Professional footballers union FIFPro released a report on Wednesday entitled “Raising Our Game,” which lays out its vision for the future of women’s soccer. The organization conducted a survey of 186 players across 18 countries, while also researching trends in attendance, sponsorship, and TV viewership.
The report concludes with a proposal for global standards across the sport in terms of professionalism, international tournaments, and collective bargaining for players. Here’s how FIFPro summarized the organization’s primary objectives, based on its findings in the report:
• Global minimum employment standards, which guarantee that professional players have appropriate contracts, compensation, workload, training and match environments, health and safety measures, freedom of association and access to remedy.
• Global minimum standards at international tournaments to ensure that players participating in elite global competitions—both club and national team—are protected and can perform at their peak, on an equal footing on the world stage.
• Collective bargaining as a universal industry standard so that professional players around the world have a fair say in the development of their sport.
• New global club and national-team competition formats and scheduling that permits professional players to enjoy a long and sustainable career.
FIFPro initially planned to release the report in February, but its publication was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. As world soccer’s biggest stakeholders start planning for both an eventual return to play and financial relief for struggling organizations, FIFPro felt the time was right to release its findings.
“We are conscious that we are releasing this report during an extremely uncertain and worrying time, however we have a responsibility to the professional footballers we represent to chart the way forward for them and their industry,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said.
“Raising Our Game” does an excellent job at spelling out what is preventing female footballers from reaching their full potential and presenting a vision for a better women’s game. The next step is getting the game’s stakeholders to tie all of the findings together and come to the conclusion that doing the right thing is also an excellent business decision.
The growth of women’s soccer is not linear
European club teams have earned headlines in the past year for big events that sold out large men’s football stadiums. Unfortunately, those successful events have not translated to larger overall attendances. While NWSL attendance is up 65 percent from the 2014-15 season, attendance has been stagnant across European leagues.
FIFPro cites lack of consistency in match times and conflict with big men’s games as significant problems. For example, in 2019, West Ham United’s women’s team played an FA Cup final at the exact same time as its men’s team played a Premier League match. Clubs are also short on marketing staff.
The good news is that TV viewership, broadcast revenue, and sponsorship income are all growing. But clubs are unlikely to make enough money to allow them to meet FIFPro’s proposed professional standards without significantly increasing their live gate.
Players aren’t getting what they need to succeed
Player salaries have been increasing at a steady pace over the past five years, but the athletes are largely not getting the support they need to succeed. Only 43 percent of players polled for the study said that both their club and national team had adequate staff, and 11 percent said neither their club or country had adequate staff.
More telling was what type of staff players felt was missing. 40 percent responded that their club lacked physiotherapists, 25 percent said team doctor, and others cited the lack of massage therapists, nutritionists fitness trainers and psychologists.
Getting these staff in place at all professional clubs is imperative to improving the product on the field, which is imperative to growing the business of women’s soccer. Higher quality of play will attract more fans and sponsors, but it’s only possible if players are enabled to perform at the highest level possible.
Consistent standards will solve problems, but are tricky to implement
FIFPro is proposing minimum standards across all of professional women’s soccer in 12 categories: contracts, safety, training, wages, workload, employment protection, social protection, player data protection, freedom to collectively bargain, non-discrimination, access to legal remedy, and education. It’s also proposing global standards for all international tournaments and collective bargaining as an industry standard.
It’s an ambitious proposal, and one that will be impossible to implement without significant intervention on the part of FIFA and its confederations. UEFA, to its credit, has already stated its goal of every member nation having a collective bargaining agreement with its women’s players by 2024.
But it might be harder to create significant change in South America. FIFPro’s report details cases of serious and long-term discrimination in Colombia, Brazil and Argentina. These countries are men’s soccer powerhouses, and possess the resources to fully professionalize women’s soccer overnight if they wish to do so.
Here’s what I found to be the most powerful statistic presented in the entire report: 52.6 percent of players say they need to be full-time professionals to be respected in their country and culture. Women’s soccer skeptics regularly make the argument that players aren’t paid well because there’s no money in the game, but perhaps money will only start pouring into the game once an investment is made into professionalism for players.
Players need to spell out the value proposition
There’s a lot of interesting information in the FIFPro report, and a good message in the conclusion as well:
How we value our own product shapes how others value it. The international football community cannot expect professional women’s football to excel if we undermine its most valuable assets — the players — and until we recognise its contribution as a powerful resource for sport and society. While the growth of football is driven by external opportunities and strategic decisions of the industry, unless the players have the opportunity to perform to their full potential, progress will be hindered.
But FIFPro and its members need to go a step further and make a clear, cause-and-effect value proposition to the people with their hands on the purse strings. Female athletes have value to society outside of the profits they can generate for wealthy people and companies, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we must admit that the people the game needs investment from don’t care. They want to know how women’s soccer can make them money.
The data presents a clear picture: There’s a lot of potential for growth, but it isn’t being realized because the players aren’t being enabled to succeed. In instances where players are given more support — like the top teams at the World Cup and the most recent season of NWSL — the product improves significantly and fan engagement follows.
Women’s soccer has proven its business potential, but it can’t start making serious money until the product improves. The product cannot improve while most players are not full-time professionals, and do not have all of the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.
FIFA and confederations should work to implement FIFPro’s guidelines because they will create a better product on the field. A better product on the field will lead directly to more ticket sales and TV viewers. More ticket sales and TV viewers will lead to more sponsors. All of this will create a sustainable cycle of growth. But someone has to set some standards and put in an initial investment to get that cycle started.