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30 March 2022 - 2:45 PM

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Alamy | Racing Louisville

FIFPRO: Women's football no longer has to prove a lack of investment, now is the time to focus on workload to spur industry growth

  • The 2021 FIFPRO Annual Workload Report - Women’s Football calls for further dialogue, consultation, and clear communication between stakeholders to grow the sport.
  • Expansion opportunities via new tournaments translate into the new ways of looking at investment into women’s football.
  • Why it matters: By focusing on the many layers of the sport, including the environment and condition standards, and by creating a collective bargaining platform, this professionalizes women’s football and will see the industry flourish.
  • The perspective: Underload limits growth and development opportunities, only providing a low number of appearances for players even at the elite level—this impacts the sport overall.

Right now in women’s football globally more players and more unions are taking a seat at the table with clubs and leagues negotiating better standards. 

There’s the landmark collective bargaining agreement struck between the National Women’s Soccer League and the NWSL Players Association this past January, that, in a four-year deal, promotes higher salaries with annual increases, free agency and overall health and wellness benefits. 

And in the last two weeks: the Chilean government approved a bill mandating that clubs must hire players as professionals, thus regulating their employment. And Spain approved statutes for the long-awaited new women's league.

“I’m really optimistic with where the industry is at, but I think now is the moment to really grab the opportunity at the same time, too, so that we are proactively building the industrial relationships that are going to better serve everyone in the future,” says Sarah Gregorius, director of Global Policy & Strategic Relations, Women’s Football, at FIFPRO.

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Sarah Gregorius, director of Global Policy & Strategic Relations, Women’s Football, at FIFPRO

This ‘moment’ Gregorius is referring to is a drive to focus on the issue of underload. 

Little attention is placed on underload,  And yet, it is one of the most critical aspects of the game - and the industry overall—that is impeding its growth, according to the 2021 FIFPRO Player Workload Monitoring annual report for women’s football.

FIFPRO calls for a greater dialogue between stakeholders on this and other pressing issues surrounding workload to help evolve the women’s game. 

A major part of that evolution is making space for new tournaments globally. Yet another is supporting the environment in which players exist, on and off the field and creating better conditions that support their well-being, physically and psychologically. 

“We're at the point where we can, in a way, narrow the conversation now in women’s football because we no longer have to prove that there is a lack of investment,” says Gregorius.

“I think that story has been told. It’s very clear. And we are actually seeing more investment come into the game with expansion opportunities. So now we have to narrow the focus. And narrow it to workload specifically.”

For Gregorius, having evidence and research to back up what she felt instinctively on the issue of women’s workload during her playing career is most welcomed. Gregorius represented New Zealand at the international level. At the club level, she played for Liverpool FC under the Women’s Super League, in England, for SC 07 Bad Neuehahr in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and within AS Elfen Saitama in the Japanese L. League 

“It's really important to understand what the players are doing in their careers at this moment to define what the future should look like,” she says.

As the report indicates: “it becomes crucial to look at the whole picture to gain an understanding for the types of shifts that must occur, if women’s football is to meet the potential and needs of the players and the industry.”

Understanding Underload

The gist of the issues surrounding underload is female footballers for the most part have fewer competitive playing opportunities—that includes the elite players. This translates into fewer opportunities for professional development and could impact the chance to peak physically, says FIFPRO. A knock-on effect will likely result.

...so that we are proactively building the industrial relationships that are going to better serve everyone in the future

FIFPRO identified several main reasons for underload. Among them: Fewer teams per league than what is typically found in the equivalent competition in men’s club football; schedule imbalance; lack of prominent and competitive international competitions; shorter seasons; and longer breaks in play.

“If we take a more holistic view and we look at the entirety of the competitive opportunities, because we know that there’s not that many, we have to make sure that players can access as many as possible,” says Gregorius.

The upside is the findings say there is a bit of a trend on the number of matches available at the international level in certain regions of the world. Europe’s UEFA, for instance, has nearly doubled its total matches in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which began in the 2021/22 season. And South America’s CONMEBOL Libertadores Femenina now has 16 participating clubs—in the previous format it had only 10.

