Professionalization of women’s soccer – a legal perspective

Female football players celebrating their victory

The FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was held in Australia and New Zealand, ended last weekend. The final match between Spain and England was quite a spectacle, drawing millions of fans to the stands and in front of their TV sets. Australia’s stadium in Sydney has a capacity of about 75,000 people, and all tickets for this match were sold out.[i] Currently, therefore, we can confidently speak of a high level of interest in women’s soccer, and going hand in hand with it – the professionalization of the sport. Year after year, interest in women’s games is growing, and players such as Alexia Putellas, Lauren James and Lucy Bronze are becoming more and more recognized also outside the women’s soccer community.

In our article today, we will discuss the manifestations of the professionalization of women’s soccer, as well as selected legal issues related to it. After all, it should be borne in mind that while men’s soccer is regulated in detail, the solutions in soccer sports law are tailored only to men’s games. Women’s realities are somewhat different, and extending to women a package of rights that were designed by men and for men may not be enough. So let this year’s Women’s World Cup be a seed to think about the current state of women’s position in sports law. Let’s think about the necessary changes that need to be made and the direction we would like to take.

[i] In addition, the semi-final match of the women’s World Cup between Australia and England drew more than 7 million viewers in front of the TV sets of local TV station Seven Network. (access: 20.08.2023)

Spain’s national team after winning the World Cup. 
Source: NBC News Justin Setterfield / Getty Images

Professionalization of women’s games 

The growing interest in the games can be seen first and foremost in the increasing number of spectators or television viewers of women’s games, but also in the fact that football’s international and national organizations are choosing to allocate increasing amounts of money to invest in women’s soccer. This shows that FIFA or UEFA have already noticed that women’s soccer cannot be passed by indifferently, and that their games may have potential, first and foremost, in terms of future revenues for these organizations.

Currently, soccer organizations are also considering what changes to the format of soccer games to attract viewers from the youngest generations. There are many indications that women’s soccer is attracting viewers from outside the soccer community, including younger ones. Thus, there is some unique opportunity in this to attract many new and young fans to the game (of both genders).

Women in Sports Law

FIFA recognized the problem of the need to adapt sports laws to the women’s game some time ago. An amendment to FIFA’s RSTP (Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players) introduced a number of provisions for women, marking a major step forward in the legal regulation of soccer. Thanks to these changes, regulations on contractual stability, among other things, apply to female soccer players to the same extent as to male soccer players. In addition, the 14-week paid maternity leave to which female soccer players are entitled during pregnancy and the postpartum period is also regulated. Issues such as maternity, starting a family and wage inequality are issues specific to women’s soccer and require some adjustment and changes in regulations. 

The women’s perspective on regulation is generating as much interest as the women’s soccer games themselves. The need for the development of sports law is seen not only by those directly involved in soccer, but also by lawyers and judges of sports arbitration courts. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that in May this year an international scientific conference “It’s Her Field” was held, the subject of which was perspectives in women’s soccer and women in sports law. Participants at the conference included CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) arbitrators Maciej Balazinski and Mario Vigna, female lawyers working for FIFA and UEFA, Luis Villas-Boas Pires who is FIFA’s head of agents, and other independent lawyers.

Starting a family and wage inequality

Among other things, experts have pointed out what barriers women face on their way to the highest levels of the soccer game. First and foremost, they are constrained by wage inequality and the fear of conflating family life with professional life. As women in soccer can expect significantly lower salaries than men, they are less likely to choose to dedicate their lives to a soccer career. The results of this dedication can be uncertain, and earnings at the top level still do not match those in the world of men’s soccer.

Women also worry that at some point they would have to choose between family life and professional sports. Because women’s earnings in soccer can be unsatisfactory, they don’t have the financial means to provide for their children and family. On the other hand, once they reach a really high level in their sport and earn higher amounts of money, then there is a risk that with the decision to start a family and have children, they will not have the chance to return to a soccer career, or at least not at such a high level. Female soccer players expect stronger legal protections than a 14-week maternity leave. Female soccer players have never had to face such problems, as the decision to have children does not directly affect their bodies, fitness and ability to continue playing sports at a professional level. These are definitely issues that should attract the attention of today’s soccer world, and which need to be further refined on a legal level to ensure that women can reconcile their family and professional lives.

Last May, Icelandic soccer player Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir had to fight for her rights before the DRC (Dispute Resolution Chamber) of the FIFA Football Tribunal. French club Olympique Lyonnais had failed to pay the soccer player’s salary due to her maternity leave, however, following French regulations. Yet the DRC ruled that the club must pay the soccer player her outstanding salary. Thus, the primacy of FIFA regulations and decisions over national regulations was also demonstrated. The amount awarded to the soccer player was more than 82,000 euros. The Court’s decision was one of the key ones in the context of the creation of FIFA’s pro-women policy, and has sometimes also been called a “wake up call” for sports clubs neglecting female players, which clubs failed to pay them their salaries due to maternity. The regulation and unification of FIFA regulations related to maternity should definitely be considered a positive development in sports law.

Disparity or …discrimination?

Wage inequality is, of course, related to the fact that men’s soccer remains much more popular than women’s soccer, and that men’s games bring in a much higher income for all kinds of sports organizations and clubs. This remains a non-negotiable issue. Yet these inequalities are extremely deep-rooted and begin at the lowest junior levels, with games between children. This year, a complaint about the unequal treatment of female and male soccer players by the Polish Football Association even went to the Ombudsman. In the Central Junior Women’s League and the Central Junior Men’s League, a competition between players under 15 years old, the inequalities were glaring. At the same level of competition, the winning girls’ team could expect to win a net prize of PLN 10,000, while for boys it was as much as PLN 100,000 net. In the case of a competition organized for such young male and female players, where the key should be to train their skills and encourage them to continue their sporting path, it’s hard to explain such a decision by the Polish Football Association with a “disproportion” in popularity. 

Thus, the position of women in football sports law may yet undergo changes that will hopefully – bring better and easier times for women in professional sports. It is worth appreciating what changes have already been made. The fact that FIFA is leaning more and more into the needs of women in sports regulations or the fact that attention has been given to the need to regulate paid maternity leave are big steps, but it’s not where we can stop.