By Kate Cimini – Vice Sports
In 2010, Hilary Knight was an unknown college hockey player, with fewer than 800 Twitter followers. Six years and two Winter Olympics later, Knight has become the face of women’s hockey in the U.S., whose sponsors include Chobani, Nike, and Red Bull; her following across social media has risen into six figures. When the National Women’s Hockey League began last year, Knight was its most bankable star.
For women in professional sports leagues in particular, the Olympic Games offer the kind of benefits and media coverage routinely enjoyed by their male counterparts in leagues like the NHL and the NBA. Their events are broadcast during prime time and on a major network. Meals are catered; accommodations and facilities are top-notch and readily available. They can focus, finally, solely on their training and their preparation as athletes—not, as is the case for many women, in the time that remains around second jobs that pay rent and put food on the table.
“It’s like you were just living in a fantasyland for three, four weeks. That’s the best way I can describe being at the Olympics, in the Olympic village,” said Kelli Stack, a two-time Olympian who plays for the Connecticut Whale in the NWHL. “It’s like utopia. It’s perfect.”
It can also represent a substantial payday: in 2014, the U.S. Olympic Committee paid gold-medal winners a one-time payout of $25,000, silver-medalists $15,000, and bronze medalists $10,000, according to Forbes. For comparison, players in the National Women’s Soccer League earn between $6,842 and $37,800 a year, while the NWHL’s average salary comes in at a little over $15,000. Even in the WNBA—now in its 20th season, the most established of professional women’s sports leagues—a majority of players join leagues overseas in the offseason to supplement their income; a gold-medal payout would almost double the league’s minimum annual salary for an entry-level player. And that’s before you get to sponsorship contracts, endorsement deals, and the other rewards that come with excelling on an international stage.
The Olympics are, for many of its female athletes, the only opportunity they’ll ever have to experience this kind of treatment.
But if the Olympic Games are an unequivocal win for women competitors, the equation for the leagues that employ them is more complicated.
On the one hand, the increased visibility of their athletes on the Olympic stage is a boon that can lead to increased ticket sales, jersey sales, and television ratings. Sheryl Swoopes, for example, brought star power to the WNBA right from its launch. She was coming off her Olympic debut, a gold-medal performance at the 1996 Summer Games, and already had endorsement deals and her own sneaker, Nike’s Air Swoopes, to show for it.
The NWHL has similarly relied on Olympians like Knight to draw fans as the young league establishes itself. Knight was the big get of the inaugural season, seemingly seduced away from the big, bad CWHL; her 2014 teammate Amanda Kessel, whose Olympic accolades come with a side dish of NHL fame as sister to Stanley Cup–winning Phil Kessel, was the league’s p.r. coup this off-season.
But what the Olympics give, the Olympics can take away, too. While the Games are going on, leagues are without many of their biggest stars—and the revenue streams they command. This problem is not unique to women’s leagues: MLS also loses out on revenue when it puts its season on hold to accommodate the Summer Games. But women’s leagues are generally newer and less stable: the National Women’s Soccer League is the third attempt since 2000 at a women’s pro soccer league in the U.S. When these leagues rely so heavily on their Olympians to command attention and attract dollars, they are also more vulnerable to the loss of that star power.
The WNBA’s solution to the scheduling conundrum has been to split its season in two during Olympic years rather than risk losing players for an entire season by making them choose between representing their country or staying in the league. So this August, while players like Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings go to Rio, the WNBA will go on hiatus for a month.
”We actually think we can benefit from the break,” then WNBA President Val Ackerman told the New York Times in the months leading up to the first Olympic break, in 2004. ”The month gives us a unique opportunity: the global exposure we can receive from the Olympics, not just Team USA, but other WNBA players. Combine that with events that our players back home will be participating in.” (The WNBA put on a camp for fans to take part in during the 2004 Summer Games, called the Summer of Dreams, which it has since abandoned. Now the league simply takes a break.)
In short order, two pro leagues will be dealing with the issue of the Olympic Games for the first time: the NWSL’s 2016 season is being interrupted by the Rio Games this summer, and the NWHL faces a similar predicament in 2018, with the Winter Games in Pyeongchang. Both the NWSL and the NWHL will be younger than five years old in their respective Olympiads; the WNBA, by contrast, was in its eighth season the first time its players left midway through the campaign to participate in the Games.
