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 (USWNT). 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 (ESG).
Over the past few years, organizations have become increasingly familiar with ESG principles and recognize that the ESG construct is helpful in identifying material risks and opportunities. (We provided a brief primer on these issues here.) ESG principles are broadly applicable to amateur and professional sports organizations, just as they are to other industries. For example, there are environmental implications relating to team travel and stadium use, social considerations relating to discrimination and sexual harassment, and governance issues relating to team ownership (e.g. types of investors), equal pay, and ensuring the integrity of the game and the appearance of fair play.
In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) responded to the wants and needs of its stakeholders by implementing and supporting player driven environmental initiatives (sustainable products), social initiatives (player safety and protection), and governance initiatives (institutional and local ownership) that are designed to address such risks and opportunities. In an industry where fair play and competitiveness are foundational, ESG principles provide a useful framework for identifying the risks to fair and safe play and the opportunities for increased competitiveness and commercial growth.
But it’s the increased parity in women’s soccer around the world that is evident from the results of this year’s World Cup, which highlights the importance of federations, leagues, and clubs focusing on social considerations like investing in youth development and programming and garnering increased community involvement. England, which finished second at the World Cup and first at the 2022 Women’s Euros, is a prime example of how investment in global youth programs is leading to more success on the field while creating more opportunities for young girls and women.
Some NWSL clubs are also creating youth academy programs, which benefit the NWSL clubs by creating a pipeline of talent that will help increase competitiveness (and thus commercial opportunities). Such programs have the added benefit of serving as investments in their local communities by connecting with young players and providing them with a safe place to play and a team for the local community to cheer on. As a result, there has been an influx of young talent to the NWSL (see here and here). In fact, recently, the NWSL opened its doors to teenagers by allowing two players on each club to be under the age of 18 (subject to adhering to certain conditions designed to protect the players).
A focus on relevant ESG principles by federations, leagues, and clubs around the world can help draw and retain talent, ensure fair and safe play, increase competitiveness and commercial opportunities, and create equal opportunities for young girls and women. It appears that the focus on investing in youth participation and development programs for young girls and women 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 compete against the best on a fair and inclusive playing field.