Serie A, Italy’s top flight of soccer, is one of the world’s most remunerative sports leagues with three of its participants – Juventus, Inter and Napoli – featured among the 20 wealthiest soccer clubs in the Deloitte Sports Money League 2021 financial report.
Meanwhile, its female counterpart, Serie A Femminile, is not considered a professional sports league in Italy. Despite devoting most of their daytime to training, playing matches and traveling, female soccer players competing at the highest level of Italian women’s soccer are nowadays recognized as amateur athletes.
FIGC, Italy’s governing body for soccer, has recently announced that Italian women’s soccer is ready to undergo major changes.
Beginning in the 2022/23 season, Serie A Femminile will gain professional status, thus becoming Italy’s first-ever professional sports league for female athletes.
Recent Growth Of Italian Women’s Soccer
To this day, there are only four Italian sports federations that have granted professional status to their leagues, but just on the men’s side of the sport. These leagues are soccer, basketball, golf and cycling.
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Giuseppe Berardi, 42, has been covering women’s soccer for almost a decade for L Football, the online magazine that he decided to found in 2012 after attending an inspiring UEFA Women’s Champions League match. Berardi explains that the women’s soccer movement began gaining real momentum in Italy in 2015, when FIGC imposed that all Serie A and Serie B clubs set up a female youth soccer system alongside the one already in place for males.
Fiorentina helped increase the prestige of the women’s league by being the first Serie A club to enroll its women’s team in Serie A Femminile in the 2015/16 season. The league really grew in popularity during the 2017/18 campaign when it started to feature Juventus Women FC, the female side of the most successful club in Italian soccer history.
“That’s when things changed also from a media standpoint,” says Berardi, mentioning how that event triggered the interest of famous broadcasting platforms like Sky in Italian women’s soccer. “The movement started to gain visibility.”
Last year, the Italian government set up a €10.7 million fund for those Italian sports federations that would commit to changing the status of their female sports leagues from amateur to professional within the following three years.
On June 25, 2020, the women’s division of FIGC announced it would take advantage of the government’s financial incentive and initiate its journey toward the professional world.
“Thanks to the funds, we’ll head toward a very high level,” Women’s FIGC President, Ludovica Mantovani, told Sole 24 Ore on June 26, 2020. “As far as professional soccer, we have established the start date for Serie A Femminile in the 2022/23 season.”
Current Limitations To Serie A Femminile Athletes
As non-professional athletes, Serie A Femminile players are currently not considered employees of their club.
“Female soccer players do not sign a working contract but an economical agreement (with their club),” says Berardi. “This comes with several limitations.”
Such economical agreement is regulated by the FIGC’s Internal Organizational Norms (NOIF), the official document that delineates the financial retributions that non-professional clubs are allowed to grant to athletes.
NOIF’s article 94 states that female soccer players can receive a maximum annual compensation of €30,658 ($37,159). This gross amount has to be split into 10 monthly payments of equal size according to the length of the Serie A Femminile season.
By comparison, in England’s Barclays FA Women’s Super League, one of Europe’s most advanced professional soccer leagues for women, soccer players’ salaries start at £20,000 pounds ($27,709), the Guardian reports.
Besides the €30,658 amount, Serie A Femminile athletes can collect bonuses and reimbursements for team-related expenditures. These allowances are likewise subject to limitations by NOIF: players can receive up to €77.47 ($93.90) as a bonus for league or cup matches and €61.97 ($75.11) in per diem during team travels or for personal expenses directly tied to soccer activity.
Because the Italian revenue service does not consider the activity of women’s soccer as paid employment, Serie A Femminile clubs do not offer pension funds to their athletes, which is why some soccer players decide to set up individual retirement plans.
“At the end of their career, they (women soccer players) won’t be granted any pension from the Italian State,” says Berardi.
Paid maternity leave is not common practice in Italian women’s soccer. Berardi explains that while some clubs have decided to voluntarily grant maternity allowances to their athletes, others reserve the right to terminate the agreement with their players in case maternity keeps them away from the soccer pitch.
Female soccer players in Italy are also not provided with individual health insurance by their clubs. An agreement between the league and an Italian insurance company allows all Serie A Femminile players to access the same health insurance plan.
Major Changes Expected With Professional Soccer
The transition to the professional world entails the creation of a working contract delineating rights and obligation of employers and employees – that is, the soccer clubs and their athletes.
Among the major expected benefits for athletes are the introduction of health insurance plans on an individual basis, a minimum salary, a pension fund and the so-called “fondo di fine carriera” (literally, end-of-career fund), a pool of money that clubs periodically set aside from the athlete’s salary and will pay up at the end of their relationship with the athlete (a concept similar to severance pay).
As a result of the players’ improved economic and social conditions, clubs will have to sustain additional costs. An analysis by L Football estimates that expenses for Serie A Femminile clubs will go up annually by 37% to 58%.
At the same time, however, the advent of professional soccer will open up new revenue streams for Serie A Femminile clubs, such as the possibility to profit from buying and selling players in the transfer market.
“An interesting thing,” Berardy says, “Is that a calciomercato for female soccer players will form.”
While engaging in the transfer market game, clubs will also deal with fewer legal problems when attempting to sign non-European Union players, who will be able to request a working permit to enter the country.
Clubs hope that the professional status of Serie A Femminile will strengthen the reputation of Italian women’s soccer both domestically and abroad, thus boosting matchday attendance and merchandise sales and making the league more attractive to broadcasting and sponsorship partners.
Broadcasting and sponsorship deals struck in recent years by Serie A Femminile clubs point to the league’s already-growing market presence. Paid television platforms Sky and TimVision are currently showing games of all 12 Serie A Femminile teams, something that Berardi says was “unthinkable” until a few seasons ago when women’s soccer was barely part of the conversation in Italy.
The fact that some clubs are working to have their women’s team generate its own revenue is another indicator of the market potential of Italian women’s soccer.
In August 2020, AC Milan Women established a multi-year deal with Italian bank BANCO BPM, a move that the club defined as part of its “ownership’s modern strategic vision to have the women’s team stand as their own financially and commercially independent entity.” Since 2018, Juventus Women FC have been featuring their own front-jersey sponsor, M&M’s, the candy brand owned by American food company Mars, Incorporated.
“Some clubs are working to separate the rights of their women’s soccer team from those of the men,” says Berardi. “Clubs are trying to diversify and create revenue streams exclusively for women.”
It is too soon to predict how Serie A Femminile will adjust its approach to the market once it gains the status of professional sports league. It is possible that strategies will vary across the board considering that some clubs do not have a respective men’s team on which to rely for financial support or advice.
What’s Next For Italian Women’s Soccer
Today, February 16 at 11:30 a.m. EST, FIGC President Gabriele Gravina will speak live on Sky Calcio Women television show.
Gravina will illustrate the action plan that the Italian women’s soccer division has prepared to achieve the highly-anticipated goal of turning Serie A Femminile into a professional sports league.
“Until now, the how has not been clear,” says Berardi. “There is a set date, which is 2022/23, for when Serie A Femminile clubs will have to change the status of their women’s teams from amateur to professional. But we don’t have certain elements on how the transition into the professional world will take effect.”
Creating a sustainable model will be key for women’s soccer to pave the way for other Italian sports federations that are considering taking such a big, and still frightening, step toward the world of professional sports for female athletes.