Sports View: new women’s professional league

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

In case you missed it, there’s another women’s professional sports league on the horizon.

Thanks to the yeoman efforts of a former Division I hockey player, Dani Rylan, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is set to launch for the 2015-16 season. The league will debut with four teams – the Boston Pride, The Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. If that sounds like the league is northeast centric, it was by design. Rylan has spent countless hours putting together a business plan and strategically it makes sense to locate the teams in places where they would most likely be successful.

This isn’t the first attempt to form a professional women’s hockey league. In fact, the league has an existing competitor … sort of. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has been operating since 2007 but the five-team league – four in Canada and one in Boston – does not pay its players. It’s hard to consider yourself a professional if you don’t get paid. Furthermore, CWHL players are required to furnish their own equipment simply for an opportunity to play the sport they love beyond college. Playing in the CWHL also gives players an opportunity to grow the sport and to stay sharp between the Olympics and national team tournaments.

While NWHL players will be paid, and teams will supply the equipment, their salaries won’t be on a par with their NHL counterparts. Each of the four teams will have a salary cap of $270,000 per season which means the average salary will be less than $15,000, compared to the NHL average of $2.6 million. However, players will be allowed to negotiate their own salaries which may lead to wide discrepancies in paychecks. The NWHL season will stretch from October to March – 18 regular season games, nine home and nine away – with teams playing no more than once a week.

While the NWHL is the first professional hockey league for women in the U.S. – in North America, if you don’t consider the CWHL and various predecessors professional – it won’t be the only women’s professional sports league. The WNBA, at least the fourth iteration of professional basketball for women in the U.S., is considered the most successful league of its genre in history. Although it has survived longer than any of its predecessors – 19 years and counting – success is relative. While a number of individual franchises have experienced some financial success, the league as a whole has yet to reach profitability.

The average player salary in the WNBA is $72,000 with top players earning slightly more than six figures. Those salaries pale in comparison to the NBA where the average salary is $5 million and the league’s top earner, Kobe Bryant, will take home $23.5 million this year.

The WNBA isn’t even the top paying women’s basketball league in the world. Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury announced last month that she will sit out the upcoming WNBA season in order to rest up for the Russian Premier League season which begins in the fall. And it’s understandable why. She earns $107,000 in the WNBA while her Russian team will pay her $1.5 million. In order to protect their investment, and guarantee that Taurasi is healthy next year, they even agreed to pay her WNBA salary this summer.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which began play in 2013, is the third women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. Two previous leagues, the WPS and WUSA, failed miserably, with the latter chalking up losses of $100 million. The long term success of the NWSL, where the top players may earn $30,000 per season, remains iffy. Americans follow women’s soccer every four years when the Olympics roll around but the sport has yet to find a consistent audience at the professional level.

For over 40 years, Title IX has provided opportunities for women athletes at the amateur level, despite its detractors and imperfect application, but Title IX can’t be applied to the professional realm.

When it comes to satisfying their appetites for professional sports, Americans have voted with their wallets. That’s why male athletes become rich and female athletes, at least in team sports, have second jobs. The NWHL may not change that in the short term, but give it credit for trying.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

 

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