Amanda Vandervort on advocating for women worldwide, the COVID-19 impact, and FIFPRO's new report on the women's pro game

After nine years with MLS, which she most recently served as Vice President of Fan Engagement, Amanda Vandervort  became the Chief Women's Football Officer at FIFPRO, which consists of more than 60 national member players associations and is based in the Netherlands.

Vandervort, who served as NSCAA (now United Soccer Coaches) President in 2016-17, graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2001 after captaining the nascent soccer program for two years. After a four-year stint coaching NYU’s women’s team, she worked for the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in 2008-2010. Within six months of becoming FIFPRO's first chief women’s football officer, the coronavirus became a pandemic.

SOCCER AMERICA: How are you doing? I imagine you were still learning the ropes of the job when FIFPRO began to grapple with COVID-19?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: Here is what I've finally come to learn about myself during this time. When I took this job, the wind was in our sails [for women’s professional soccer]. Everything was just exploding: broadcasts, attendance, sponsorships. The game looked amazing.

And at the same time, the conditions for players in many, many regions of the world simply weren't good enough, and there are no labor standards in a lot of places. So, when I first came I needed to understand what that looked like around the world.

And then the coronavirus hit. And I thought, Wow, I've come here thinking women's soccer is on the rise. And the opportunity to elevate the game, like I said, based on all of my knowledge and experience coming from the men's game was exemplary, but now we're in the midst of a pandemic that could, in fact, cripple women's soccer. We don't know what it's going to do to the game.

SA: Go on ...

AMANDA VANDERVORT: I had to take a step back and really listen to what was happening in women's soccer. Like, What is happening around the world? What are the issues that we're facing based on coronavirus?

And I realized, all of the conditions that I was talking about and working on and really highlighting amid all of this explosion and growth in women's soccer, like the conditions that professional female players are faced with in their work environment, are probably more important now. And so, it's just been a bit of a twist for me on how to think about my role and what my purpose is in this time.

The former Vice President of Fan Engagement at MLS also served as MLS Vice President of Social Media and CRM and Senior Director of Social Media.

SA: How has your job changed because of the pandemic?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: At FIFPRO, it's about the wind continuing in the sails. That we can continue to push the game forward and that we ensure that women's soccer is at the decision-making table, that it's in the discussion, when we're talking about budgeting, scheduling, recovery packages. Women's soccer needs to be in those discussions as well as the discussions for when we return to play.

If we're talking about coming back stronger than ever, which I truly believe we can if we have these conversations now, that means the standards and conditions by which professional women soccer players work and play and compete are at an elite level.

Players need their unions right now more than ever — they always need their unions, I don't know if I love that quote — it's just that we play such a pivotal role right now in the global soccer movement.

SA: What are the priorities for you right now for the women’s game in the era of COVID-19?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: Making sure that our players have what they need during these difficult times. Whether that's legal support, representation from their union, mental health support, or whatever a player might need.

Within that, we have 63 unions around the world and they're all dealing with domestic issues that look different in different countries. In Sweden, players are still allowed to train and play. In the Netherlands, the government has essentially said no soccer until Sept. 1. Those two countries are physically close together but from a governance standpoint are incredibly far apart. Who knows what's going to happen in Germany. [Editor’s note: Eleven of the 12 clubs in the Frauen-Bundesliga have voted in favor of resuming the season following its suspension but plans to play are pending.]

We try to facilitate knowledge sharing, understanding, and best practices among our member unions so that they can all make decisions that are the most effective in their own domestic contexts.

And I would say it's our responsibility as FIFPRO to lead and drive the discussions around women's soccer, that it is in the mainstream conversation. That it's in parliamentary and government discussions about the role that women's soccer plays in society. That people are looking at not only the economic and financial implications but also the value that the women's game brings in in other ways to society.

SA: What are the most fragile women's soccer ecosystems around the world right now?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: Any positive trend in women's soccer is still susceptible to failure, or to negative change. That's how I would answer that question. I don't think any country today has demonstrated a confirmation that women's soccer is on stable grounds. And I hope that changes.

I hope we begin to see stakeholders and soccer leadership start to step forward and put a stake in the ground saying that they are committed to women's soccer and are committed to their players and that we won't see women's soccer programs, or leagues, or clubs fold.

I hope by striking this conversation about the values and benefits and long-term opportunities that we'll actually see people stepping forward rather than seeing women's soccer quietly dissolving.

SA: How worried should we be about the fragility of women’s leagues and teams at this time?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: I think we have to keep asking the question, right? We have to keep asking the questions about the decisions being made about women's soccer at clubs, leagues, the national team and international level. And it's concerning that women's soccer wasn't in the mainstream conversation in the beginning of this crisis. We were largely focused on the men's game. And I appreciate and value everything that the men's game does for soccer — I'm a huge supporter.

But I would also like to see women's soccer at the table. I know you're trying to ask me the question directly, but Arlo, I think the point is that we have to keep asking the questions and keep women's soccer at the forefront of the conversation — in the boardroom — when they're making financial decisions. Hopefully, what we see in the future is a beautiful game that's constructed in the best interest of players and the industry and that women's soccer not only survives but thrives well into the future. So that the girls who are just getting into soccer today have the opportunity to be professionals 20 years from now.

