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How Athlete Collectivity Changes the Game | Q&A with Sarah Gregorius, FIFPRO

Before transitioning into her current role with FIFPRO – the PTPA’s sister organization in global soccer/football – Sarah Gregorius spent more than a decade competing professionally for the New Zealand Women’s National Team and across New Zealand and Europe. A 3x FIFA World Cup participant and 2x Olympian, Sarah experienced firsthand the highs, lows, challenges, opportunities and inequities that pro athletes face. Now, Sarah’s working to address many of those same challenges through her role at FIFPRO, where she directs and develops policy and strategy in support of player well-being. 

Sarah spoke with the PTPA about her experience with players associations as a professional athlete, how players associations create impact for athletes and drive the sports ecosystem forward, and more.

Tell us about your current role at FIFPRO. What are your key areas of focus?

SG: My role at FIFPRO is to lead the organisations policy and stakeholder / strategic relations work in women’s football. This basically means I am responsible for most of the planning and delivery of our work to help our Unions and women’s football players worldwide. Most of my focus is on exactly that – identifying the key areas for change, building an evidence-based platform to support that change and then strategically deploying the necessary efforts to get us that necessary change.

How are you working directly with women’s footballers in your current role to ensure their voices, experiences, and opinions are heard and incorporated into FIFPRO’s efforts?

SG: Naturally, this means I spend a lot of time speaking with players to understand their needs but also to bring them into those important conversations with decision makers. However, it is also important that we have strong structures in place to gather large amounts of information on their experiences too, as we are a global organisation with thousands of players, so relying on conversation alone is not enough. We do global surveys across our membership, targeting specific regional and international competitions. We also have a Global Players Council, who we also use regularly in our project workstream and to have strategic discussions on the necessary areas in our game that need attention and improvement. And, honestly, the ideas they have and their passion is what makes my job so enjoyable. Their intrinsic motivation to improve our sport is incredible and so valuable, so having their voices and experiences as a cornerstone of our work is the key to making that work impactful.

You often mention collectivism, and how collective strength across players is such a powerful tool for driving impact. Why is collectivism so important in pro sports, and how is its potential for impact different from individual players pushing for change?

SG: It’s so important because it is exactly that – so powerful. You cannot deny the chorus, and also that is the space where players individually are protected. There is a huge amount of risk, and sadly we have seen the consequences, when players are forced to push at an individual level. It is too easy for them to be targeted or ostracized, whereas a collective voice is not only strong but also safe. And this is so important – the athletes should be able to do what they love to do and what they are paid to do without this looming threat every time they want to push for positive change or shine a light on an issue. This is why it’s not just important but also necessary for true, long-term sustainable progress and change without any individual sacrifice or consequence.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup is this summer, and FIFA recently announced that it is tripling prize money for teams competing this year as well as targeting equal pay across the men’s and women’s competitions by 2027. How was FIFPRO involved in pushing for these progresses, and how will FIFPRO stay involved moving forward?

SG: This is a perfect example of why collectivism is so important, as the players were very central in this big step forward. FIFPRO drafted a letter that was signed by all of our member unions, and signed directly by 25 women’s national teams – over 150 player signatures in total from every continent. This was delivered by our FIFPRO President to the President of FIFA, with three main principles outlined for the “professionalisation of the Women’s World Cup”. These were:

  1. An equal framework of rules and conditions for the Men’s and Women’s FIFA World Cups, including equal prize money for senior World Cups
  2. A global guarantee of at least 30 percent of prize money for players who compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup
  3. A binding, global collective agreement between FIFA and the players that enshrines these commitments

The letter was the result of many conversations over a long period of time with players around the world, all of whom are motivated and ready to take action in the fight for gender equality & equity – which, unfortunately, is still a necessary battle even at the highest levels of football. In every previous iteration of the Women’s World Cup, the gap between how the men’s players were treated vs. how the women’s players were treated was huge. This was across many areas, such as standard of facilities, transportation, what FIFA paid for in terms of team delegations – as well as obviously the huge gap in prize money.
Through this collective action and the leverage that it built, FIFA took important steps in the direction of a more equal World Cup, utilising the platform and impact of a World Cup to create greater professionalism and precedents in women’s football. You can read more about it here.

