National League: Top flight women’s soccer gets a gender-neutral name change

The name change caps a remarkable week for women's football in Finland with a new sponsorship deal and a new TV rights deal as well.

Heidi Pihlaja (L) and Ari Lahti (R) hold scarf with new National League branding / Credit: Finnish Football Association

The highest level of women’s football competition in Finland is getting a name change to become more gender-equal.

From the start of the 2020 season the Nastien Liiga (Women’s League) will be re-branded as the Kansallinen Liiga (National League).

It’s a rare move in the world of top flight soccer where often the women’s game is defined by gender: in Sweden the women’s national league is called Damallsvenskan, in England Women’s Super League and in Germany Frauen-Bundesliga.

“It is common within the sports community to talk about sports and women’s sports as if
the latter would be less worthy when this of course is not the case. Football is football –
no matter who kicks the ball” explains Heidi Pihlaja, Head of Women’s Football Development at the Finnish Football Association.

“Some might see changing the name as insignificant but actually it is a strong statement that symbolises a bigger cultural change within the sports community and our society” she adds.

The name change will affect only the top level of competition, which has ten competing teams, although it’s hoped the emphasis on gender equality among athletes is felt by the 32,000 registered female football players in Finland across all age grades – approximately a quarter of all registered players.

“I see huge growth potential in girl’s and women’s football, but there is a lot to do for people to see football as a girl’s and women’s hobby and that’s a cultural change as well” Pihlaja tells News Now Finland.

“But it’s been great to see the media already using the definition men’s and women’s nation al team, and we want to progress that further in society as well” she adds.

Finnish footballer Natalia Kuikka on national team duty / Credit: Helmarit FB

How did the name change come about?

The drive to look again at how women’s football is defined in Finland started last year, after the success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which lead football authorities in Finland to give equal pay for both men and women who play for the national team.

“People do not base their interest in football on the gender of the players. People come to the games to see top athletes play quality football. That is why women’s football should be treated equally with men’s football” says Ari Lahti, the President of the Finnish Football Association.

Heidi Pihlaja explains that the players themselves were a key part of the re-naming process, when they discussed values to guide the sport in Finland during the coming years.

“The whole identity has been based on discussion with the players” she says.

This week the new National League signed up Subway as the main sponsor. The sandwich chain will also focus part of its investment to promote football as an active lifestyle for children and young people.

The National League also inked a long term deal this week with Nelonen Media to air all women’s football games starting with the 2020 season.