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Women’s sports never had a year like 2019: stadiums full of fans chanting “equal pay” in women’s soccer; a groundbreaking union contract for the WNBA; Serena Williams back in the US Open final after giving birth; and powerful women athletes speaking out on issues like sexual abuse, pregnancy discrimination, and other forms of abuse.
But there has also never been a year like 2020. And women’s sports — and elite female athletes — are likely to be hit harder than men’s sports and players as the coronavirus outbreak grinds virtually every sport in the country to a halt.
Newer leagues, dramatically lower salaries, limited opportunities, and uneven sponsorship deals compared to men all mean that top women athletes are going to be shaken by the sports shutdown.
In major men’s leagues, the concerns around the shutdown have largely been for support staff and stadium workers. But with paychecks that are often a thin slice of men’s, and far fewer sponsorships, some women’s professional athletes are worried about their own financial futures — and for some, even the future of their sport.
“There’s so much uncertainty and anxiety for our players — this is their livelihood, and it’s something where we don’t have the savings that a lot of men’s players have,” said Brooke Elby, a former professional women’s soccer player and the executive director of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Players Association.
“For a lot of people, the misconception is that, ‘Well, the athletes are well taken care of,’” Elby said. “While housing is provided, which has been great, there’s still a lot of questions. The first on the mind of many women’s professional players is, ‘Okay, financially, am I secure?’”
After Ladies Professional Golf Association commissioner Mike Whan canceled the first major championship and two other events, he begged sponsors on Twitter not to “penalize” athletes for playing reduced schedules in the face of the coronavirus.
“The basis of professional golf is fairly simple: if you don’t play, you don’t get paid,” one LGPA player, Morgan Pressel, wrote in an essay last week, saying she worried especially about young golfers whose tour had been suspended.
After the high of 2019, the 2020 Olympics — which look unlikely to occur at this juncture, despite the International Olympic Committee’s claims — were poised to be a launching point for athletes of both genders. But they were set to be an especially powerful, and unique, platform for women.
NBC had said it planned to devote at least 50% of its air time to American women’s athletes — something that is virtually unheard of in any other type of sports broadcasting, where women are usually allocated a tiny fraction of men’s air time on networks like ESPN.
Simone Biles, the only elite gymnast who came forward as a victim of Larry Nassar who is still competing, would have had a historic platform in the summer Olympics. She plans to launch a 35-city tour after the Tokyo games “intended to inspire the next generation of female athletes” — one that could still go forward, but potentially without the spotlight of the Olympics.
But the stakes in the Olympics are especially high for softball, and for the National Pro FastPitch (NPF) League. Softball was set to debut at the Olympic games in 2020 for the first time since 2008 — with no guarantee it will return again in 2024.
“That would be a huge loss for softball players," said Cheri Kempf, the NPF’s commissioner. “If it was happening again in four years, maybe that’s palatable, but this is the Olympics of a generation for softball."
“A lot of people have written their story to sign off in Tokyo, to leave their cleats at home plate," Kempf said. "There’d be such an overwhelming sense of loss.”
On the men’s side, baseball is in a similar situation when it comes to the Olympics, but not when it comes to the sport as a whole. Kempf sees enormous potential in softball — as an NCAA sport, she said, it is “wildly popular,” with the third highest-rated NCAA championship.
“But all of that came on the coattails of softball becoming an Olympic sport in 1996,” Kempf said. “The Olympics was the leader in what we’d become.”
With smaller, newer fan bases, fewer wealthy owners, and less corporate investment, women’s professional leagues and teams are likely to take financial hits that men’s leagues at the top of their sports simply won’t. Most were already fighting for a foothold when it came to fans and sponsorships.
“Any league that’s just starting or maybe financially shaky, this is going to have a bigger impact on those leagues,” said Patrick Rishe, the director of the Sports Business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
That includes leagues like the XFL, the new men’s football venture that started earlier this year, Rishe noted, and smaller minor leagues. But it also describes the leagues of many of the country’s top professional female athletes in sports from soccer to golf to softball, where some of the world’s best players are anxious about paychecks and future games.
There is perhaps no major women’s league that could feel the effects of the shutdown more acutely than the NWSL, which was poised to ride the popularity of the US Women’s National Team’s World Cup win into a season that is still technically slated to begin on April 18.
Just seven years old, the NWSL has outlasted two previous women’s pro soccer leagues that failed financially. After the World Cup last year, it began to set attendance records, picking up a TV deal and hiring a new commissioner to steer the league.
Some NWSL teams made big investments in larger, more expensive stadiums and higher salaries with the promise of that momentum — along with the momentum promised by the now-questionable 2020 Olympics, where the US women had planned to compete for a historic gold medal.
“If you have a disruption to the beginning of the season, whatever momentum is going to carry over from the World Cup, that momentum is put on hold, and it’s unclear whether that is put back if and when we come back next year,” Rishe said.
It’s that momentum, though, that is allowing the NWSL and its players to weather the crisis so far, said Elby. For the first time in the league’s history, players are being given housing year-round. Minimum salaries are now $20,000, up from $6,000 when the league began in 2013. (The NWSL did not return requests for comment.)
“This conversation could be a lot different,” Elby said. “This is the strongest foothold we’ve had in a stable league.”
One sport where the shutdowns likely won’t have disparate impact, said Rishe: tennis, where the fan base for women’s players is about the same as men’s — and where women’s players historically fought for, and received, something that comes close to equal pay with men.
In a sport like women’s golf, however, where viewership and investment are much lower than men’s, that isn’t likely to be the case, Rishe said.
Much of the stability is simply a function of how long leagues have been established. The WNBA, which was founded in 1996, is on much firmer ground and isn’t slated to play until mid-May. (The WNBA Players Association did not respond to requests for comment.)
Unlike in the men’s basketball league, a huge chunk of WNBA players, including top stars, travel abroad in the off-season to play in European leagues, where they are able to make more money. Many players have now found themselves stranded abroad after their leagues shut down and President Donald Trump’s travel ban went into effect, for those who are not American citizens. The players association has been left scrambling to bring its members back to the US ahead of the season.
But there are also questions of disparate impacts when sports finally do resume.
It is virtually a guarantee in many sports that men’s teams, with bigger fan bases, longer histories, and far higher investment, take precedence over women’s. The men’s European Championship, one of soccer’s biggest tournaments outside of the World Cup, was slated for 2020. It’s been pushed back to 2021 — at exactly the same time the women’s tournament was supposed to take place. That means the women’s tournament is going to be rescheduled to accommodate the men, according to news reports.
Women’s teams that share venues with men’s — like in the NWSL or WNBA, where many teams share stadiums and arenas with men's teams — could be forced to move their games to accommodate men’s delayed seasons.
Elby, of the NWSL, praised teams and players in the men’s league, Major League Soccer, that she said have been “super collaborative” with women’s teams and players in the midst of a crisis. They’ve exchanged advice about protocols and facilities, Elby said.
With the fate of the Olympics looming, Kempf, of National Pro FastPitch, said she knew men and women athletes alike would be equally disappointed by the Tokyo Games being canceled or postponed.
“I just think that the facts are that, in general, that loss for women is greater, because of the lack of presence of professional sports,” Kempf said.