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Coronavirus compounds financial concerns in women’s sports

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Dallas Wings’ Isabelle Harrison, center, holds the ball during a WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 18.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Dallas Wings’ Isabelle Harrison, center, holds the ball during a WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 18.

For Isabelle Harrison, the coronavirus wake-up call came when she rushed to her grocery store in Bologna, Italy, to find the shelves cleaned out of pasta.

Spaghetti. Fusilli. Even tiny bags of tiny macaroni. All gone.

“I immediately thought, ‘Uh-oh, there’s no pasta in Italy?’” Harrison said in a recent phone interview two days after returning from Italy, where she is a center on the Virtus Segafredo Bologna basketball team. “That’s how serious it became, literally overnight. It was like living in a panic zone. So many horror stories were coming out. People were dying.”

That was the second Monday in March, before the Italian government ordered a total lockdown to control the spread of the virus. Harrison’s league suspended its season. Her phone blew up with texts from friends and relatives in the United States, begging her to come home.

Harrison, who spends the WNBA season with the Dallas Wings, has autoimmune problems, so she wanted to get out of Italy and closer to her support system. She paid $1,000 for a one-way ticket to Texas and, on Thursday, strapped on a medical mask and flew back to the United States. She planned to hole up in a hotel outside Dallas for two weeks, in self-quarantine because she didn’t want to risk infecting others.

“I don’t know if our season will restart or even if I will get paid now, and financially this paycheck is definitely important to me,” said Harrison, who is from Nashville and played for the University of Tennessee. “This whole situation is just so scary.”

The coronavirus has upended the sports world, throwing many professional athletes, like Harrison, into uncertainty. But women, who have fought so hard to get to the top level of sports, might feel a sharper pain than travel woes. Their paychecks and sponsor deals are often much smaller than men’s; their leagues are less established. The specter of a recession is an additional concern.

Women’s professional leagues are usually laser-focused on building on their successes and finding ways to cultivate their brands to make them sustainable for the long run. But like the rest of a population faced with daily complications caused by the coronavirus, they now have to figure out how to navigate a world that changes seemingly by the minute.

Basketball leagues like the Chinese Basketball Association and Harrison’s Euroleague have shuttered, sending players scrambling. Harrison’s agent, Boris Lelchitski, said that he was concerned his clients who play overseas would be shortchanged on salaries or bonuses and that his “sneaking suspicion is that we won’t be getting paid” by teams in countries hit hard by the virus. That lost money will especially hurt female players, he said, because salaries in leagues outside the United States tend to be three to five times higher than the pay in the WNBA. For players who are not in the WNBA, he added, those checks are essential.

Golfers on the LPGA Tour, who play for purses that are a fraction of those available to men on the PGA Tour, had just finished playing in Australia last month when their next three tournaments in Asia were canceled. After about a month off, they learned that three upcoming American tournaments had been postponed.

The National Women’s Soccer League first canceled its preseason games and then on Friday announced a delay of its regular season, which was scheduled to begin April 18 with the first live nationwide broadcast of an NWSL game. The CBS coverage of the game between the Washington Spirit and the OL Reign was expected to catapult the league into its eighth season, but it is unclear whether CBS will broadcast a rescheduled opener.

Preparing for the NWSL’s uncertain near future has been the main job, and an unexpected task, of Lisa Baird, the commissioner who began her job on March 10, a day before the NBA suspended its season and two days before the NCAA canceled its postseason basketball tournaments.

During her decade as chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, Baird sometimes saw this type of panic, including when the Zika virus threatened the 2016 Rio Olympics. But it was never so widespread or on her doorstep.

She realizes that there is an urgency for the NWSL to capitalize on the United States’ 2019 World Cup victory and the national team’s news media exposure during its fight for equal pay. More than half of the NWSL’s teams set attendance records last year in post-World Cup matches, and a Portland Thorns home game set the league’s attendance record, with 25,218 fans.

