Female pro athletes dream on without the dollars
Jordan Smelker plays professional women’s hockey for the Boston Blades and works 40 hours per week as a biomedical engineer for Haemonetics. Hockey doesn’t pay a salary. Haemonetics does.
On Sunday afternoon at UMass-Boston, the 22-year-old forward will compete in the final home game of her rookie season. It’s been a tough year, tough to balance two careers straight out of college. Smelker fits strength and conditioning workouts around her day job and practices with the Blades on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Games take place on weekends. And she is exhausted all the time.
“Making the national team is definitely one of my life goals, but the reality of women’s hockey is you can’t make a living out of it,” said Smelker, who has participated in multiple national team camps but never made the final cut at the senior level. “There’s always more that I want to do, but I don’t have time to do it. I want to be on the ice more than twice a week. I want to do more skills work, go to a hockey gym and shoot pucks and stickhandle more often than I’m able to. If we were able to play and get paid for it, to devote all our time to getting better, then, of course, we’d all be getting better and there’d be more amazing players.”
The more amazing players, the better the product on the ice, the basketball court, the soccer field. The better the product, the more potential for revenue.
Unfortunately, that winning economic model for women’s sports is far easier to describe than to realize. If female pro athletes make any money for playing, it barely covers living and training expenses, especially for players who fall below the superstar tier. The trickledown: Female athletes and women’s pro leagues typically find themselves caught in a vicious cycle, a cruel sports Catch-22. Little or no time to practice, improve skills, and achieve athletic dreams means little or no money coming in. Or vice versa.
Smelker is the other side of the coin, the ruble, the euro to basketball star Diana Taurasi. Recently, a Russian team paying Taurasi about $1.5 million for the current season offered her more money to skip the 2015 WNBA summer schedule. At 32, the two-time WNBA Finals MVP decided rest was more valuable than playing in the WNBA and earning close to the league’s maximum salary of $109,500. Her choice started a conversation about salaries and women’s sports, rightly prompting criticism of the WNBA’s business model and concern about the league’s future.
But there are far more Smelkers than Taurasis out there. And while stars sell the women’s game, the rest of the roster has more impact on the growth of the game and quality of play, particularly in team sports where it takes depth to compete.
Once college ends, most talented female players struggle to make team sports a legitimate career. Maybe they constantly bounce between US and overseas leagues. Maybe they coach college teams or conduct youth clinics for extra cash. Maybe they reluctantly get full-time office jobs and place less priority on playing. The net result: women’s pro sports suffer. Teams and players are less consistent, less entertaining, and less enticing to fans, sponsors, and broadcasters than they could be. And the cycle continues.
In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where the Blades compete, players don’t earn salaries, but get travel, ice time, uniforms, equipment, and coaches covered by the league. Each season, that amounts to what Blades coach Digit Murphy calls “an $8,000-$10,000 benefit.” The average WNBA salary is $75,000 with a league minimum close to $40,000. Players in the National Women’s Soccer League, including members of the Boston Breakers, earn between $6,300 to $31,500 per five-month season.
Smelker left a job in Minneapolis to live in Boston and compete for the Blades. “I really wanted to play at this level,” she said. “I wanted to play with the best players in the world.” She figured the Blades would keep her national team dreams alive. After all, the roster lists 11 former or current US national team members, including seven Olympians. And when Smelker looks around the locker room, she sees players like her, trying to balance hockey and other jobs.
Blades forward and 2014 US Olympic team captain Meghan Duggan commutes to home and away games from Potsdam, N.Y., where she works as a full-time assistant coach for the Clarkson University women’s hockey team. Said Duggan, “I wake up every day and try to figure out where and how am I going to get my training in and what am I going to do to make myself a better athlete.”
These days, in addition to coaching weekday practices and weekend games for Clarkson, Duggan, 27, finds time for her own training. She gets in the gym and on the ice every day, plays games in an upstate New York men’s league twice a week, and drives to Blades contests whenever she can. Duggan calls her schedule “crazy.” Exhausting certainly doesn’t cover it.
“We’ve been in this situation for so long that we don’t think about it that much,” said Duggan, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who grew up in Danvers. “We’re just a bunch of hard-working girls who love the sport and have since we’ve been kids. We’re going to do anything to make ends meet. That’s what I love about all my teammates. That it’s not about the money.”
Still, it would be nice to have a little something to make days less exhausting and leave more time for workouts. It would be good for the athletes and their sports. Instead, after Duggan plays Sunday afternoon, she’ll drive six hours back to Potsdam, then start another week packed with Clarkson practices, men’s league games, and her own workouts. Smelker will head home to Somerville and be back to work at Haemonetics by 7 Monday morning. And the cycle continues.