If The U.S. Wants To Lead The World Of Women’s Sports, It Has To Encourage Professionalization

Other countries have always had better professional options for women athletes, and now they're paying off.

The Japanese Women’s Softball League was founded in 1968 — and unlike any of its stateside counterparts from that period, it’s still active. The league has 12 teams that pay a decent enough salary to entice players from the U.S. and elsewhere to participate, with semi-recent estimates putting that number around $60,000 to $70,000 plus incentives. Earlier this week, Japan won its second consecutive Olympic gold medal in softball, shutting out a Team USA squad jam packed with star veterans. 

This matters not because of patriotism or because of the Olympics (which are understandably special to athletes although none of us should be watching them), but because it’s proof positive of what every American fan of women’s sports has been saying for ages: women athletes need professional options close to home. 

The size of the U.S., along with its relative wealth and the established infrastructure for sports that comes along with that, have historically made the U.S. dominant in women’s sports on the international stage without really trying — without the kind of investment required to develop fans that show up more than once every four years. But Japan’s win, as well as Team USA’s close games and early losses in basketball and soccer respectively, show that the considerably greater investment in women’s professional sports internationally is paying off on the field. 

U.S. fans of women’s basketball and softball and soccer and volleyball watch their favorite players graduate from the well-funded and well-attended and totally corrupt NCAA farm system with few professional options, and fewer still for anyone but the very best and brightest. As a result, most top NCAA women athletes compete overseas. In the States, that’s long been taken for granted as “just the way things are” — a side effect of combining systemic sexism with an America First mentality. If women’s sports are second-rate, then it only makes sense that those supposedly lesser countries would enjoy watching them, etc. 

But it’s been apparent for a while now that other countries are doing a much better job of creating infrastructure for women’s sports at the professional level, if only because so many of them have to go abroad to make a living using the skills they’ve spent their entire lives honing. The Olympics are just a reminder that other countries are catching up — no longer funding women’s sports just to bring star Americans to play for eager audiences, but to capitalize on the growing talent from all over the globe. 

There are domestic women’s leagues. Obviously, the WNBA and NWSL are likely the best known. There’s also National Pro Fastpitch, and Athletes Unlimited, which is creating a whole new forum for softball, volleyball and lacrosse. But the only way women’s sports will continue to grow in the U.S. is if the professional infrastructure is there for them to compete at home, to incentivize the best athletes to keep pushing their skills to the pro level — full time, without asterisks.

(As an aside, it’s incomprehensible that we haven’t gotten a through profile on 39-year-old (!) Japanese pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who has thrown fastballs up to 80 mph and led Japan’s gold medal run.)