a secondary French city (it's actually third in population after Paris and Marseille). But the truth is that Lyon, located about 200 miles south of the French capital and best-known for its incredible restaurants and gorgeous annual lights festival, has been squarely at the heart of the rise in popularity and stature of women's soccer.

The city's club team, Olympique Lyonnais, or OL, was the first major club to invest seriously in its women's team, paying top female players high-end salaries and -- more importantly -- treating them similarly to the players on the men's team.

The club's president, Jean-Michel Aulas, launched the women's team in 2004, at a time when the notion of a team doing so was virtually unprecedented. Few European clubs even had women's teams then and, if they did, the programs were largely an afterthought.

"I realized that the division within football, between men's and women's was total," Aulas told Euronews earlier this year. "But maybe if we tried to leverage the value of female players with the value of women's equality in mind, and if we elevated the characteristics of the women's game, for which the demand is only getting bigger, we could be carried away by a wave."

It happened. OL quickly morphed into a juggernaut on the field -- it has won 13 straight French league titles and six of the last nine Champions League tournaments -- as well as becoming a beacon for how women's soccer could, and should, develop.

The best players from around the world gravitated toward Lyon, attracted by the opportunity to be treated like the same type of professional athlete as the most talented male players.

Aulas, too, was an active recruiter -- sometimes to the point of awkwardness, as in the case of Alex Morgan -- endlessly pushing to continue the team's surge. To that end, the list of players who have played for Lyon is almost difficult to believe: Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and Morgan all played there, as did the Swedish stars Lotta Schelin and Caroline Seger, and the French legends Camille Abily and Louisa Necib.

The current team has Ada Hegerberg, who is the reigning world player of the year, and the captains from Germany and Japan's World Cup teams, as well as the heart of France's national team. It is a staggering assortment of talent.

Just as important as the team's success, however, is the city's appreciation for the women's team. There is a recognition from fans and news media, an allegiance to the importance of what the women's team represents. Aulas built the club a new stadium -- which will host the last three Women's World Cup games -- and the women's team plays all of its most important matches there.

In April, OL set a women's French league attendance record when 25,907 fans watched a match against Paris St.-Germain. Nearly 20,000 turned out for a Champions League semifinal against Manchester City.

"It's a city of football," Le Provost said. "They are very proud, and they match the strong commitment by Aulas. We felt it was important to put these matches in the city that has done so much more for the sport than anywhere else."

And yet when the time came to make the decision about this tournament's showpiece games, there was still plenty of pressure from federation officials, as well as some government officials, Le Provost said. Paris is a world city, after all, and its national stadium, the Stade de France, felt like a natural venue. The debate among organizers was significant.

In the end, however, Lyon felt like the "natural choice," Le Provost explained, if only because organizers knew they could count on the city to provide a festive and appropriately frenzied atmosphere focused on soccer.

"In Paris, to have the final means it is one of so many other things that people in Paris might be interested in," he said. "In Lyon, we sold out all the tickets in two days. It doesn't matter the teams. People knew that that they wanted to attend."

The Lyon finish offers an interesting coda to a tournament that has, at times, struggled to draw crowds. While FIFA has been quick to trumpet the impressive global TV ratings the World Cup matches have drawn, the governing body's commitment to advertising the tournament throughout France has come under criticism -- the signage and presence of the tournament pales in comparison to what was seen in Russia for last summer's men's World Cup.

FIFA also, oddly, failed to use its massive social media following to publicize the fact that many group-stage games still had plenty of tickets remaining.

That, obviously, won't be the case in Lyon. And while some may find it controversial that the final won't be in Paris, there is no denying that the Lyonnais are well-aware of their importance as hosts of the tournament's final week.

"It is the one city where we don't have to explain to anyone why this is important -- everyone knows," Le Provost said.

He laughed. "Yes, to move the final away from Paris may seem crazy, but it is crazy in the right way. It is the place where it belongs."