As USL Spokane builds its professional soccer clubs, a crucial component of its framework is focused on elements that create equity in women's professional sports, says Janette "j." Atkins, vice president of Zephyr FC, the organization's top-tier women's soccer club.
Those components include pay equity—a topic that has risen to national attention in recent years, specifically within women’s professional soccer—but also more nuanced needs associated with pregnancy, motherhood, and facilities, among other things.
"We are building for future athletes and leaders," says Atkins. "We are creating these opportunities for young women and girls to not only see themselves on the pitch but to also see themselves in the boardroom and building this from the ground up."
Katie and Ryan Harnetiaux became the USL Spokane club owners in the fall of 2022 through the entity Aequus Sports LLC. The organization has three teams: a professional men's club dubbed Spokane Velocity FC, which has a team crest marked by four swaying blue lines meant to evoke the image of the region's lakes; a professional women's team and a pre-professional women's team, both dubbed Spokane Zephyr FC. The women's teams name comes from Greek mythology meaning a wind from the west and is represented by a blue "Z" resembling wind.
The Spokane Velocity will have its first match at ONE Spokane Stadium on 501 W. Gardner on March 16. Zephyr FC's professional women's team will play as a Division I team in the USL Super League, and is scheduled to debut in the fall of this year, also at ONE Spokane Stadium. The Spokane Zephyr FC W League team is a pre-professional women’s team that will play during the summer months.
Katie Harnetiaux, USL Club president, says she envisions women's teams in Spokane that are professional from the office to the field. When people think of professional soccer, she wants Spokane to be top of mind, she says.
"It's very important to me, and it was very important to Ryan as well, that if we did this, we did this right," says Harnetiaux. "It was important for us to say, we're going to build this the way we would want it to be for us or our daughter. I think it's up to people who are building businesses and building new opportunities to start from a place of equity—not use equity as an afterthought."
Atkins has over 20 years of experience with the athletic and sports apparel company Adidas AG. During the last six years of her tenure with Adidas, her primary focus was to elevate women in sports via product, representation, and the language that is used both internally and externally to talk about women in sports, she says.
"That is really where my passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion was developed, and it was very specifically through the lens of gender equity and product," says Atkins.
Joining USL Spokane has allowed Atkins to springboard her passion and endeavors from a products-and-marketing perspective to instilling those practices into a professional team and business, she says.
Pay equity in women’s professional sports is a top priority for Aequus, she says. The organization is reviewing the National Women’s Soccer League’s collective bargaining agreements, doing research, and taking all that information into account to ensure they are paying an equitable salary, she says.
“The players on both professional teams are 100% full-time athletes and will be paid by Aequus Sports,” says Ryan Harnetiaux. “The club provides health, dental, and vision benefits to all employees, which includes players and their families.”
The minimum pay in last year’s season within the National Women’s Soccer League—a Division I sanctioned league—was $36,000, including housing and benefits, says Ryan Harnetiaux. While a figure has not yet been finalized, the club will pay its players within that neighborhood, he says.
Because the professional women’s team will be a Division I team, and the men’s team is sanctioned as a Division III team, Zephyr FC will be paid more than the men’s team, says Ryan Harnetiaux.
“That just makes sense because we’re talking about Division I versus Division III,” says Katie Harnetiaux. “The pay is commensurate with professional sports at the level with which these athletes are playing it.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in women’s sports goes beyond the wage gap to include things that most people don’t think about, says Atkins.
A misleading lens through which women are treated and thought of in sports is a well-known term in the product industry, "Shrink it and pink it," she says, which refers to the process of taking men's products, and shrinking it, coloring it pink and then giving it to a woman and thinking that that is equity or equitable, she says.
"We do not practice that," she says. "We understand that we have to look at and assess, understand, and craft what makes sense for our female players.”
For example, when the club was in the process of locating its future headquarters, it wanted to ensure that it could build a nursing room for mothers who have returned recently from having a baby, including players, technical, and administrative staff, she says. It also means offering flexibility within schedules to accommodate families.
“We have tried to be mindful of what an employee or an athlete could need holistically to live their best lives or work their best lives with us,” says Katie Harnetiaux. “That includes having a nursing room with a door that locks and locker rooms that are equally built out for male and female athletes.”
The club is also intentional about who it brings on to design training plans geared toward female athletes, says Ryan Harnetiaux. To that end, the club has hired Josh McAllister and Staci Hardin as architects of the club’s sports medicine department. Hardin is a physical therapist and one of the country’s leading athletic trainers who has been part of a research group for the past two years studying ACL injuries in female athletes, and McAllister was previously the director of performance for OL Reign FC, a professional women's soccer team based in Seattle, he says.
Female athletes have a higher rate of injury, says Ryan Harnetiaux. He says it’s difficult to understand why it happens because it’s a topic that has been widely ignored or underinvested in.
“There are pockets of brilliance out there, and we feel lucky because we have found a couple of them,” says Katie Harnetiaux. “If you look at how women have been treated within health care and the business world, our goal with USL Spokane has been to turn that narrative on its head.”
An example of how a female athlete needs to be considered differently is by understanding how the muscles in the female body change during pregnancy, nursing, and menstruation, says Katie Harnetiaux.
“Nursing mothers tend to bounce back faster,” she says. “But their muscles are much more elastic, so we have to be conscious of how their training is designed so that we can get the most efficacy from their sport without hurting their bodies.”
USL Spokane received 125 applications for the women’s soccer coach position. Six of those were women with professional soccer licenses. If possible, USL Spokane will hire a female coach to head Spokane Zephyr. The organization will make that announcement later this month, says Ryan Harnetiaux.
“What we are doing is not unique,” says Katie Harnetiaux. “But it does take work, and it is the right way forward. I would just hope that more businesses are inspired by what we’re doing and that they also hold themselves to the same new bar.”
USL Spokane is headquartered on the second floor of the Bennett Block Building, at 530 W. Main, in downtown Spokane where the club leases two suites, a 1,300-square-foot space dedicated to technical staff, such as coaches and trainers, and a 3,700-square-foot front office suite for administrative and support staff. The organization currently has 13 full-time employees and is anticipating onboarding an additional five more within the next month.
The Harnetiauxs have expanded their ownership group in recent months to include Spokane developer Jordan Tampien and his wife, Whitney Tampien; Joe Herzog, chief financial officer for Selkirk Pharma, Inc., and wife, Katie Herzog, adjunct instructor at Gonzaga University School of Leadership Studies; and a five-person investment group assembled by the Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm, Landspire Group. The Harnetiauxs and the Tampiens are the club's leading owners with a majority stake, says Ryan who declines to disclose ownership interest details. Subsequent investors are limited partners.
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