Major women's sport leagues in the United States and Canada

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Major women's sport leagues in the United States and Canada represent the top level competitions of team sports for women athletes in those countries. Currently, top women's leagues include the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), and the National Ringette League (NRL).

Some individual sports featuring women are also popular in North America, including tennis, bowling and golf. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), Professional Women's Bowling Association (PWBA), and Ladies Professional Golf Association {LPGA) were all founded in the United States and host events in the United States and around the world.

Following the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) in 2019, the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) was formed. While over 150 players, including most North American ice hockey Olympians. are exclusively affiliated with one of the organisation's regional hubs and a number of games are organized between them, the PWHPA is not organized under a formal league structure.

Overview of professional leagues[edit]

Several women's sports leagues in North America are professional—i.e., the athletes are paid to play the sport.

League Sport Began play Teams Avg. Attendance
Women's Football Alliance Football 2009 8 (in Division I)[1] [2]
National Pro Fastpitch Softball 2004 5 [3]
National Women's Hockey League Ice hockey 2015 6 954[4]
Women's National Basketball Association Basketball 1997 12 6,535[5]
National Women's Soccer League Soccer 2013 10 7,337[6]

Attendance[edit]

Montreal Stars supporters.

Record attendances by women's sports leagues have been dominated by the NWSL, WNBA and WPS:

Television broadcasting[edit]

As of November 2017, Women's National Basketball Association,[14] National Women's Soccer League[16], National Pro Fastpitch,[17] National Women's Hockey League,[18] Canadian Women's Hockey League[19] and Women's Flat Track Derby Association[20] have television broadcasting contracts.[21]

Reputation[edit]

Abby Wambach of the U.S. Women's National Soccer at a friendly against Canada in 2011

Each of the leagues represents the highest competition in their respective sports. These major women's sports leagues are considered as the main platoon, not only in the quality of the talents, but also at the play level. The best players of these leagues are icons in their respective sports. Soccer stars include Marta, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair, Sam Kerr, and Alex Morgan. Women's ice hockey features Caroline Ouellette, Kim St-Pierre, and Angela Ruggiero, while basketball includes Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker, and Breanna Stewart.

Player salaries[edit]

Despite often claiming professional status, only a few women's leagues pay their players, such as the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Many of the professional leagues pay less than a livable wage,[22] while also offering other incentives in order to claim the professional status.[23]

With the approval of the most recent WNBA collective bargaining agreement in 2020, the minimum salary in the 2020 season was $57,000 for players with less than 3 seasons of league experience and $68,000 for all other players. The maximum salary for most players in that season was $185,000, with players meeting specified criteria for league service having a higher maximum of $215,000.[24]

The annual average salary in Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) was $32,000 in 2009.[25] Players salaries can vary (i.e. Marta would have received a salary of $400,000 during the last three seasons 2009–2011).[26]

The NWHL was established in 2015 in order to be the first professional women's hockey league to pay players a salary. In 2015, the salaries started at a minimum of $10,000 per season,[27] however, the salaries were reduced up to 50% in 2016.[28] The Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) began as a professional league in name only, giving other benefits to its players, but started paying stipends in 2017 with a minimum of $2,000 and up to $10,000 per season financed by the league's addition of teams in China.[29] However, the CWHL ceased operations in 2019 citing the professional status to be financially infeasible.

Player development[edit]

Generally, all major sports leagues possess an amateur system for the development of young players development. Certain women's leagues develop links privileged with minor league amateurs of lower and junior levels. With the growth of women's sports at the NCAA and Canada's U Sports levels in the last decades, athletes are more likely to choose a university education (along with competing at the university level), and then proceed to compete in a top-level major league.[citation needed]

Women's basketball leagues[edit]

Professional women's basketball has been played in the United States since 1978. The first professional league was the Women's Pro Basketball League. The league played three seasons from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 1981.[30]

The second women's professional league to be created in the United States was the Women's Basketball Association. The league played three seasons (from 1993 to 1995) with plans to play as a 12-team league in 1997 but disbanded before 1997 season. In 1996, two professional women's leagues were started in the United States: American Basketball League and WNBA. The American Basketball League was founded in 1996 during an increase in the interest in the sport following the 1996 Summer Olympics. The league played two full season (1996–97 and 1997–98) and started a third (1998–99) before it folded in December 1998.

Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA)[edit]

WNBA game in Seattle.

The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is the top competition in women's basketball. The WNBA was formed in 1996 as the women's counterpart to the National Basketball Association, and league play began in 1997. The WNBA regular season runs June to September (Northern Hemisphere spring and summer), which is directly opposite to the traditional basketball season throughout the world. Most WNBA teams play at the same venue as their NBA counterparts. Most team names are also very similar to those of NBA teams in the same market, such as the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx.

The league's attendance has fluctuated over the last several seasons. It had an average per-game attendance of 8,039 in 2009 and 7,834 in 2010.[31] Total attendance was 1,598,160 in 2010.[31] In 2007, the league signed a television deal with ESPN that would run from 2009 to 2016. This deal is the first to ever pay rights fees to women's teams. In 2009 it had a total television viewership of 413,000 in combined cable and broadcast television.[32]

In 2009, 23 million American professional basketball fans, 92.3% of those fans were the audience of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the remaining 7.7% attended WNBA games.[33] Mark J. Perry found from the Center for Feminist Research[34] of University of Southern California's "Gender in Televised Sports" found that in 2009 the media coverage for the NBA was 77.8% and WNBA was 22.2%.[35]

Women's ice hockey leagues[edit]

Caroline Ouellette with Clarkson Cup on March 27, 2011

Ice hockey is one of the fastest growing women's sports in the world, with the number of participants increasing 350 percent in the last 10 years.[when?][36] In 2012, Canada had 85,827 women players[37] and the United States had 65,609.[38]

Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL)[edit]

The Canadian Women's Hockey League (CHWL) was a women's hockey league in Canada for top female hockey players.[39] The CWHL helped women's professional hockey rebound from the demise of the original National Women's Hockey League (NWHL)[40] in 2007.[41] In the 2017–18 season, the CWHL grew to seven teams: two in the Greater Toronto Area, Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the Calgary Inferno, the Worcester Blades, and the Chinese Kunlun Red Star WIH and Vanke Rays. The Chinese teams served to jump-start that nation's development in women's hockey, as the country is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.[29]

The CWHL allowed elite level players to play after college and continue to work toward Olympic and national team success.[42] Prior to the 2017–18 season, the players were not paid and only received incentives.[29] Apart from ice rink time, hotels, transportation (mostly by bus[42]), and some items covered by the league, players paid for all other expenses related to playing at this level (equipment, training, insurance, health services, etc.), and all staff (coaches, general managers, communications workers) served as volunteers.[43] As a result, most players and personnel had jobs outside of hockey.[44]

Game between the Toronto Furies and Montreal Stars.

In 2010, the Toronto Star reported that the cost of running the league was about $1.7 million.[43][45] For the 2010–11 season, income was $800,000.[46] Any league profits were then redistributed among the teams as the league was registered as non-profit amateur organization,[47] resulting in insufficient funds to pay players.[48][47] In 2017, the league began paying the players a stipend up to $10,000 per season,[29] reportedly coming from the increased revenue through the China expansion,[49] while maintaining its amateur registration.[50] The stipends added about $600,000 to the annual expenses.[50]

League attendance is very low in the regular season,[51] but increases during the playoffs.[52] On March 27, 2011, the Championship Final game drew 2,300 fans at Barrie Molson Centre in Barrie, Ontario.[53][54] Several CWHL matches are broadcast online[55] and TSN broadcasts the Clarkson Cup championship match.

