Professional sports traces its roots back to the 19th century. For decades it was the province of (mostly) white males, both on the field and in the operations of the teams and leagues. In the 20th century, things slowly began to diversify, at least for the fellas.
Women were competing in organized sports at the collegiate level for about a decade when they began competing in the Olympics in 1900. Pro sports for women started some 40 years later, thanks largely to World War II.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL)
Made famous in the 1992 A League of their Own, The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was established in 1942. Major League Baseball, and other pro sports leagues, were having trouble staying afloat as their players went off to war. Many minor league baseball teams suspended operations or folded.
To help keep ballparks open, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley tapped his team’s general manager to come up with a solution. In the fall of 1943, women took the field professionally for the first time with teams in Rockford, IL, South Bend, Indiana, Kenosha, and Racine, WI.
The league continued after the war and at its peak had 10 teams. Its last season was in 1954. A total of 14 cities were represented by 15 teams over the league’s 12 seasons.
World Team Tennis
Founded in 1974, World Team Tennis (WTT) not only brought women into the ranks of professional sports, it put them on equal footing with men. In some cases, it valued its female players more.
For example, Billy Jean King, who played for the Philadelphia Freedoms, was arguably the league’s biggest star. The year before WTT debuted, she famously played male tennis star Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in the Houston Astrodome and won.
WTT played for four seasons, and while it drew respectable crowds in some cities, many clubs had trouble filling the large arenas they used as their home court. After a three-year absence, a new version of World Team Tennis was established in 1981 and is still going today. READ MORE
Women's Pro Softball League (WPSL)
Back on the diamond, women’s professional softball debuted in 1997 with the founding of the WPSL. The league began with six teams: Carolina Diamonds, Durham Dragons, Georgia Pride, Orlando Wahoos, Tampa Bay FireStix, and Virginia Roadsters. In 2000, with only four teams left, the league folded.
It was revived in 2004 as the National Pro Fastpitch and is still playing. Over the years, the league has fluctuated from four to seven teams. In 2022, the league was rebranded as Women’s Professional Fastpitch.
Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL)
In 1978, the first pro basketball league for women was established. It started with eight teams and played for three seasons. A total of 14 teams played in the league.
Women’s Basketball Association (WBA)
The second women's professional league was the Women's Basketball Association (WBA). That league played three seasons (from 1993 to 1995) and planned to expand to 12 teams by 1997 but didn’t make it that far.
American Basketball League (ABL)
As the WBA was starting what would be its final season, the ABL debuted. A total of nine teams played in the ABL across its two seasons. It was undone mainly by the establishment of another league, this one backed by the deep pockets of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)
The WNBA first tipped off in spring 1996 with eight teams, all playing in NBA arenas. It’s still in business today and plays a summer schedule that is mostly the opposite of the NBA’s fall/winter schedule. At its peak, the WNBA had 16 teams. It currently has 12 teams, and though some teams have moved, the league hasn’t lost a franchise since 2002.
Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA)
The Women’s United Soccer Association or WUSA was the world's first women's professional soccer league. It started in 2001 with eight teams in the United States. After three seasons it suspended operations.
Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)
Four years after the demise of the WUSA, the WPS was founded, though it didn’t kick off until 2009 with seven teams. Plagued by the same problems that beset other new leagues, the WPS folded after three seasons. Three of its teams went on to join the semi-pro Women's Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL), only to have that league fold two years later.
National Women's Soccer League (NWSL)
A new professional soccer league for women, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), was founded in 2012 and kicked off in 2013 with eight teams, four of which had played in WPS. Today, the league has 12 teams.
Women’s Professional Football League
The first pro football league for women was the Women’s Professional Football League, or WPFL. It was established in 1999 and played until 2007. Its success inspired two other leagues to form: The Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) in 2000 and the American Football Women's League (AFWL) in 2002. The IWFL played until 2018, while the AWFL folded after one season.
Women’s Football Alliance (WFA)
In 2009, the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) was established and is still playing today. It boasts 63 teams across three tiers of play.
National Women's Hockey League (NWHL)
The first pro hockey league for women was the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). It started play in 1999 and skated until 2007 when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was founded. That league played until 2019.
Premiere Hockey Federation
In 2015, the Women’s National Hockey League (WNHL) was established. In 2021, it changed its name to the Premiere Hockey Federation (PHF) and currently has six teams competing for the Isobel Cup.