The NWSL, currently in its fourth season, started planning its strategy for the Rio Games last fall. The league is unique in that U.S. national team players are required to play in the NWSL between Olympic years. While that ensured the league had plenty of stars as it got off the ground, it also meant that 18 players were definitely going to Rio this summer. In addition, the league has 45 international players whose home countries have qualified for the Olympics and may be called to take a spot on their respective national teams.
The NWSL told VICE Sports that it did not look to the WNBA as a model, given the difference in the number of games and the length of their schedules. Instead, the league considered a range of scenarios, from holding only a few matches during the Olympic games to a complete hiatus; they also looked at how MLS approached Olympic-related scheduling snafus. In the end, they mimicked the men’s soccer league.
The NWSL eventually decided upon the 25-day hiatus, from mid-July to mid-August. During this time, the league will not be completely out of commission. Players who are not heading to Rio will continue to be practice and play a few closed-door and exhibition matches. A spokesperson for the league said it would be up to the individual teams whether to charge admission for games during the Olympic break, but that the majority of them would likely be free. While the remaining federation players continue to be paid by their national federations, and therefore don’t affect the league’s cap, all other remaining players training and playing with the teams must still be paid, and so teams will likely operate at a loss.
Just as the WNBA is supported by the NBA, the NWSL has the financial support of a more established organization: it is currently backed by two federations, US Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association (the Mexican Football Federation pulled out of the NWSL earlier this year), somewhat insulating it during the break for the Summer Games. The NWHL, however, has no major organization or governing body subsidizing its existence, and the Winter Games should give it serious pause.
The NWHL schedule currently lasts from October to March; should that still be the case in two years, the league would be in the middle of its third season by the time the 2018 Games in South Korea get underway. However, many of its star players could be out of commission long before the Opening Ceremony in February. The U.S. women’s national ice hockey team requires its players to centralize in one location four months ahead of the Winter Games. (No other international team except Canada centralizes so far ahead of the Olympics.) It is unlikely that USA Hockey, which has no affiliation with the NWHL, will forgo that strategy in preparation for 2018.
In that case, the NWHL would be without Olympians like Knight, Stack, Brianna Decker, and possibly even Kessel, should she make her way back onto the Olympic team. In their absence, the league stands not only to lose ticket revenue and media attention; with the NWHL signing all employees to one-year contracts, the league would likely lose all rights to player names and images—and the merchandise sales they bring—for the Olympic year as well.
Knight sold the most jerseys in Year One of the NWHL at $130 a pop; Stack hit the top-ten. After Kessel’s signing in May, the league sold 500 limited-edition #BestKessel shirseys, which were available for one week only. While the NWHL’s fan base is small, it is passionate in its support—and they tend to support the Olympians most of all.
A NWHL representative declined to reveal whether the league had plans in place for the 2017-18 season, saying only, “We’re exploring a lot of exciting options for the 2018 Olympics season, but we won’t be sharing details at this time.”
The league has more immediate concerns in trying stay afloat, but it needs to start preparing for the prospect of the Olympics now, whether that’s by signing hotshot college or international players who can continue to shore up the league in the face of the Olympians’ absence, or by securing television contracts to boost public awareness while it still has its top stars. They could also try to work with the national team to secure its Olympians for even a few months out of the season. Without their Olympic stars and said stars’ player rights, the league instantly loses marketability among a broader audience. Losing marketability means losing dollars—something that, at this stage for the NWHL, could be ruinous.
The NWHL is not the only league grappling with the implication of the upcoming Winter Games. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has indicated the league won’t send its players to South Korea after the IOC’s decision not to cover transportation and insurance for participating players. For the men’s league, secure in its status, the additional cost doesn’t seem worthwhile. Its players may very well agree.
The women, however, can’t afford to dismiss the Olympics so easily. For the NWHL to ask its players to forgo the Games would mean asking them to sabotage their own earning potential, not just from likely podium payouts by the USOC but also endorsements and sponsorship deals. It would risk earning the enmity of the national team and a whole host of thinkpieces explaining why the NWHL should have let its Olympians be Olympians. Even with the Games occurring on the other side of the world in South Korea, with a time difference that isn’t especially favorable for ratings and exposure, the games will still offer more coverage than women’s hockey normally gets.
While the Olympics are that much more disruptive to a new league, the benefits can be that much more powerful, drawing attention where there was little before. That’s as much due to the state of the leagues themselves as the wider lack of coverage of women’s sports—and the athletes who play them—during the rest of the year. For some leagues, like the NWHL, the risk may be worth the reward. Even if it isn’t, there seem to be few alternatives.