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‘Hundreds of rugby professionals’: players welcome US women’s league
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‘Hundreds of rugby professionals’: players welcome US women’s league

Women’s Elite Rugby, the US start-up competition announced last month, could create “hundreds of professional female rugby players in a really short time”, a US Eagles international said, heralding a “great” development for elite women’s sport.

“There is skepticism,” said Emily Henrich, a Dartmouth graduate who plays center for the national team, “because worldwide there is a lack of money and resources for women’s sport. But that is obviously changing.”

New details have emerged surrounding plans for WER’s inaugural season, following a meeting between player representatives and the WER board of directors, bringing the first significant update since plans to professionalize US women’s rugby were announced.

Attended by representatives from the seven clubs of Women’s Premier League (WPL), the top-level amateur competition, the meeting covered plans for player reimbursement and the relationship between clubs and the league.

Sources said WER’s inaugural season would not be fully professional. Players are set to receive monthly stipends, though most expect to hold a full-time job. Funding for player compensation, raised from private investors, is reportedly approaching its targets. Teams will be expected to increase training schedules, as most currently train just twice per week.

The league will employ a single entity format similar to that of Major League Rugby and Major League Soccer, meaning teams will be headed by investor-operators holding shares in the league, a format designed to level the financial playing field.

WER will therefore have a degree of control in hiring staff and recruiting players, though teams will be consulted. It remains unclear if the league will take on teams’ branding rights, a concern for more established WPL teams.

WER’s launch statement outlined an aim to create a league of six to eight teams, though it is unclear which of the seven WPL teams will play. Competing teams are expected to be confirmed by January.

Players are awaiting clarification on details including whether players and staff will be required to relocate, the future of WPL teams which do not make the transition to WER, and the fate of WPL post-2025. A document on WER’s LinkedIn page says many of these policies are “in development”.

A lack of detail in the initial announcement generated skepticism among WPL players, though sources said the WER board has since been proactive in answering questions, switching the mood from cautious optimism to outright excitement.

Prior to the recent meeting with the WER board, Akwele “Q” Okine and Amanda Schweitzer, co-captains of the Boston-based, long-established Beantown RFC – for whom the writer’s sister, Lauren Ferridge, plays front row – reported a mood of cautious optimism. After the meeting, they said, this made way for a wave of confidence in WER leadership.

Describing the amateur format of WPL as “financially burdensome”, both players were excited by the prospect of compensation for the time they commit to rugby, until now something of a labor of love.

“We all really care about rugby and would love to play at the next level but there are lots of limiting factors that make it really hard,” Okine said. “We pay for all our flights, there are other personal costs that we incur, and we are constantly fundraising as a team.”

Schweitzer said: “Considering flights, gym memberships, and other fees, we probably pay at least $5,000 per season. That would be the low end of an estimate.”

The need for professionalization is clear but the lack of early communication between WER and WPL players who will staff the new competition stoked players’ concerns. Where the WER launch statement said players would have the opportunity to be “fairly compensated for their dedication to elite performance”, details did not follow for nearly four weeks.

The delay left players concerned. Okine said: “We are definitely excited about the project … but a lot of players were surprised by the initial announcement. We have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.”

But, she said, “In the last meeting, a lot of questions were answered and answered pretty competently. It sounds like things are going really well … other teams are on board, there is more clarity around what that looks like for our individual club. [Beantown players] are feeling pretty excited for where women’s rugby in the United States is going to go next year.”

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Questions remain on the question of branding rights, as the single-entity model will likely see WER obtain intellectual property rights of its member organizations. Beantown players are worried about protecting the club’s 48-year legacy.

“For us at Beantown, there is so much history in this team, it goes back generations,” said Okine. “Giving our name over to a league is nerve-wracking but [WER is] very clearly willing to work with us and do what makes sense. It doesn’t feel like we’re being forced into anything.”

Katana Howard of the USA scores a try against Australia.View image in fullscreen

Among the league’s stated goals are the development of the US rugby market ahead of the 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup, which will be hosted on American soil, and creating a player pathway for the US Eagles, currently ninth in the world rankings but on a high after beating Australia 32-25 in Melbourne last week. Of the matchday squad down under, seven players were US-based.

Henrich is currently without a team but was among replacements against Australia. She has been in the Eagles fold since being scouted for the Under-18s as a 15-year-old. As she helps the national team push for World Cup qualification, she feels WER has limitless potential in a growing market. She also said a competitive domestic league could work wonders for the Eagles squad.

“It can be hard to feel like you’re in contact with your teammates, especially if you’re in the States and the rest of the team is in England,” Henrich said, pointing to where many Eagles players ply their trade.

“We need to be playing against each other and together with frequency, so to have everyone in one place would be great for team cohesion. It would be a huge opportunity for up-and-coming players to be able to learn from current national team players.

“There is a good precedent with USA Rugby making those first steps towards equity between the men’s and women’s teams, and that makes me hopeful that there will be similar support for WER. The success of WER will hinge on the support of the women who came before us.”

Asked for comment, WER said: “The WER announcement has understandably excited the rugby and women’s sports communities and with that comes a list of questions, all of which WER plans to answer comprehensively at a later time.

“WER would like to stress however that WER has evolved from the WPL and was seeded by WPL staff. Communication with our player base is ongoing through a dedicated and deliberate channel through WPL club leaders.”

Source: theguardian.com