By Paul J. Greene and Matthew D. Kaiser, Global Sports Advocates, LLC, Portland, Maine, USA
Although all sports in the USA have come to a complete standstill since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, women’s sports, both collegiate and pro, in the US will likely be more affected than men’s sports leagues since women’s sports leagues are still in their infancy relative to men’s leagues. The timing could not be worse for women’s sports following the wave of support that followed the victory by the USA team in the FIFA Women’s World Cup last summer.
At the collegiate level, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of all winter and spring sports, which included the crown jewel of collegiate women’s basketball, the women’s NCAA basketball tournament. Each division within the NCAA then published decisions that granted spring-sport athletes an additional season of eligibility but did not extend the same waiver for winter athletes such as those who played basketball. Consequently, while winter-sport athletes, such as basketball players, are now forced to declare for the draft, spring-sport athletes, including those who compete in lacrosse, softball and track & field, will have to decide whether to return for another period of college or turn professional.
The three main women’s professional sports leagues in the USA – the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) – have all been affected by the coronavirus pandemic as well. Because each has its own unique challenges and resources, the three have fared quite differently during the downtime.
Although there were concerns regarding the NWHL viability heading into its fifth season, which began in October 2019, after more than 200 of the top female ice hockey players in the United States and Canada decided to boycott the league, the NWHL surprised many by having quite a successful season.
The NWHL got off on the right foot beginning in September when the league inked its first-ever revenue-generating media rights deal with Twitch and agreed with the NWHLPA on a 50/50 commercial revenue sharing agreement with the players, causing players’ salaries to increase by 26%. Then, about a month into the season, the NWHL announced that it had added enough financial backers to propel the league well beyond its fifth season. The league also added significant sponsors as the season progressed, such as the Massachusetts State Lottery, which became an official sponsor of the NWHL’s playoffs. During a season that witnessed many exciting rookies shine in the spotlight and a new NWHL record for goals in a season, the NWHL saw almost every key marketing metric up from previous years, including viewership (7 million before the finals); social media engagement; promotion of women’s and girls’ hockey; and clinics.
The NWHL was poised to end its fifth season on a high note after two exciting semi-final games on International Women’s Day (March 8) put the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps in the Isobel Cup Finals, which was set to take place on March 13 in Boston. Unfortunately, a day after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, the NWHL commissioner, along with the league’s other stakeholders, made the difficult decision to postpone the Finals. As the NWHL explained on its website, the decision was made “in the interest of public health and the wellbeing of all involved in the event.”
The coronavirus also canceled the Women’s IIHF World Championships in Halifax, which was set to take place from March 31 to April 10.
There was much buzz and excitement surrounding the WNBA prior to the start of the season, because the league and WNBPA agreed to a groundbreaking 8-year collective bargaining agreement, which, among other things, increased players’ salaries; added 2 more games to the season; instituted the first-ever in-season tournament; and increased nationally televised games on ABC.
Although the entire sports world seemed to shut down after Rudy Gobert’s positive test, the WNBA held out hope that it would still start its season on time, which was set to begin on May 15. However, once it announced on March 26 that the WNBA draft would be held virtually instead of in-person, it was only a matter of time until it officially announced the postponement of its season, which occurred less than a week later.
The WNBA players have done well to remain in the mainstream by participating in various contests during the coronavirus. The first was the NBA 2KL Three for All Showdown hosted by the NBA 2K League, which is a joint venture esports league between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive. In this competition, several WNBA players participated alongside esports gamers and other influencers in a basketball video game tournament. On the heels of this experiment, a number of current and former NBA and WNBA players competed remotely in a competition of HORSE from their respective home courts. The lone WNBA player, Allie Quigley, beat the NBA’s Chris Paul, drawing much attention and excitement in the process.
Although there has been a lot of hype surrounding the WNBA and its players during the coronavirus pandemic, there are significant concerns related to how (and even if) the league will operate this year.
First, while the league will no longer have to take a hiatus mid-season for the 2020 Olympics, it still has to figure out how it will organize a 36-game schedule over whatever remaining amount of time in the season is left. Second, the WNBA typically only conflicts with the NBA for the first few weeks as the NBA playoffs wind down. However, given the NBA has not yet canceled its season, there is a chance that the WNBA could be overshadowed for most, if not all of its season, by the NBA depending on when leagues begin again. Lastly, the WNBA and WNBPA will have to decide how to deal with salaries, benefits, and incentives for players during this time.
Of the three professional women’s leagues in the USA, the NWSL has been hit the hardest given its clubs’ preseason preparations were already underway in anticipation for the league’s April 18 starting date when the pandemic took hold on the USA. The league announced on March 12, the day after Rudy Gobert tested positive, that it would cancel all preseason matches leading up to the start of the season. Unfortunately, just two weeks before the first match, the NWSL extended its training moratorium through May 5.
Just like the NWHL and WNBA, the NWSL had high hopes coming into the season. Just a month prior to the opening match, women’s soccer was still making headlines and drawing attention to the sport. First, the US Women’s National Soccer Team, which is comprised entirely of NWSL players, won the SheBelieves Cup in dominant, undefeated style over England, Spain and Japan and continued to raise awareness for their gender discrimination lawsuit by wearing their warm-ups inside out. Additionally, the NWSL named a new commissioner and reached two 3-year media agreements with CBS Sports and Twitch. In conjunction with CBS Sports, Twitch is slated to present 24 free matches during the 2020 NWSL regular season and would serve as the NWSL’s exclusive international media rights partner outside the USA, “making all 108 regular season games, the playoffs, and championship available to global viewers.”
But sadly, with everything at a standstill, the only press coverage involving women’s soccer concerns the upcoming court date between the US Soccer Federation and the US Women’s National Team, which has been pushed back from its original start date of May 5 to June 16.
Women’s professional leagues in the USA face a tough road ahead for the remainder of 2020.
So, here is to hoping that they come back stronger than ever when the coronavirus pandemic eventually subsides!
Paul Greene and Matthew Kaiser may be contacted by e-mail at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and ‘email@example.com’ respectively