On March 31, 2019, the CWHL announced the league would discontinue operations effective May 1, 2019.[56] The league's expansion and added cost of travel and player stipends had caused operation costs to grow to $4.2 million in the 2017–18 season.[50]

National Women's Hockey League (NWHL)[edit]

In 2015, the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) was established with the purpose of being the first professional women's hockey league in North America that paid its players.[57][58] The league launched its inaugural season in 2015–16 with four teams in the Northeastern United States: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, and New York Riveters, with all franchises owned by the league. The league initially had a $10,000 minimum salary per season for the players,[27] however, the player's salaries were reduced up to 50% part-way through the league's second season.[59]

In October 2017, the NWHL team's began partnering with established National Hockey League (NHL) teams with an branding agreement between the New York Riveters and the New Jersey Devils.[60] In December 2017, the Buffalo Beauts' franchise was purchased by the NHL's Buffalo Sabres ownership, Pegula Sports and Entertainment, and became the first NWHL franchise to not be owned by the league.[61] The NWHL expanded for the first time in 2018 when the Minnesota Whitecaps, a former member of the Western Women's Hockey League (WWHL) that had been operating independently since 2011, joined the league.[62]

Women's soccer leagues[edit]

Women's soccer is especially developed in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada. The United States women's national soccer team was established in 1985, the Canada women's national soccer team in 1986, the first continental women's league in 1995, then a professional league in 2001.[63] At 900,000 in 1980, the number of women' players passes in 1.5 million in 1985 then 2 million in 1990, to peak in 3 million in 1995 to fall again in 2.7 million in 2000.[63] The success of the women's American national team has not translated into consistent success for women's professional soccer in the United States; the current top professional league, the National Women's Soccer League, is the country's third (and longest-lasting) attempt to establish such a competition.

Penalty kick for the Seattle Reign.

National Women's Soccer League (NWSL)[edit]

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is the top level professional women's soccer league in the United States. It began play in spring 2013 with eight teams; four of them were former members of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), which had been the top women's league in the United States soccer pyramid before its folding in 2012.

Fox Sports had a deal to broadcast nine games in 2013, six in the regular season and the three from the playoffs.[64] ESPN2 and ESPN3 had a similar deal for the 2014 season.[65] Prior to the 2017 season, the NWSL and A&E Networks signed a three-year deal which calls for A&E's Lifetime network to broadcast a weekly Saturday afternoon game; the deal also saw A&E take an ownership stake in the league.[66][15]

The league expanded to a maximum of 10 teams in 2016 and 2017 before dropping to 9 for the 2018 season; it returned to 10 teams for 2021. It became the first women's professional league to play a fourth season in 2016. The NWSL is currently scheduled to expand to at least 11 teams in 2022.

Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL)[edit]

The Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) is a national women's soccer league in the United States and Puerto Rico, and is on the 2nd level of women's soccer in the United States soccer pyramid, alongside United Women's Soccer.

There are both "professional"/senior teams and amateur teams in the WPSL. An organization has to choose to be one or the other due to NCAA regulations, since collegiate players cannot play on "pro" teams.

The WPSL started as the Western Division of the W-League, before breaking away to form its own league in 1997. The league is sanctioned by the United States Adult Soccer Association as an affiliate of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

United Women's Soccer (UWS)[edit]

United Women's Soccer, variously abbreviated as UWS and UWoSo, shares second-level status with the WPSL. The league was formed in 2015 as a response to turmoil within the WPSL and the folding of the USL W-League. The first season in 2016 saw 11 teams participate, all in the U.S.; two Canadian teams initially planned to play that season but were not approved by the country's national federation. Three of the original 11 teams did not return for the league's second season, but UWS still nearly doubled in size for that season, with one Canadian team and 12 U.S. teams entering the league. UWS defines itself as a "pro-am" organization.

Defunct soccer leagues[edit]

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS)[edit]

WPS All-Star team in 2009.

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) was the top level professional women's soccer league in the United States.[67] It began play on March 29, 2009. The league was composed of seven teams for its first two seasons and fielded 6 teams for the 2011 season. The league hoped to have ten teams for the 2012 season,[68] most of the new groups potentially coming from the western half of the country, but ultimately no ownership groups were ready to join in time. The beginning of the league's was marked by two things: low attendance (2009: 4,684, 2010: 3,588 [69] and 2011: 3,518 [70] ), problems with (ex-Freedom) magicJack owner Dan Borislow,.[71][72]

