On March 9th, 2020, the Serie A season officially came to a halt. This was the decree of Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, whose government stopped all sports in the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
While there has been much focus on the impact of the crisis on the men’s Serie A, hardly anything has been said about the women’s league, Serie A Femminile.Given the fact that men’s Serie A commands a greater amount of attention (not to mention the incredible amount of revenue it generates), this is understandable.
However, it is important to remember that the Serie A Femminile athletes have been impacted by the crisis too and they are not multimillionaires. Far from it.
They don’t have any golden parachutes to fall back on. They earn far less than their male counterparts do. Christen Press, for example, makes $257,920 while Neymar makes €36 million Euros.
With this in mind, it’s best to think of the league in environmental terms. Serie A Femminile is a fragile ecosystem. And like most fragile ecosystems, it needs proper care and consideration to continue thriving.
Therefore, swift intervention is needed to pull the league back from the precipice.
The cancellation of the season
The season was cancelled on June 8th, 2020. The main catalyst for this seemed to be that most of the teams didn’t want the league to resume play. Out of all twelve teams in the league, only four wanted the league to restart – Juventus, AC Milan, Tavagnacco and Orobica. The other eight did not.
Juventus were the first team to return to training. Milan and Sassuolo followed shortly afterward.
However, while those teams resumed training, others didn’t. The reasons why were numerous. The first is that some of the teams didn’t have the means or infrastructure to resume training. Those teams are the ones not affiliated with the men’s teams, e.g. Orobica, Tavagnacco, Pink Bari, and Florentia. They, therefore, don’t have the financial muscle of the men’s teams to help them pay for everything they need to begin training again. But even the other five teams that were affiliated with the men’s teams (Roma, Inter, Fiorentina, Empoli, Hellas Verona) did not resume training. The reasons why are unclear, though Italy coach Milena Bertolini has implied that some teams didn’t do so to preserve their own self-interests.
The other reason why the league didn’t start again was due to the health protocols. Sara Gama (captain of Italy and Juventus), along with other Serie A players, wanted ‘ad hoc’ protocols that were on par with the requirements for the men.
Their reasoning for this was that they wanted to safely resume play without cutting any corners. The FIGC had implemented revised guidelines that were similar to the ones for the men, though they were less stringent due to the fact that many of the teams in the league couldn’t afford to adhere to all of the government’s health protocols (such as mandatory quarantine periods). Teams like Pink Bari can’t afford to pay for the cost of things like testing their players and staff, as they simply don’t generate enough revenue to do so. The cost of testing players and staff can get rather costly, as it’s estimated that it could cost teams as much as €150,000 (Di Marzio).
Still, the protocols were deemed too risky and before the FIGC’s meeting on Thursday, June 3rd, team doctors from the various Serie A teams wrote a letter to the federation declaring their opposition to restarting the season, based on maintaining the safety of the players and staff. They also didn’t want to be liable for any of the players getting sick or injured. Some of the doctors even went as far as to resign in protest.
Some of the players themselves were also not convinced that the league should resume play. Malta internationals Emma Lipman (Florentia) and Shona Zammit (Pink Bari) were two of them. In an interview with the Times of Malta, they felt that the Italian FA took long to make a decision and this had a negative effect at the end.
There were also concerns about playing in late July. The summers in Italy tend to get really hot, and the heat, coupled with the risk of injury, convinced many players that the season should not resume. The resumption of the season would have also taken place in July and ended in August, which would have meant that the season would run head first into next season.
In the end, the season was cancelled. The players then shifted their focus onto other things.
What Was at Stake
Well, for starters, there was a lot. While there was no huge financial fallout for the league if it didn’t resume play, there was still much to play for.
First and foremost, there was the issue of promotion and relegation. Last year, both Pink Bari and Orobica Bergamo were supposed to be relegated at the end of the season. However, after both Atalanta Mozzanica and Chievo Verona Valpolicella (who were both in Serie A at the time) had dissolved due to a lack of sustained support, both Bari and Orobica remained in Serie A. This was done to keep the number of teams in the league even (at 12). It was also done to prevent further fallout from the dissolution of those two teams.
This year, both teams still faced relegation. Pink Bari is only one point away from a relegation spot, while Orobica was dead last in the standings.
However, there was one team below Bari, and it was Tavagnacco. Based on the current standings, both Orobica and Tavagnacco were relegated.
In response to the crisis, the FIGC was said to be placing a freeze on the promotion and relegation of the teams in the first division. While this might have been beneficial to the teams in Serie A, it is the complete opposite for the teams of Serie B.
The three teams from Serie B that were contesting for promotion to the top flight are Napoli, San Marino, and Lazio. In the end, the FIGC decided to do promotions and relegations that were decided by an algorithm, which was calculated based on a team’s home and away results. Using this method, Orobica and Tavagnacco were relegated due to being at the bottom of the Serie A table, while Napoli and San Marino were promoted to Serie A. San Marino was promoted ahead of Lazio based on this algorithm, and the fact that they had a game in hand.