VANDERVORT'S PLAYING CAREER: "Even when I was playing in Arizona our participation in the state ODP team was a combined regional team with other states. I was playing before girls and women's soccer is as popular as it is today. For me, it was an opportunity to be with friends and be outside my home and be very competitive about something I was really passionate about and that I really loved. So when I went to the University of Wyoming it was really about being part of something new, building something, and hopefully being a pioneer of a program that would last well into the future. Now when I look at women's soccer and where it's come, first I'm proud and humble that I was part of it so long ago, but also it's just so exciting to see the growth and opportunity that's been created for girls to live their dream."

COACHING CAREER: "I loved my time as a full-time coach, but I kind of always knew I wanted to be in the business side of soccer in one way or another. When I left coaching in 2007, I really wasn't sure what I was going to do. It wasn't a conscious decision on where I was going to land. It was more like, what's that saying, jump first, look later? But what I always knew is that my ambition was always in the game. whether it was building a program at the University of Wyoming as a player, or building a program at NYU as a coach, I was a builder in the game. Looking back, that's a consistent theme for me."

DIGITAL AND SOCIAL MEDIA: "I have been passionate about governance, about how we create infrastructure that works the best for everyone in the game, and so, that led me to governance with United Soccer Coaches, and on the business side, I really got my start in digital and social media, because that's really the pathway nowadays. At the time it was the best way to get information about women's soccer to people who want to hear about it. At that time, it was hard! It was hard to get journalists to write about women's soccer. It didn't resonate. It was the time when I guess women's soccer rose through social media and blogs and kind of the underground reporting infrastructure technology to actually elevate the game."

SA: You recently appeared on "Coaching through COVID-19" with United Soccer Coaches. What are some of the most important things you took away from those conversations?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: I am so impressed and proud with United Soccer Coaches for creating this platform to have some of these really difficult conversations. I think a lot of these people are looking for direction, inspiration, insight, an understanding of what's going on, what they can expect and what they can look to do in these tough times.

For me, just being able to have a conversation about my experience alongside my good friend Emma Hayes and her experience through this difficult time — we enjoyed interacting with coaches who logged in and asked questions. I would encourage anyone interested to check it out.

SA: What do you know about the status 2023 Women's World Cup plans, whose host has yet to be determined?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: Bids have been submitted and FIFA has done their analysis. If you compare the amount of time that the men's World Cup gets to prepare for the tournament, you know, a country like Qatar has been in the works since 2010. So, you're looking at 12 years of prep time.

For the women, hopefully we come to a decision later this year on 2023, which, yeah, gives a very short runway for a country — or a combination of countries if Australia and New Zealand win the bid — to prepare and it's complicated to pull off an event like the World Cup, women's or men's.

And so I'm hopeful the country that's put forward has the technology and capability to be able to put it up in just a few short years. And I hope FIFA provides them with the necessary support to do so.

SA: Tell us about the report FIFPRO recently released on the status of professional women’s soccer around the world.

AMANDA VANDERVORT: We were going to send out the “raising our game” report in February, but then coronavirus happened, and we were like, "Is this even the right thing to talk about?" so we decided to do a supplementary paper on the impacts of coronavirus on women's soccer based on all of the research in the report. So, we're giving the proper context now — but that report is still about women's soccer in 2019.

FIFPRO 2020 Raising our Game Women's Football Report
"A forward-thinking report about women's professional soccer which puts players at the heart of the planned development and rebuilding of the sport after the coronavirus pandemic.” Nearly 200 players from 18 countries responded to FIFPRO’s survey, which found that 54% feel their teams do not have adequate support staff. Sixty-one percent of respondents say they are unsure if their club has a defined strategy for growth of the women's team. The report charts the economic evolution of the game, covering game-day attendance, TV audiences and sponsorship, and details player conditions at club and national team level.

SA: Why did you seek out a role at FIFPRO?

AMANDA VANDERVORT: I was at Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) 2008, helping launch the league, really. As the league was facing financial trouble in 2010, we laid off most of our national staff. And I was one of the people who was let go. It went to bare-bone operations. [The WPS folded after its 2011 season].

During that time we had a lot of interaction with the folks at Major League Soccer and I had gotten to know Chris Schlosser at MLS. I ended working in men's pro soccer in MLS for nine years doing digital and social media. Which I absolutely loved. But I always knew that when the women's game was at a point where I could impact it with my knowledge and experience that I had gained from the men's side, I would go back.

So I was at MLS until April of 2019, and I just felt that the time was right to get back into the women's game. It wasn't a straight line, in fact I spent my summer at the World Cup in France, networking, trying to figure out where the women's game was going. So you could say FIFPRO emerged as a really interesting opportunity at this time when women need representation around the world. If the game is growing, representation matters. It was a great opportunity to get back into the women's game but also expand my knowledge and experience into something that I'm incredibly passionate about, which is players.

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