Former WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci said that unlike WUSA, which had higher expectations and employed a top-down model, WPS would take "a slow and steady growth type of approach", citing WUSA's losses of close to $100 million.[73] She said the new league would have a closer relationship with Major League Soccer, the top men's professional league in the United States, to cut costs on staff and facilities, and for marketing. The team budgets for the inaugural season was $2.5 million.[73]

Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Español with Samuel Jacobo and Jorge Caamaño will air weekly Sunday night matches & the WPS All-Star Game with Fox Sports Net to air the semifinal and league championship contests. The national television contract will be in effect through the 2011 season with an option for 2012.[74]

On January 30, 2012, the WPS announced suspension of operations for the 2012 season, citing several internal organization struggles as the primary cause.[75] Some of these issues included an ongoing legal battle with magicJack owner Dan Borislow and the lack of resources invested into the league.

WPSL Elite League[edit]

The WPSL Elite League was established in 2012 by the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), responding both to an increased interest in professionalism by existing WPSL teams and the desire of WPS teams for a continuing competitive outlet. The league defined itself as semi-professional, but five of its eight charter teams were to be fully professional. Three of these—the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, and Western New York Flash—previously played in WPS.

USL W-League[edit]

The USL W-League was a North American women's soccer developmental organization.[76] It was an open league, giving college players the opportunity to play alongside established international players while maintaining their collegiate eligibility. The league was administered by the United Soccer League system, which now oversees the men's USL Championship, USL League One (launched in 2019) and USL League Two (Premier Development League before 2019).

Women's softball leagues[edit]

National Pro Fastpitch (NPF)[edit]

National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) revived the league in 2004. NPF is an official development partner of Major League Baseball in the women's fastpitch softball. In 2004 a new season began within six markets: Stockton, California; Tucson, Arizona; Houston, Texas; Akron, Ohio; Lowell, Massachusetts; Montclair, New Jersey. Having more teams allowed the league to participate in more games with 178 league-wide games, involving 96 female softball players. In 2006, the Philadelphia Force, the Connecticut Brakettes, the Chicago Bandits, and the New England Riptide joined the league, expanding the season, and competition.

In 2009, after winning a silver medal, several Olympians returned to the NPF: Monica Abbott for Washington, Jennie Finch for Chicago, and Cat Osterman for Rockford. There are now[when?] four teams that participate in 50 regular season games: Akron Racers, Chicago Bandits, Florida Pride and Tennessee Diamonds.

The 2011 highlights of the NPF, the USSSA Florida Pride took the Ringer Cup Title with a league record of 30–9, and Colwes Cup was won by the Chicago Bandits. Over 500,000 household viewers watched this game on ESPN2. For the second year in a row the NPF All-Stars performed a tour playing 19 college teams across the United States. The NPF played against the 2009 NCAA Champions the Washington Huskies to a crowd of 3,000 at the home of the Seattle Mariners, in a game which ended in a 1–0 score.[clarification needed] This was the first fastpitch game to be held at a Major League Baseball stadium. 2011 also marked the Akron Racers' tenth university.[clarification needed][77]

Defunct softball leagues[edit]

"LPGA tour member Janie Blaylock, softball legend Joan Joyce, and tennis icon Billie Jean King were the founders of the International Women’s Professional Softball Associations (IWPSA) in 1976."[citation needed] There were ten teams in the league from Meriden, Connecticut, to San Jose, California; the first season the teams would play 120 games in a schedule season. This league ran for four years, and was closed due to lack of funds, and high travel and facility costs.

In 1986 and 1987 the USA Softball Women's National Team won gold medals in Pan American Games.

Cowlens formulated a plan for the women's professional softball league and in February 1989 she showed her parents, John and Sage Cowles, owners of Cowles Media Company the ideas who agreed to help with the financial make up of the league. Eight years later, 1997, the Cowles family and AT&T Wireless Services launched the Women's Pro Fastpitch (WPF) and after one full year, two seasons of play the name was changed to WPSL. Which are four teams located in Eastern United States in 2000, the Akron Racers, Florida Wahoos, Ohio Pride and Tampa Bay FireStrix.

The Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL) was founded in 1997 and ran until 2001, lasting four seasons before lack of funds, high travel costs and inadequate facilities led to its closure.

