'Birds go global: The lack of professional athletic opportunities in North America

After graduation, university athletes seem to have the world at their feet — but for most, that world doesn’t include North America. In many sports, especially for female athletes, the opportunities to play professionally simply don’t exist.

Instead, athletes must go overseas. The Ubyssey spoke to three former UBC athletes to shed light on why they’re pushed internationally and how that process works.

Jayde Robertsen

Jayde Robertsen is a middle who played for the UBC women’s volleyball team from 2018–22 and now plays on VfB Suhl Lotto Thüringen in Suhl, Germany. For her, the decision to go to Germany was obvious.

“The highest level of volleyball you can play in Canada is the collegiate level,” said Robersten. “So Europe, in general, is the biggest community for professional athletes and volleyball.”

Robertsen said Europe may have more professional volleyball opportunities because of the different structure of leagues there.

In Germany, universities don’t have athletic programs to prepare for a career. Instead athletes can start playing professionally at as young as 13 years old.

“So it's kind of what we would consider in Canada as club volleyball. But that's like their professional,” said Robertsen.

“You get paid more and more as you build up,” she explained.

Besides these structural factors, Robertsen said Europe and North America also have different cultures around sports, especially volleyball.

“Sport culture in general is a little bit more celebrated over here,” she said. “People are willing to put more money forward.”

In contrast, Robertsen said there isn’t a “huge interest” in volleyball in Canada.

“The past year, we've won nationals and that was the biggest crowd we've ever had in the gym,” she said. “But that crowd is kind of like a day-to-day thing here.”

Robertsen also highlighted that in Canada, women's sports get less recognition than in Europe.

The process of being signed differs from the university experience. Rather than being scouted, agents reach out to sign you and then utilize their connections with clubs in different countries.

Robertsen said the decision on which team to sign with “depends what your goals are.” She chose VfB Suhl Lotto Thüringen because it was a good career move.

“My agent urged me to take this contract, because Germany is one of the top leagues in the world,” Robertsen said. “So it was really cool that I got the opportunity right out of college.”

However, other friends of hers have prioritized a more popular city but had to compromise on their salary or league status and vice versa.

“There’s a bunch of different experiences that you can have, depending on what you're looking for.”

Kate Stuart

Kate Stuart was the UBC women’s hockey goalie for the 2022/23 season and now plays for SDE Hockey in Stockholm, Sweden.

Stuart said her choice to play overseas was motivated by the uncertainty around the North American professional women’s league folding, which eventually became the newly established PWHL.

“The Swedish league and managers were more forthcoming about a plan in place [and] a timeline versus the North Americans, who kept me waiting,” she said.

Stuart echoed some of Robertsen’s sentiments on how to choose a team, saying that one of her friends plays in Australia.

“That level of hockey isn't necessarily as high as you would get in Sweden or North America, but her experience there is astounding,” Stuart said. “It is rare also to find a place where you can play hockey that's warm, but there are some leagues.”

SDE also has a reputation for looking out for players, something evident to Stuart when speaking with the manager.

“She was, I could just immediately tell, the heart and soul of the team,” she said. “And I was right … She really has this reputation of SDE maybe not of having the fanciest facilities but she will look out for you.”

“That was something important to me.”

In terms of cultural differences, Stuart has noticed that Swedes are more reserved and don’t tend to cheer very loudly.

“If the Canadian families were in the rafters, you could hear them loud and clear,” she said.

“I would say that there is showing up by the Swedish fans, but we definitely celebrate in a different way,” she said. “There's no Crazy P at a game with his drums.”

Another difference Stuart had to adjust to was more technical — the ice rinks are larger in Sweden, so there’s more space in her net.

“You have to adjust so you have to overlap on your posts and play out aggressive,” Stuart said. “[That] was something I didn’t do at all prior to coming.”

Canada is only now starting to see more focus on women’s hockey, but Stuart said it’s “built into the culture” in Sweden.

“We're seeing right now quite a lot of targeted support for women's hockey,” she said. “[But] Sweden has this established understanding of it.”

Matthew Neaves

Matthew Neaves played as an opposite hitter on the UBC men’s volleyball team from 2018–23 and now plays for Unicaja Costa de Almería in Almería, Spain. Neaves also cited the lack of opportunities in North America as his motivation for choosing Spain.

“It’s really limited if you want to play volleyball professionally. You can either go overseas to play indoor, or go through the beach volleyball circuit,” he wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey.

As someone who loves the sport with the desire to “continue to improve with the hope of representing Canada at an Olympic Games” going international was the only option.

Neaves, like Robertsen, used an agent, which he said was helpful since “they help negotiate your contract and reduce the chances of being taken advantage of.” For himself, an agent was crucial in the decision to sign with his team.

“My agent brought Almeria’s team to my attention as a way for me to challenge myself in a starting position, as well as having some comfort while doing so,” he wrote. “I live on the southern coast of Spain, I don’t think there are many places that I would rather live.”

According to Neaves, there hasn’t been a lot of culture shock.

“It was definitely [an] adjustment with the language barrier, but my teammates can speak English which has helped a ton. The culture here is very easy to adapt to,” he wrote. “The most difficult one is eating dinner at 10 p.m.”

He also noted technical difficulties, like how the type of volleyball is slightly heavier and spins easier than what’s used in Canada.

But he can’t complain. “I get to play the sport I love and I’m compensated for it.”

Despite the difficulties of finding a professional athletic career, all three athletes believe it’s worth a shot.

Robertsen’s advice to current or aspiring college athletes is keeping an open mind on the opportunities in Europe.

“It is very different over here. You can't set your expectations anywhere, you just kind of gotta go into it with an open mind and adapt as you go,” she said.

Stuart implores players to remember that “you’re not an island.”

“Don’t be afraid to reach out and inquire, ‘Hey how did you like that?’ ‘You met that coach one time at camp? What did you think of them?’” she said. “There are definitely connections that you can make to explore your options.”

“If you love volleyball you should pursue it,” Neaves wrote. “You can always work in Canada but how many people can say they’ve spent months or years working in Europe playing a professional sport?”

— Additional reporting from Lauren Kasowski