Can you share a few additional examples of how FIFPRO has meaningfully changed the game and improved the professional experience for female footballers?

SG: FIFPRO also led the charge for the introduction of maternity and pregnancy protections in the FIFA RSTP’s (FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players), which are the set of international regulations that govern football. These were the first ever internationally enshrined protections for players concerning pregnancy and maternity, and it is based on the broader FIFPRO Parental Policy paper. Players immediately began benefitting from these protections, and FIFPRO also defended a player in the first challenge to the regulations – the Sara Bjork case. Winning this case on behalf of Sara also further entrenched the importance of this work.

FIFPRO has also defended, represented and supported many players in cases of abuse, still a problem that is rife in women’s football (and all football). We negotiate regularly with FIFA on many topics, such as global working conditions, the women’s international match calendar, and running many projects that contribute to the knowledge gap that still exists in the research and understanding of women’s-specific physiological health.

Football, like tennis, is an incredibly global sport. In your opinion, how does that global nature further add to the importance of having a strong players association?

SG: The popularity of sports like tennis and football certainly means that strong representation is necessary. Unfortunately, alongside this popularity is a lot of potential for corruption and exploitation of players – who are the faces of the sport and the necessary labour, but also at times the most vulnerable actors in the industry because of the nature of some of the power dynamics that exist. Players need to have a safe space to raise concerns, to ensure their rights are protected and built on. Otherwise, the risk of exploitation is much higher, and on the other side of that there is also a lot of commercial potential in sports like tennis and football through group licensing models. The best and most inclusive way to guarantee solidarity in those models is through a strong players association.

Both FIFPRO and the PTPA work across men’s and women’s players worldwide. How does FIFPRO’s work with both men’s and women’s footballers help the organization amplify impact across both sides of the game?

SG: Firstly, it is important to recognise the difference in men’s and women’s football industries. Each has its own unique set of workers, and those workers have their own specific set of needs. So, while in some cases there are similar issues that can be tackled and improved in both industries, there are also times when targeted approaches based on the needs and position of the industry and the players within that is needed. A “one size fits all” model doesn’t work, so in order to amplify impact we have to make sure we are working to the needs of those we represent – both women and men. However, naturally built into the union work is this sense of solidarity, so there are moments when the united front between men’s and women’s players is also very powerful. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on some topics also greatly amplifies impact, and raises awareness.

Prior to joining FIFPRO, your professional playing career included three World Cups and two Olympic Games with New Zealand, as well as stints with Liverpool, AS Elfen Saitama (Japan) and SC 07 Bad Neuenahr (Germany). How did players associations impact your own professional career at the international level and/or the club level?

SG: I always had a very close affiliation with my national union in NZ, so I was always aware of the role of a union or players association during my professional career. However, because of that understanding I had, I also noticed greatly the issues when no union was present – which unfortunately was my experience when playing in Japan and Germany. You could see the areas where change was needed, but there was no vehicle or vessel for that cry for change to be funneled through.

At the international level, many things improved for us in the national team thanks to the players association. From payments, to conditions in the team, it was all managed through the players association, who regularly met with us and had those hard conversations with the national federation on our behalf. So the impact was very positive and, at an individual level, motivated me towards the type of work I do today.

You served as a board member for the New Zealand Football Players Association while competing for the Football Ferns. What motivated you to take on this leadership role as a player?

SG: It was the trust and belief my teammates had in me – that was my motivation. Without their encouragement, I would have not taken on that role. The NZPFA themselves were also very welcoming and warm towards me, mentoring me in that role and beyond it, again helping me in what has now become my career after playing football. I am so grateful for the trust they had as it’s really blossomed into a true passion and given me a very solid foundation for the work I do now.

In your opinion, what’s the number one reason why all professional athletes should be involved in their players association?

SG: The power of collective action and solidarity, and how that can protect and improve your rights.

What’s one piece of advice you would offer tennis players as they push for greater player advocacy and a more meaningful seat at the stakeholders table in their own sport?

SG: Work really hard to stay together and always believe in the power you have when you stand together. You can’t be denied a seat at the table if you have that, and building an organisation that’s values driven and driven by solidarity will not just mean a meaningful seat at the table – it means you are leaders and change-makers, all of you.