After one of the most impactful years for women’s professional football in 2019, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic put all that progress to a halt. The interest in the women’s game has never been higher, with a record of 1.12 billion viewers watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup, according to FIFA. The final between the United States and the Netherlands itself brought in an 82.18 million strong live audience.
With the interest, one would hope, comes investment. The hope of broadcasting deals and bigger sponsors seemed like it could become a reality for more and more women’s leagues. Then as the 2020 year began, the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China, to the rest of the world at a rate that earned it the classification of a pandemic. The world has never seen such massive shutdowns worldwide and sports were not spared.
In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, leagues began to announce games without spectators. But as the coronavirus spread at a rapid pace, the Dutch government decided to ban all sporting events until September 1. Due to that decision, on April 24 the Dutch FA cancelled both the Eredivisie league and Eredivisie Vrouwen, the top tier men’s and women’s professional football leagues in the Netherlands. No winners will be crowned for the first time since the 1944-1945 season.
It’s not a secret in the Eredivisie that women’s teams come second. In fact, between coaches and players, it’s just a fact of life that seems insurmountable. The main reason? Money. A gap that will only grow because of the coronavirus crisis if clubs and the Dutch FA do not choose to invest in their women’s teams now.
“It’s difficult, with women’s football. It’s always men’s first, women’s second,” said Fréderique Nieuwland, a defender for Excelsior Rotterdam Vrouwen. “I feel a lot that we are the second team. Maybe that’s how it works, how the world thinks of the women’s football. I think this club does it the right way, but it could be better.”
The inherent bias towards men’s sports in present in even the top clubs, such as PSV. The head coach of PSV’s women’s team, Sander Luiten, pointed out that financially, the women bring in little money compared to the men. When one of the female players goes to another club, PSV gets no transfer money and ticket revenue is hardly comparable to the men.
According to the UEFA’s 2018 annual Club Licensing Benchmarking Report, the Eredivisie league made 118 million euros on TV broadcasting deals alone, a source of income the women’s side does not have. In the same report, clubs in the Netherlands also brought in over 144 million euros in gate receipts (it is unclear whether or not women’s teams were included in the figure).
“Of course it is the priority of the club that the men’s teams get the first spot in everything because they make the money,” Luiten said. “We all know in the women’s department that that’s the way it goes.”
For the Excelsior players like Nieuwland, their pay went from meager to very little after the cancellation of the season. According to Claudia van den Heiligenberg, former Dutch national team member and current manager of communication for women’s football at VVCS, not all the Dutch women’s players are professional, so if they are not under a collective bargaining agreement, they get paid a few hundred euros or nothing at all.
On the men’s side of the league, the clubs reached an agreement for this year to cut salaries by 2.5% for salaries up to 25,000 euros a year and up to 20% for top earning players, according to DutchNews.nl; the average salary of a men’s Eredivisie player is 291,000 euros a year.
For a team that already had it tough financially, things got even harder for Excelsior. Sporting events will be allowed to resume in September and the new season will start, but there remains the strong possibility of playing matches without fans.
According to Excelsior Rotterdam Vrouwen head coach Richard Mank, a normal game for them only sees between 500 and 800 people, but big games for them bring in upwards of 2,500 people. If they can’t bring fans in the stadium this fall, it will be a problem. To add more financial troubles, sponsors may also pose an issue for the team. For a smaller club like Excelsior, sponsors are a necessity. While the men’s team gets income from television deals and the national soccer association, the women’s team relies on its small budget from the men’s side and sponsors who are also taking a hit right now from the coronavirus.
“We cannot invite sponsors to talk to us because they also have it very difficult right now,” Mank said. “A lot of sponsors won’t take the risk now.”
In the meantime, Nieuwland has been able to manage financially, despite taking a pay cut and not being able to work at her other job due to the coronavirus. But the 21-year-old and many other players in the league are in the situation to begin with that they need a job on the side to survive financially. Nieuwland is going into her fourth season with Excelsior, yet she still needs a second job to support herself. This situation is common among female footballers across the globe; according to The Athletic, most players in the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League need a second job to support themselves, too.
Heiligenberg shared a similar experience as a player. She recalled working 38 hours a week on top of trainings seven times a week in order to pay for her own place. Not much has progressed in the past decade for women’s football. But Heiligenberg hopes to change that.
“My dream goal when I started here at the VVCS, is that every club should have a collective agreement. Every woman in the league should have the opportunity to focus on their sport totally and not have to work,” she said. “It’s so much, you cannot give it your all because you have to do so much besides it.
“So I think that’s a really, really important part but I also think that the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) should look at clubs in the future. If [clubs] want to join the league that they have the financial means…to make sure you can offer the girls a collective agreement, everything around it. I think if you want to grow the sport, you need to take it seriously and as you can see from the past years, the national team has become so much better and I think they are investing in it. But you also have to invest in the league because at the end of the day, the girls from there have to go to the national team.”
Heiligenberg’s concern brings up another sobering possibility: if women’s teams have to cut salaries to survive the financial crisis they are in, how long can players last before they throw in the towel and pursue a career they will actually make money in? Before they give up on their dream because the money they make puts them below the poverty line?
Now, it seems that women’s football has arrived at a pivotal moment in its history. In Luiten’s eyes, the women’s game has made strides in the past few years and clubs are more and more invested in their women’s teams, and the teams have become better as a result. But now, in times of financial crisis, will clubs and the Dutch FA choose to continue invest in the women’s game and ensure its future?
“I think if you don’t invest in women’s soccer now, it falls apart,” Heiligenberg said. “Because the girls are playing in the league, the young girls, they are your talent and they have to go to the national team later. All the women that are playing at the national team, most of them started in the league. So they have to come from there and if they don’t invest there, then there’s going to be a gap.”
Even within the Eredivisie Vrouwen teams, there is a huge disparity. For AFC Ajax players, they have a salary that is good enough to support them on its own. Only two teams in the Eredivisie have collective bargaining agreements according to Heiligenberg, a big reason for the gap.
There’s no doubt that all clubs will take a hit from the coronavirus crisis, but smaller women’s clubs will take the brunt of it.
“I’m not worried [personally], but it’s concerning,” Nieuwland said. “Financially it’s hard for those [smaller] clubs. For Ajax or PSV it’s manageable, but for us, the smaller clubs, I think it’s hard for the club. But I hope people see that from the outside, will buy tickets again and sponsor us. We always have a hard time looking for sponsors, so I hope sponsors will invest in us so that we can do better and invest in certain things like staff people or small things.”
Until all clubs have collective bargaining agreements, however, Heiligenberg does not believe the gap between the top and bottom teams will be closed. It’s simply too difficult to reach your potential as a player if you are also working a full time job.
“I think the big clubs won’t have any troubles or small troubles, but the smaller clubs, who were already struggling to keep players there and pay them a little bit, I think the struggles for them will only be harder,” Heiligenberg said. “I’m hoping the KNVB will support those clubs and help them get through these times. And that’s why it’s so important that the league will get more stable, especially financially. Then I think you will have less problems when these things are happening.”
Only time will tell what lasting impact the coronavirus will have on women’s football. But if the investment is not made, if women’s teams are not prioritized and helped back on their feet after this crisis, the repercussions will be felt for years to come.