Prior to the league’s cancellation, Gioia Masia (Tavagnacco) said that the teams would ‘dispute’ the termination of the season in court. While it might seem extreme, it is understandable, given that they were denied the chance to fight for survival due to the league being suspended.
There is also the issue of the Champions League. Italy only has two spots for Europe as they are ninth in the UEFA coefficient. The first and second place teams in the league will qualify for the competition. At the moment, the two teams are Juventus and Fiorentina.
Fiorentina was tied for second with AC Milan. Both teams are on level points, with Fiorentina being ahead on goal difference. The matches between Milan and Fiorentina were crucial, as it would have determined which of the two teams will play in Europe next season. In the end, after the season was canceled, an algorithm ultimately decided the fate of the two teams. Fioentina went to Europe on the strength of their goal difference. Milan finished the season in third place, and narrowly missed out on qualification.
The FIGC will have to work diligently to resolve these problems. Two possible solutions to this could be expanding the league from 12 teams to 14. That way, teams like Napoli and San Marino will still be promoted to Serie A. There are reports that the FIGC was entertaining the idea prior to the stoppage, and this scenario might be the perfect excuse to implement it.
Another solution would have been to have a playoff between Milan and Fiorentina. In the end, the two never played a playoff match. Instead, Fiorentina went to the Champions League due to the fact that they were second in the table. They finished second on the strength of their goal difference, scoring five more goals than Milan did.
In the end, Fiorentina will play in the Champions League next year. AC Milan will have to wait until next season to qualify for Europe.
What were the risks of resuming the league?
There are several. The one, big risk of resuming the league, is the health of the players. Potentially resuming practice and play could put the players in contact with someone who has COVID-19. This has already happened in men’s Serie A, with a few of the teams confirming that some of their players and staff have tested positive for the virus.
It’s not only the physical health of the players that is at risk but their mental health as well. The anxiety of playing in proximity to someone who has the virus could have a detrimental effect on a player. Coming down with the virus itself is an even bigger risk. However, if the proper protocols are taken, then that will minimize the chances of a player getting sick.
Another concern is that if the season were to resume, it would most likely resume in July. This means that the season would run headfirst into the next Serie A season, which would start in August. That could lead to potential exhaustion and fatigue for the players, as well as scheduling headaches.
Players need at least 3-4 weeks before the start of the next season to recover and get fit. Finishing the season in late July, with the league resuming in August or September, will not allow them to do this.
Then there are the financial costs, which could become quite steep for the teams in the league.
The High Price To Pay
If the Serie A Femminile season hadn’t been canceled, then the teams would have begun training in June. However, the teams wouldn’t have been able to just pick up where they left off. For starters, before training could even begin, the athletes would have to be tested for any symptoms of COVID-19. Then there is the cost of sanitizing the facilities to make sure no one will get infected by the virus.
Sanitizing facilities, administering tests and even social distancing cost a lot of money. In addition to this, there is also the issue of the foreign players who are currently abroad returning to Italy. The returning players will also have to be subjected to 14 days of quarantine before they can resume training.
When Linda Sembrant returned to Italy from Sweden, she had to be quarantined for 14 days. She could not begin individual training with Juventus at the Vinovo until the quarantine period had passed. The other players who are returning to Italy from abroad will be subject to the same measures. The players and staff will also need to be tested every four days to ensure safety.
All of this adds up, and it could get costly. The preliminary estimates are that it could cost anywhere from €120,000 to €180,000 (Tuttomercatoweb). Some have said the costs will be even higher. Gianluca Di Marzio’s site speculates that the costs could reach as high as €400,000. The cost of testing, sanitizing facilities, hotel rooms, travel and isolating teams for an entire season, will add up. As a result, the smaller teams who don’t have the backing of a men’s team could face many setbacks. They will not be able to afford the exorbitant costs that will come with adhering to the FIGC’s health protocols.
One such team is Pink Bari.
‘We Are Facing Extinction’
These are the words of Pink Bari’s president, Alessandra Signorile, who sounded the alarm about the plight of her team in an interview with the Corriere del Mezzogiorno.
“The way I see it, women’s football is at the risk of extinction. And to think, we were just coming out of the shadows. The price to be paid will be very high. The federation [FIGC] is mainly focused on the main men’s leagues. We remain secondary to them.”
The fate of Pink Bari is one that is shared with many others in the league. While teams like Milan and Fiorentina can draw on the vast resources on their men’s teams to keep them afloat, teams like Bari, Tavagnacco, and Florentia don’t have the same luxury.
It’s already been confirmed that teams including Bari, Tavagnacco, and Orobica have already stopped paying their players because they can no longer afford to sustain them.
Bari also wants to see the season come to an end. They may very well get their wish, as there are reports that the Serie A and Serie B teams have requested that the season come to an end.