There’s some movement in Africa and Asia, too. Africa has created the CAF Women’s Champions League, which became official in June 2020. The first edition was in 2021 and saw two groups of four teams compete. In Asia, the AFC recently launched its first international club competition with four participating countries, and the confederation already wants to expand: there are plans to have 16 clubs playing in it by 2025. 

But FIFPRO points to a major problem.

As that tournament takes place outside of a traditional FIFA window, players will then miss club football as the league schedule does not account for such competitions. This poses drawbacks for players in relation to travel, scheduling club football and future potential club and employment opportunities, according to the report. And opportunities are still low, despite these changes, across Africa, Asia, as well as Central and North America. 

Taking a balanced approach

Because of this lack of international competitions, private entities are filling in some of those gaps, as seen in the last couple of years, says Gregorius. 

An example of this in 2021 was  the launch of the Women’s Cup, bringing together two European teams, FC Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain to compete with two American teams, Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville FC, in the US. The competition took place in the middle of the NWSL season. 

What the industry has also started to see in the women’s calendar is the presence of a lot of friendly competitions.”So national teams and federations in particular have stepped into this space that’s [also] left by a lack of other meaningful international competitions,” adds Gregorius.

But, as she points out, these competitions do create a bit of an access problem. In these instances, federations can invite whomever they like.

“A really good example - I’m not knocking it—I can completely understand it—is the Arnold Clark Cup that England hosted this year where they invited three other teams [Canada, Germany and Spain] to come in as a dress rehearsal for the group stage of the Women’s Euros, explains Gregorius.

“I completely understand why a federation would do that. But, that’s not an open opportunity for a lot of other federations around the world to access. So you see this domination of these international friendly tournaments which there isn't a lot of access unless you are really one of the top 10 or top 20 countries.”

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Alamy | Womens Cup match between the Chicago Red Stars and Paris Saint-Germain

This, she says, is a symptom of this lack of meaningful competitions. What it ultimately means is “that you get people and organizations and federations and private entities stepping into that space and owning it, but there’s just not a lot of consistency in participation as well,” Gregorius also says.

Globally, she believes there has to be a more balanced approach overall. FIFPRO’s desire is to have a collective vision and understanding of player access and opportunity.

“If we want the best from people then we have to actually present them with the opportunities,” she says.

Contextual considerations: “still having to fight that fight”

When it comes to discussing competition design and expansion, Gregorius underscores the importance of doing so while keeping the minimum standards in mind—those that partially focus on the well-being of the players. 

This ties into one aspect of the report, which features input from Dr. Sean Carmody, a Chelsea FC medical doctor. Dr. Carmody highlights the “contextual considerations” that can impact workload outcomes. He heavily emphasizes the conditions of female footballers that will lead to higher health and performance standards. Inevitably, this will lead to a better experience for all stakeholders including players, fans and governing bodies,” he writes in the findings.

If we want the best from people then we have to actually present them with the opportunities

Gregorius takes the point further: “Even though there is actually space in the calendar for new competitions and for an increase in workload for some players, if the conditions don’t match it then you are sort of creating a different type of problem,” she says.

“So if you are then being asked to add another few games to your schedule but you don’t have the strength and conditioning element to accompany and deal with that increase in load, then all you are really going to be doing is probably increasing the risk of injury.”

Gregorius calls for an element of professionalization to the environment of a player. “We cannot have conversations about competitions, club environments, international environments without ensuring that what we are putting around the player is also conducive to elite performance,” she says. “We are still having to fight that fight in some parts of the world.” 

The best solve for that is through a collective bargaining platform, says Gregorius. The goal is to get players to the table with the clubs or the leagues to work on those standards and put them in place—“and then bloody enforce them, otherwise, they are only as strong as the piece of paper they are written on,” she says. Without better accountability and standards, the game won’t flourish and see its potential realized. 

Gregorius points to the upcoming women’s European championships this summer, the women’s FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year, and the Paris Olympics in 2024. These events will serve as more milestones that will catalyze further professionalization. 

“We have to be ready for it,” says Gregorius. "We have to be ready for it as FIFPRO, we have to make sure our member unions are ready for it, and we have to make sure that players are engaged, that they are educated on their rights, and they are in a position where they are fully equipped to exercise them.”