Recent Gains In Women's Professional Sports May Be Lost to Virus

27 April 2020

Linked to the rising call for equality worldwide, women's sports had been gaining much attention before the new coronavirus appeared.

The women's World Cup in France fueled Americans' interest in soccer, or as the sport is more commonly known, football. As the United States won the championship series at a sports center in France, the crowd cheered and began to shout out "Equal Pay!" over and over again. The U.S. women's team accuses the U.S. Soccer Federation of sex discrimination in pay. The team has taken legal action against the governing body of the sport in the U.S.

The professional National Women's Soccer League is home to many of the U.S. team's players. Before the virus began spreading, the league was expecting to open its eighth season with a new television contract.

FILE - Indonesia players celebrate a point during the Southeast Asian Games match against Vietnam in Pasig, Philippines on Dec. 5, 2019.
FILE - Indonesia players celebrate a point during the Southeast Asian Games match against Vietnam in Pasig, Philippines on Dec. 5, 2019.

In addition, women's professional softball was looking toward softball's return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Pro volleyball, especially popular in Europe, Russia and Brazil, similarly receives a lot of public attention in an Olympic year.

However, the spread of the coronavirus to almost every country appears to have put a stop to women's progress in the sports world. Now the question is whether players will lose the gains they had made when life returns to normal.

Cheri Kempf heads the National Pro Fastpitch softball league. She says the men's side of the sports industry will not suffer as much as the women's because it has more money and power to start. The men can sail through the coronavirus health crisis, she suggested.

The losses for women athletes are already taking place. Recently in Colombia, the Independiente Santa Fe soccer team announced it would suspend all player contracts for its women's team. The male players, it added, would only face pay cuts.

The effects of the disease COVID-19 on the U.S. economy could look like those that resulted from the 2008 recession. Back then, the Houston Comets of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) was seeking a new owner but could not find a buyer. The WNBA also cut back on the number of teams.

Whirlpool, the maker of many household products, withdrew plans to support Women's Professional Soccer, which was launched in 2009 and lasted just three seasons.

The WNBA is in better shape today than many women's sports because of its ties with the National Basketball Association. The WNBA has postponed the start of its season, set for May 15, but Commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently suggested it might be able to return sooner rather than later.

But there are concerns among those who are not so well-positioned.

Kelsey Robinson plays for the U.S. women's volleyball team that was set to compete at the Olympics this summer. Now the Tokyo summer games will begin in July of 2021. Robinson usually can get paid by playing overseas, like many national team players. But those games have been suspended. She says she worries about earning money by playing volleyball.

"It's hard to say what will happen in Turkey or China, where there are pretty strong economies for sport. But for sure, Italy I know will have to decrease salaries, maybe not at the top team, but I'm sure it'll affect lower teams...," Robinson said. "We're not finishing the season right now or playing, so that's a hard financial burden...." And, she said, decisions about pay levels next year can greatly depend on how the team finishes the current season.

Yael Averbuch West is executive director of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Players Association. She says players' fears about losses are reasonable.

"I think that everybody is afraid of that. And especially right now, looking at women's soccer and coming off of what we feel is a huge positive momentum after the World Cup...," she said.

The international soccer players' union, FIFPro, warns of the effect the coronavirus could have on women's soccer worldwide.

"Who knows what the future will bring?" said Jodie Taylor. She plays for the NWSL's Reign and England's national team and serves on the FIFPro player council. She said the reality of the future is worrisome, adding "and one that the world's kind of sitting back and waiting for."

Players in individual sports could be hit hardest. Tennis, golf and track athletes are largely dependent on competing to earn money.

The Women's Tennis Association has announced plans to begin play on July 13. Wimbledon, the sport's most famous championship event, has been canceled this year.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

league -n. a group of sports teams that play against each other

athlete -n. a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength

salary -n. an amount of money that an employee is paid each year

burden -n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do, or deal with

positive -adj. good or useful

momentum -n. the strength or force that allows something to continue or to grow stronger or faster as time passes