Their reasoning for this is that they simply can’t afford to pay for all the measures needed to safely resume play.
In Germany, the government is helping to mitigate the costs of this by giving the teams the money they’ll need to safely see out the season. In Italy, the teams will need the same amount of help. They will need it to either finish the current season or to start the next one.
Therefore, crucial intervention is needed to keep teams like Bari afloat.
The Question of Sponsorship
One of the ways teams like Bari are able to sustain themselves is through sponsorships. It’s one of the ways that teams who are not affiliated with men’s professional clubs can generate enough revenue to sustain themselves.
The coronavirus crisis has affected those sponsorships as well. Most businesses and hotel chains ground to a halt in the wake of the March lockdown. The slowdown in activity hit the bottom line of the businesses affiliated with the squads, which led to them spending less money for the teams they support. The economic slowdown could have further repercussions, as the hard-hit businesses could go as far as to suspend payments and not be able to renew their sponsorships for next season.
This could be quite devastating for the women’s teams who aren’t affiliated with the men’s teams. These teams will, once again, be left to fend for themselves. Without a steady source of revenue, these small teams could cease to exist.
According to The Times, sponsorship fees for all sports will fall from £38 billion to £23 billion this year. That is a 37 percent decrease from last year. The teams of Serie A Femminile are among those who are affected by the sponsorship decline.
They will, therefore, have to find other means of sustaining themselves. Government intervention is crucial in this regard, and they have come up with several ways to help the teams in need.
The Lack of Professionalism Hurts the League
In December of 2019, the Italian senate ratified an amendment that would allow the amateur athletes of the country to become professionals. It came into effect on January 1st, 2020. Before the coronavirus crisis shut the league down, the FIGC was undertaking steps that would allow the league to become professional.
The goal of the federation was to have Serie A Femminile become professionalized by the 2021/2022 season. After the pandemic hit, those plans were thrown into flux. There were reports that the implementation of professionalism for the league had been delayed. This was inevitable and is not surprising, given the incredible amount of damage caused by the pandemic.
As it stands, the women of Serie A Femminile are still classified as amateurs.
The lack of professionalism hurts the league in several different ways. The effects of this range from no minimum salaries for the players to no health insurance and pensions as well*. The ‘contracts’ for the players don’t have professional contracts either. The contracts should be viewed as ‘economic agreements’ that bind a player to a team for the season.
*(AC Milan are the exception, as they are the only team in Italy that is confirmed to pay pensions for their women’s team.)
Being classified as amateurs also prevents the players from being able to file for unemployment. Since they are not considered ‘professionals’, they can’t file for unemployment benefits. This is a further blow that hurts players who are already struggling. The salary cap for the league is €30,000, but most of the players don’t get paid that much. The players of the previously mentioned Pink Bari, for example, make only around €800 – €900.
It would be unconscionable to cut the salaries for these players who earn so little to begin with. Unfortunately, it has already happened.
In this instance, unemployment would be very beneficial to the players as they are unable to earn their livelihoods. There might be some hope for them, however. The Italian Ministry of Sports and Health has made a €600 ‘bonus’ available for the athletes of the country. The bonus is available for those athletes who have not made more than €10,000 a year and who have no other source of income (L Football Magazine).
The bonus, however, is but a small drop in the bucket. They will need more than this to weather the current pandemic.
In addition to this, the Italian government gave the players an allowance for the month of March. The hope is that the allowance can be extended into April, and however long the leagues remain suspended.
Another form of assistance could come in the form of Article 22 of the Melandri Law. The article (the “general mutuality” agreement), stipulates that the FIGC can allocate a percentage of the money given to it by the government to help the teams who are suffering from this crisis. It also states that some or “all” of the money it receives can be used to mitigate the effects of this crisis. There might be further relief in the form of the FIGC’s football protection fund (‘Fondo Salva Calcio’).
As La Gazzetta dello Sport explains it, the fund will be created as a way to help the teams that are struggling, without being overly reliant on government funds. The fund will be funded by taking 1% of all earnings on sports betting. The proposal has yet to be approved by the government, but if it passes, it will be one way to help alleviate the suffering of some of the football teams, and some of that money could be siphoned off to help the women.
As of June 4th, the FIGC has implemented the Fondo Salva Calcio and has allocated €700,00 to the women’s teams. The funds are meant to help them resume play next season.
Vincenzo Spadafora also revealed that the government has procured up to €1 billion in ‘sports funding’ that will be used to help the teams and athletes that have been affected by the crisis. With this in mind, there’s no reason why some of that money couldn’t be allocated to the teams of Serie A Femminile.
The ‘Salva Calcio’ measure has yet to be approved by the government. And after it’s approved, the women’s teams might not reap the benefits of it for at least a year. It’s also not known just how much of the €1 billion the government has produced will be allocated to the women. Or when they’ll even receive it.
Until the women’s teams receive the needed financial assistance, they’ll remain stuck in this impasse, and hoping someone will pull them out of the rut.