Written by Marieke | Published on 15th March 2022
As Women’s Sports Ambassador, Priscilla Janssens is one of contemporary football’s big players behind the scenes. Her tremendous efforts have changed the game both on and off the field – for women athletes in particular. With International Women’s Day at our doorstep, we meet Priscilla to discuss past wins and future goals of women’s football around the world.
Perhaps foreshadowing, Priscilla was born in the land of football, Brazil, to an English mother and Dutch father. Her international background sparked an equally global career. Over the last 25 years, she’s worked with Ajax, UEFA and FIFA in roles that range from personal coach of top players to Venue Director at major leagues. In 2007, she co-founded the Eredivisie for women.
Raising the bar
We meet Priscilla in her quaint home in The Netherlands, where she currently lives. As we explore the significance of International Women’s Day to the present-day world of sports, her vision is crystal clear: “It gives us the opportunity to really put the spotlight on women athletes, and women in general. In this society, you see that women in a lot of cases are still in the background.” Besides honoring women’s achievements and celebrating the wins, Priscilla also sees it as the perfect annual opportunity to evaluate where we stand as a society, and set goals for the future: “We want to put the bar high.”
How 1999 changed the game
That high bar has paid off. Since Priscilla first stepped into the world of sports in the late 90s, she has witnessed major shifts. With still plenty of work to be done, the successful push towards equal representation is worth celebrating. “In the last years, there is more attention for women’s sports. It’s on television, it’s visible, and people show up.” As obvious as this might seem today, women’s sports were long underrepresented in terms of media coverage, access and reporting. A lot of which came from a misconception that people wouldn’t be interested.
The 1999 final of the Women’s World Cup - when the U.S. team competed with China for the world title - was a breakthrough moment. The organizers took a leap by going big. Leading up to the event, critics questioned why it took place in the enormous Rose Bowl Stadium, assuming the seats would remain empty. “They sold out,” Priscilla reminisces with a big grin, “90.000 people watched that match.” Another one million fans followed the game live from their homes. It proved once and for all that people are in fact very interested in women’s sports; “You just have to give them the opportunity to see it.”
This increased visibility triggers a domino effect that is instrumental to the growth and health of women’s sports in general. With more visibility comes increased appreciation, which eventually leads to rising salaries. The latter might not seem like a top priority, but it’s an essential step towards a better future.
“If we’re looking at the challenge for female professional athletes in sports, the biggest challenge is still to generate enough income so they can be full professionals and concentrate 100 percent of their time on their sports. Which means that they can have a good balance in training, in rest, in food — which is difficult when you also have to study or you have a job.” Priscilla explains. “When you can do that, your achievements will get better. And when your achievements get better, there is more attention. Which means you’ll have more opportunities in a sponsoring marketing field, and that helps again to focus more on your sports.” It’s all tied together. “But it starts with visibility and respect for the female athletes. We still have a way to go. But it’s better.”
It’s a win-win
As women’s football moves out of the shadow of its male counterpart, it’s interesting to see how the respective football cultures differ, and how the fans in particular might serve as unexpected inspiration. Fans of women’s soccer tend to be more engaged in social issues” she explains. “If you look at the research about fans of women’s sports in general, you see that the social aspect is very important to them. So: diversity, inclusiveness, climate change.”
Because women’s football has long been the underdog from a historical point of view, themes like inclusiveness, diversity and gender-equality have become part of its fiber. “You see that in women’s sports, there’s no issue about if you’re gay or transgender, it’s part of life. Whereas in mens sports, and in my sport, football, it’s a big issue.” Priscilla elaborates: “Male athletes who are maybe gay or bisexual or transgender are afraid to be open about it, because they’re afraid that the fans will turn against them or they will not be accepted.”
Equal pay, at last
Coming towards the end of our conversation, when we ask Priscilla about the most memorable victory she’s witnessed in her career, it’s actually not a sports moment. “It was the time that the U.S. soccer women’s team stood up to the federation and they actually started a court case where they demanded equal pay.” Until recently, the women players had been rewarded significantly less that their male counterparts, when in fact research had shown that the value of the women’s team was bigger than that of the mens team. The women had already been World Champions several times, as well as Olympic Champions.
“They actually lost the court case at the beginning of 2021. And if you read the arguments, saying that they had to do less work, I mean — it’s absolutely ridiculous, you cannot even imagine that those were the reasons that were given”. But in the months that followed, a big discussion gained momentum, to which the president of the federation stepped down. “And in the end, they are now receiving the same pay. And this started a movement throughout the whole world, where women’s teams in football started challenging their federations.”
Dreams can come true
At Catawiki, we see the rise of women’s sports reflected in the increasing popularity of women’s sports memorabilia. With regular auctions celebrating this category, we ask Priscilla whether she has a personal favourite in her private collection. “The item I’m most excited about is an object I bought last year in a Catawiki auction. It’s a photo of Brandi Chastain. She’s a female soccer player for the U.S. team.” The photo was taken at the monumental 1999 Women’s World Cup game mentioned before. Priscilla’s face glows with pride, as she narrates the scene. “They have played the full time, and they’re going into penalties. It’s the fifth penalty for The U.S., and she scores the goal — and they’ve won the World Cup! In a full stadium. And at that moment, she goes down onto her knees, she takes off her shirt, and there’s a Nike logo on the back of her sports bra. Taking off your shirt in those days was a bit strange, and especially for a woman, taking off our shirt: it’s scandalous!”
Adding to the historic moment, the coincidental Nike logo landed Brandi a huge marketing contract with the brand, which was still unprecedented in women's football. It set the tone for the future. Brandi’s signature catchphrase at the time was ‘Dreams can come true’, which she signed onto the photo. Priscilla concludes: “To have that photo and that catchphrase, is one of the best parts of my collection.”
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