How ESG Is Taking Women's Soccer To The Next Level

*This article was originally published on Law360
The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand turned out to be one of the most exciting yet, despite the unexpectedly early exit by the US Women's National Team. It is apparent that other national federations are catching up to the USWNT on the pitch by investing time and effort in the areas of environmental, social and governance.

Over the past few years, organizations have become increasingly familiar with ESG principles and recognized that the ESG framework is helpful in identifying material risks and opportunities.

ESG principles are broadly applicable to amateur and professional sports organizations, just as they are to other industries. For example, there are environmental implications to team travel and stadium use, social implications to how discrimination and sexual harassment are handled, and governance questions about team ownership and types of investors, equal pay, and ensuring the integrity of the game.

In an industry where fair play and competitiveness are foundational, ESG principles provide a useful framework for identifying risks to fair and safe play while also identifying opportunities for increased competitiveness and commercial growth.

The relative dominance of the USWNT over the past few decades is in part the result of the focus that the U.S. Soccer Federation and other U.S.-based soccer organizations have placed on ESG-related principles. While late in coming — and surely more work needs to be done — U.S. Soccer has recognized the importance of equal pay and the protection of players.

But it’s arguably the investment in opportunities for young female players and the creation of equal opportunities for women — through, among other things, the promotion of youth programs for girls, and organized development programs and professional leagues for women — that have contributed most directly to the historical dominance of the USWNT.

Judging from the results of this year’s World Cup, however, the USWNT’s dominance on the international stage may have been broken — at least in part due to other federations following the example set by the U.S.

Just as the U.S. Soccer Federation has led the way on the international stage, the National Women’s Soccer League has become the leading women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. by being more responsive over the past couple of years to the wants and needs of its stakeholders. The NWSF has implemented and supported player-driven environmental initiatives that prioritize sustainable products, social initiatives advocating for player safety and protection, and governance initiatives for female and local ownership.

NWSL clubs have founded youth academy programs, which in turn created a talent pipeline that helps increase pro-level competition — and thus commercial opportunities. These programs have the added benefit of increasing community engagement by connecting with and providing a safe playing space for young players, and establishing a team for the local community to cheer on.

As a result, there has been an influx of young talent to the NWSL. In fact, the NWSL recently opened its doors to teenagers by allowing two players on each club to be under 18, subject to certain conditions designed for their protection. Attendance at NWSL games has never been higher, and the league continues to grow.

Other federations and leagues are catching up by focusing on social considerations, like investing in youth development and programming, and garnering increased community involvement. England and Spain, the two finalists in this year’s Women’s World Cup, are good examples.

Though England finished as the runner-up at the World Cup and first at the 2022 Women’s Euros, English women once spent 50 years banned from playing on Football Association properties — and thus from professional competition. This changed in 1972, when England’s international women’s soccer team, the Lionesses, was formed. The teams now represented in England’s domestic Women’s Super League are all affiliated with successful men’s clubs, such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.

Getting investment in these clubs’ women’s teams has been challenging, and more is needed. Only recently has the investment been meaningful from the Premier League, fans and sponsors. In 2018, England’s Football Association created the FA WSL Academy program, which was built to support developing players both on and off the field.

In the U.S., having a successful, well-funded domestic league and youth programs has been vital to the USWNT’s dominance. England is finally getting access to these resources, leading to its recent successes.

Prior to 2023, the Spain women’s national team had never made it past the Round of 16 in a World Cup. This year, Spain was the world champion.

It should come as no surprise that the 2023 World Cup champions had nine players from FC Barcelona Femení on the squad. FC Barcelona, a powerhouse in both men’s and women’s soccer, invested in their women’s team, particularly their youth program, to create what has become an elite European team.

The team focused on training developing players through its women’s academy, leading to success not only in Spain’s women’s Liga F, but also in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, where the best league club teams compete to be crowned champions of Europe. The success of FC Barcelona Femení on the field has also led to consistently filling up Camp Nou, a stadium that seats over 99,000 fans.

Other Liga F teams have boasted academy programs for young girls, including Sevilla FC Femenino and Atlético Madrid Femenino. Olga Carmona, who scored the game-winning goal in this World Cup final, is an alumna of the Sevilla FC academy.

The investment in programs for girls and women has led England and Spain to more success on the international stage, which in turn can act as a further catalyst for even more investment.

The USWNT’s famous 1999 World Cup title resulted in increased investment in women’s soccer in the U.S., including the creation of the first-ever professional women’s soccer league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, in 2000.

In England, the Lionesses’ victory at the 2022 Euros inspired an increase in youth academy programs and a £600 million ($734 million) investment from the U.K. government in girls’ physical education and school sports. The attendance at FA WSL games has increased dramatically since the 2022 victory.

One would expect that Spain’s 2023 World Cup victory will also lead to yet further investment in girls’ and women’s soccer, including addressing the same issues of equal treatment and fair and safe play that U.S. Soccer has had to address. The Royal Spanish Football Federation has work to do in that regard, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the federation’s handling of the alleged misbehavior by its president.

There is also hope that the surprising relative success of other nations at this year’s World Cup, such as Nigeria — which lost in penalties to the Lionesses in the Round of 16 — and quarterfinalists Columbia, will lead to increased investment in girls’ youth programs and in women’s soccer domestically by these nations’ governing bodies.

It appears that the focus on investing in youth participation and development programs for young female players is leading to more parity in women’s soccer around the world, as evidenced by the results of this year’s World Cup. This is a welcome development, as the ultimate victory is to continually raise the bar and have the best athletes compete on a fair and inclusive playing field.

Success on the field, however, is not enough. A continued focus on other ESG principles, including implementing best practices for corporate governance through the creation of policies and rules that are informed by the experiences of U.S. Soccer and now the Spanish federation, is also necessary to better draw and retain talent, ensure fair and safe play, and increase competitiveness and commercial opportunities.

This article was originally published in Law360. (Subscription required)


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