By Carol Couse, Partner, Sports Law Team, Mills & Reeve
The 2019 Women’s World Cup smashed records, drawing an estimated one billion viewers for the first time. The money involved was also higher than ever before, with FIFA doubling the prize pot from the previous tournament. However, the total prize money — $30m (£24m) — was a tiny fraction of the $400m (£315m) awarded to the competing teams in last year’s men’s FIFA World Cup (the BBC).
As women’s football gains a higher public profile, the vast pay inequality is getting increasing attention too. When the US team celebrated their World Cup victory, the crowd chanted for equal pay. Several months previously, members of the team had filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation for equal pay for international performances.
Mills & Reeve act for many of the UK’s top female sports stars and teams. We’ve advised the English women’s football team on their FA central contract, Eniola Aluko in her well-publicised pursuit of complaints of bullying and racism against The FA and the former England women’s head coach, and Steph Houghton on all her personal endorsements. Beyond football, we have also worked with the England netball team, the Ladies’ European Tour in golf, British weightlifter Michaela Breeze and many more.
We’re very proud of our female sports clients, and we’re also proud of the fact that female lawyers make up half of our core sports team. We decided that as a firm we could take some practical steps to tailor the provision of our legal support to our client base. We’ve been working on a package specifically designed for women’s sports organisations and female athletes, which also recognises the unequal pay challenges.
Our initiative is called The Equaliser, and it offers reduced hourly rates for legal services for women’s sport such as advising on playing contracts, sponsorships and disputes, whether on or off the field. Clients can request a female team member to lead their case if they wish, and we’re also offering mentoring to any female athletes who want to move into a legal career. Alongside this, we will be running regular women’s sports roundtable discussions and other thought-leading events.
We’re building on our existing success as a leading practice in this area to develop a new approach, and to make a meaningful, long-term impact. We want to be the natural home for women’s sport, and to offer genuine support to women in the industry, whether they’re fighting a discrimination case, dealing with reputation management issues or negotiating a sponsorship deal. But we also recognise that projects like this are only part of the picture. We hope that The Equaliser will help to draw attention to the sport pay gap, the specific requirements of women’s sport and stimulate further discussions encouraging other organisations to explore ways of making a meaningful difference.