Women play football. Not only soccer or flag football, but full-contact American football. I and others have spilled thousands of words — even made whole documentaries — trying to convince people of this simple point, yet women and girls who play are still treated like anomalies. Even after decades on the gridiron, women throwing touchdowns and making tackles still surprises people — which in turn makes it that much harder for them to be taken seriously.
Part of the problem is the sport is both so popular and so heavily gendered that there’s never been a pipeline for girls to play. There aren’t high school or college girls football teams; if they want to play, they have to play with the boys.
The interesting thing is, though, that there have long been organizations for women to play on a national, if still mostly amateur, scale. Since the Women’s Professional Football League debuted in the mid ’60s (and on a smaller scale, even before then) there have been various attempts at creating leagues and organizations where women could play football. The selling point is usually the novelty, but even in the recently rebranded Lingerie Football League (now the X League), all available evidence suggests the women themselves take the sport incredibly seriously even when their spectators don’t.
Especially since the late ‘90s, a slew of different women’s leagues have jockeyed for space and longevity; though many of their alumni are now working at the sport’s highest levels as coaches and scouts, the leagues themselves have struggled to survive. Currently there are at least six that claim national relevance, although their already tenuous project is facing a potentially existential threat from COVID. That number suggests how many different answers exist to an always-looming question: How do you get people to pay attention to women’s tackle football?
The Women’s Football Alliance, founded in 2009 with a number of teams that had already survived one or more previous leagues, is the oldest and most established; it has 64 teams in three divisions across the country. Players aren’t paid — instead, many of them are charged with finding local sponsors to help cover team costs. “Our goal has been to reduce the cost for players to play in order to increase the number of top athletes playing the sport,” WFA commissioner Lisa King said via email.
2020 was set to be a turning point for the league: it signed its first ever broadcast deal with Eleven Sports and picked up Secret as a sponsor shortly before the season had to be suspended due to COVID-19. The same broadcast plans are in place for next season, though, which is scheduled to start in May 2021.
The Extreme Football League, or the X League, was founded the same year as the aforementioned Lingerie Football League, albeit with a self-evidently different purpose. Like the WFA, the LFL was always an amateur sport — and through several rebrands, the skimpy, extremely impractical uniforms have remained intact. Mike Ditka is now the owner and chairman of the league — and his goal is to create “a destination league for millions of girls to aspire to play in,” according to a press release, which is certainly…something.
When it officially launches next April, the league will have eight teams; their press department explained that they were focusing on how to “secure a national television partner.”
Their relaunch is one example of a national trend: new and revitalized women’s football leagues. Besides the United States Women’s Football League, which was founded in 2010 and has evolved into a smaller, regional league, there’s also the Women’s National Football Conference, which was founded in 2018 with 20 teams, the 16-team Women’s Tackle Football League, which was supposed to have its inaugural season this summer, and the Women’s Football League Association, which has attempted to set itself apart from the pack by stating that players on its 32 teams (none of which have played yet) will be paid. (Ja Rule owns one of those teams, the New York Stars.)
“There will always be new leagues and new teams — everyone wants NFL success and thinks they can do things better,” King said. “What they don’t understand is we are one of the few women’s sports that has no foundation.”
But it’s clear, based on the number of new leagues emerging, that the WFA isn’t growing fast enough for some women football players and fans. Odessa Jenkins, founder of the WNFC, played in the WFA and owned one of its teams — but she became convinced that she needed to try something new.
“This is not a hobby for me,” said Jenkins. “I actually think that it won’t take 100 years [to pay players], if you focus on professionalism.” For her, that professionalism comes through finding sponsors, presenting a coherent, polished marketing strategy, and having what she describes as standards — for play, for sponsors, for investors. She says she’s tried to collaborate with other leagues, but is convinced that her way is the best path to sustainability — and ultimately, to paying players. “It’s either men with money decide to take our sport in, or women decide to let go of some of what we’ve built in order to build faster, bigger and stronger for the future,” she added.
The relative chaos of the world of women’s tackle football, though, obscures the very real passion the players — and others — have for it. “We can be our own worst enemy when we water down our talent because new leagues and teams think they can do it better,” said King. “It’s been two steps forward, one step back for the past 20 years of our sport’s history.”
“We need one league, but we haven’t gotten to the place, frankly, to decide what that one is,” Jenkins said. “But this game is in the most positive place it’s ever been. So whether there’s three leagues or one league or 50 leagues, more people than ever are watching, more girls than ever are playing, and we will eventually get there.”