“Of course, I’m concerned, but what I’m concerned about the most is fan and player safety,” Baird said in a recent phone interview, adding that she expects the league to be fine regardless of the coronavirus’ effect on the schedule.

Ticket sales for women’s sports are important, but the league has diverse revenue streams, including new multiyear broadcast deals with CBS and the streaming service Twitch, to help it thrive despite a disruption in play or even a recession, she said. Still, the league has only three sponsors, while the men’s Major League Soccer, according to its website, has more than 20.

“I think the National Women’s Soccer League is not only a women’s sport and entertainment, but we’re also a movement,” Baird said. “I think fans will continue to want to be a part of that.”

Cancellations in other sports had immediate effects on players and their pocketbooks, and Michael Whan, the LPGA commissioner, said in a recent interview that he had lost sleep as the women on his tour encountered an unexpected two-month layoff. Professional golfers are generally independent contractors who pay for entry fees, caddies, trainers and most of their own travel.

“If I had a tour full of billionaires and everyone had long-term deals, I’d be OK,” Whan said. “Do I have some wealthy women who earned that money throughout their career? Yes, but the majority of my tour is women that need to play, and play well, to make the economics of this career.”

The loss of prize money is real: The three events in Asia that were called off in February won’t be rescheduled, he said, meaning that $5.2 million in prize money has disappeared. Going into 2020, the tour’s total purse for the season was $75.1 million.

There is also an intangible cost to putting the season on hold. Jillian Hollis, a tour rookie, finished tied for 13th at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open last month and was looking to continue the jet-setting golf adventure that she had dreamed about since she was a little girl.

Hollis, who will turn 23 on Wednesday, started playing golf as soon as she could hold a club. When she was 14, she set a goal of playing on the LPGA Tour; in the winter she would take a shovel to the course in her hometown outside Cleveland so she could hit balls in the snow.

It didn’t matter whether she needed to wear a thick winter jacket or if her face felt numb in the cold. She wanted to play golf as a pro, just as her mother, Sharon, had. So she practiced enough and became good enough to play at the University of Georgia, where she was a three-time All-American.

To earn her LPGA Tour card last year, Hollis grinded out the season to finish in the top 10 on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s developmental tour. Along the way, she split the costs of a rental car and a hotel room with another player, or stayed with host families. All the practice and sacrifice and pounds of shoveled snow, over all those years, helped her get to this season, which has been sweeter — and shorter — than she had ever imagined.

Hollis played in three tournaments in Australia, earning two paychecks that totaled $21,796, and also found time to go sightseeing. She saw a show at the Sydney Opera House, hiked through Bondi Beach and snorkeled near sharks. But her whirlwind adventure is on pause.

While she was in Australia, events in China, Singapore and Thailand were canceled, so Hollis will have to wait to visit those countries for the first time. Then trips to California and Arizona, for three more events, were deleted from her schedule, too. She is now biding her time in a hotel near the University of Georgia. She said she feels lucky to have two sponsors because her tour paychecks have been put on hold.

“My initial reaction was mixed emotions,” Hollis said. “I’m sad that I can’t go out West, but I feel safer not putting myself and others at risk. I would hate to get the virus and give it to my grandma. This situation is serious. All I have to worry about is my career.”

In her Dallas hotel, Harrison, 26, is worrying about the health of her parents, who are in their 60s. Her mother works at a retirement community, and Harrison has asked her to stay home. Harrison, who grew up in a family of 12 children, won’t visit relatives or friends until her quarantine ends, a date that feels unimaginably far off.

She spends time reading the news, watching TV, making and posting videos about skin care or organizing her modeling portfolio. She is looking forward to the WNBA season, which is scheduled to start May 15 under a new collective bargaining agreement that boosts her salary. That is, if there is a season.

“I’m trying to take advantage of this rare time off,” Harrison said. “I’d like to say I plan to get out to see things and travel. But you can’t say that anymore.”

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