In 2001, the "Tour of Fastpitch Champions" enabled the WPSL to expand. From this the league traveled around to eleven different cities to find different candidate for the WPSL teams to play. They played against All-Star teams and Canada teams; they televised many of them on ESPN2 or ESPN. After all these games they decided to suspend the 2002 season so they could get organized and have more time to find other teams to be able to play. Even though the league was suspended the WPSL All-Star team competed against the Tennessee All-Star team, as well as put together two clinics. Once again in 2002 the WPSL changed their name to the National Pro Fastpitch and the Major League Baseball partnered with them to continue the MBL's efforts to connect with female athletes.

Other women's sports leagues[edit]

Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA)[edit]

The Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) is an association of women's flat track roller derby leagues in the United States. The organization was founded in April 2004 as the United Leagues Coalition (ULC)[78] but was renamed in November 2005.,.[78][79]

The WFTDA Championships are the leading competition for roller derby leagues. The Championships are organised by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). They originated in 2006 as the National WFTDA Championship. Full WFTDA members are eligible for ranking in one of the association's four regions. Each region holds a tournament contested by its top ten leagues: the Eastern, North Central, South Central and Western Regional Tournaments. The top three leagues from each of these four tournaments qualify for the Championships. Together, the qualifying tournaments and Championships are termed the "Big 5".[80] Since 2008, the winner of the National Championships has been awarded the Hydra Trophy.[81]

In January 2009, Montreal Roller Derby became the first Canadian league admitted as a member. The league was WFTDA's 66th member, and was placed in the East region.[82] In June 2010, the WFTDA announced the first round of Apprentice league graduates, and formed two new regions ( Canada and Europe) outside of the United States (Leagues in those regions will compete in the closest US region until they develop more fully).[83]

National Ringette League (NRL)[edit]

National Ringette Leaque match

Ringette is a Canadian sport that was first introduced in 1963 at North Bay, Ontario.[84] Developed originally for girls, ringette is a fast-paced team sport on ice in which players use a straight stick to pass, carry, and shoot a rubber ring to score goals. For ten years, play centered in Ontario and Quebec, however the sport quickly spread across Canada and is now played by 50,000 girls[85] across Canada.

The creation of the National Ringette League (NRL) is following the success of the 2002 Ringuette world championships at Edmonton where Canada took gained the golden medal. The first NRL season is thrown in November 2004 with 17 teams. In 2011–12 season, the NRL enters its eighth season with 19 teams playing in two conferences across Canada – a Western Conference with 6 teams and an Eastern Conference with 13 teams.

In 2008, the budget of each NRL team of the oscillates between $15 000 and $20 000.[86] The teams and the league contribute to cover all the transport spending, accommodation and rent of arenas. The players however have to find their own financiers to pay their equipment and their personal spending and aren't paid for play.[86] The audience in the matches for several NRL teams is limited to some supporters' hundreds. The LNR benefits from a cover broadcast thanks to a partnership with Webchannel SSN-Canada[87] and the championship final game is broadcast on Rogers TV. In 2010–11 season, a NRL Championship Tournament replaces the Championship qualifying rounds, this tournament takes place in just one city. This allows to create a media event and to hold attention. From March 27 till April 2, 2011, the NRL Championship Tournament takes place to Cambridge, Ontario. In Final game, the Edmonton WAM! triumph over the Cambridge Turbos[88]

The NRL maintains a collaboration with the lower Ringette leagues as regards the development of the young girls players: So several teams of the NRL have affiliated development's teams Under 19 year and Under 16 year. The Canadians Championship U16 and U19 (usually in April) take place in the same place as the NRL playoff tournament eliminating[89] · .[90]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • M. Ann Hall, Immodest and Sensational: 150 Years of Canadian Women in Sport, James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Toronto 2008. 96 pages. ISBN 978-1-55277-021-4
  • Eileen McDonagh, Laura Pappano, Playing with the boys: why separate is not equal in sports, Oxford University Press, 2008. 349 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-538677-6.
  • Rachel Elyachar, Lauren Moag, The Growth of Women’s Sports, December 2002.

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