When Alyssa Leonard graduated from Northwestern, she wasn’t sure if she would ever play lacrosse again.

Without a professional league for women, people always told her that she would have to find another job after college. While Leonard (SESP ‘14) was one of the lucky 36 players named to the U.S. national team in 2015, everyone else had to hang up their cleats after college graduation – until now.

The first ever professional women’s lacrosse league, the United Women’s Lacrosse League (UWLX), will debut this summer, giving dozens more women the chance to continue playing the sport they love while opening new professional pathways for a generation of female athletes.

For Leonard, the league serves as validation after everyone told her she couldn’t play professionally, words that motivated rather than discouraged her.

“I think that’s something that’s inspired me to stay in coaching and play for the U.S. team and now the professional league,” Leonard says. “It’s kind of funny to turn around and [show] all those people who said there’s no such thing as sports for girls after college, that here we are.”

The UWLX comes 15 years after Major League Lacrosse, the major men’s professional league – an example of the ongoing battle for equality in athletics. Previously, the only option for female athletes hoping to stay involved after college was coaching or joining the U.S. national team. So when UWLX commissioner Michelle DeJulius called Caitlin Jackson (Comm ‘09), who won four national championships in her time at Northwestern, and asked her to be a general manager in the new league, Jackson knew she had to take the job.

“It just sounded, right off the bat, like such an exciting opportunity and something that all of us feel a little bit responsible for in terms of hoping to grow the sport and grow opportunities for women in athletics,” Jackson says.

The league’s four teams, the Philadelphia Force, Long Island Sound, Boston Storm and Baltimore Ride, will compete from May 28 to July 30. Featuring the sport’s top talent and new rules designed to make play quicker and more exciting such as a shot clock and the two-point shot from beyond the arc, the league will showcase a more dynamic brand of women’s lacrosse.

Teams will play at many of the major college lacrosse recruiting tournaments this summer, including the opening games at Lehigh University, where 70 high school teams from across the nation will also be participating in the the U.S. Lacrosse Women’s National Tournament. Jackson says the proximity will help bridge the gap between the youth, collegiate and professional levels, encouraging girls to strive for a career in women’s lacrosse.

“If a 14-year-old girl can show up to a large recruiting tournament and see her biggest role model in lacrosse up front, close and personal, that’s huge for the growth of the sport,” Jackson says. “[You’re] able to really see your future within the game.”

The league will not be able to offer players salaries in its first year, Jackson says, but through ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, players should have paychecks by year two. But for most, it’s not about the money – they just want to play the sport they love again, a thought that gives Communication senior Kaleigh Craig hope.

“The thought of not playing anymore is really hard,” Craig says. “I just love competing and love playing, so if you get a chance to, it’s hard to pass it up.”

Players and coaches hope the creation of a professional league where women pursue their athletic dreams will resonate beyond the sport of lacrosse.

“There really aren’t a whole ton of venues for women who want to go into athletics as a career,” Jackson says. “To be able to create jobs that allow someone coming out of college who can then move forward in their career, that’s really big. That’s bigger than just lacrosse.”