This year was supposed to be a pivotal one for women’s sports. The WNBA ratified a new bargaining agreement, while women’s soccer was set to take part in a landmark pay equity case in May. At the Olympics, Team USA was looking to clinch a soccer gold medal after their recent World Cup win. The National Women’s Hockey League announced a franchise expansion into the Toronto area. It has happened slowly, but the years were finally paying off in more prominent women’s athletics, one win at a time. Then a pandemic came and prematurely ended college careers, shut down the Olympics, and put the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League seasons on hold for an undetermined amount of time.
All that upward movement that took years to muster was gone in the span of a few days. Now, the question isn’t so much whether women’s leagues will continue to build, but how long they can survive?
In good times women’s leagues are often a breath away from impending doom, even the National Women’s Soccer League’s lucrative revenue streams, like ticket sales and a new broadcasting deal with CBS are drying up. While men’s leagues are facing similar losses, their billionaire team owners can easily front them with money out of their back pockets or extract cash from the property values from stadiums. Women’s teams have none of that.
There is one league that is likely to come out on the other side of the pandemic thriving: the WNBA. Tonight, ESPN will broadcast the WNBA’s virtual draft, with potential picks starting their careers from home. Any other year the WNBA draft would come and go without many people noticing. But with nothing else sports-related to air, networks are forced to devote their attention to anyone actually doing something, whether that’s a glitchy game of HORSE or a draft conducted via Zoom. Now, instead of just the hardcore women’s basketball fans, the WNBA’s draft is easily accessible to anyone with access to ESPN’s main channel. (Funny what better broadcasting can do for a sport!)
And then there’s Sabrina Ionescu, who is predicted to be the first overall pick in the draft, following her record-breaking college career at Oregon. Sponsors, like Under Armour, are already lining up to throw money at this woman. She is already being compared to another first overall pick from 2002, Sue Bird–perhaps you’ve heard of her. The hype surrounding Ionescu is so inescapable that even people like myself that aren’t perpetually invested in college basketball brackets have heard of Ionescu and are becoming familiar with her impressive body of work. She’ll be followed closely by fellow Oregon player Satou Sabally, who is likely to be among the first five women drafted. Ionescu and Sabally are stars in the making and pumping new life and new revenue potential into the league.
Then there’s the power of the New York State sports base. The state of New York has three football teams, 2.5 basketball teams (Knicks are only half a team, fight me), two hockey teams, two soccer teams, and two baseball teams. Through sheer volume alone New York is considered one of the more elite places to play and guess which team is choosing first in tonight’s draft? The New York Liberty. Barring an act of God, Ionescu will be going to New York to start her professional career and every obnoxious New York fan that yearns for a championship trophy of any kind will bandwagon onto the Liberty for dear life. That kind of bandwagoning could translate to an uptick in merch sales or increased viewership and ticket sales when the season is allowed to take place. It’s as if the money is just waiting to be made.
As much as teams have tried to maintain contact with the fan base (New Jersey’s SkyBlue FC has been hosting virtual trivia nights) sports need to sport in order to stay relevant, and women’s leagues weren’t prepared to withstand the storm. Every women’s league and amateur sports program is facing a catastrophic hit right now, one that would be unfathomable in men’s sports leagues. Meanwhile, the NFL is carrying on with business as usual. The MLB is considering a plan to host their entire season in Arizona, the MLS anticipates playing a full season’s worth of games later in the year, and Dana White is mulling over buying an island. Women’s leagues don’t have such an array of golden parachutes. Not yet, at least.