A League of Their Own

Women Tackle Football and the Business of Sport

"For every girl who has ever thought of being a quarterback or hitting another player full blast, she is validated by seeing others with her dreams," agrees Donna Lopiano, the executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "That is always my bottom line . . . validating the dreams of women."

In an era in which profiteers and do-gooders alike seem eager to capitalize on women's sports, experts suggest that the league's existence isn't as jarring—or as doomed for immediate failure—as it might have been 10 years ago. It also depends on how you define success, says David Abrutyn, director of consulting for IMG, the sports marketing giant. "Maybe people are looking at this through the glass that says, 'If they're not on ESPN2 and not in 15 major markets and they're not playing at college stadiums and drawing 15,000 fans a game, the league's not a success.' "

If those lofty standards are the goal, says Abrutyn, the odds are pretty long. If the WPFL's goal is more like baseball's or hockey's more successful minor leagues, the WPFL might have a chance.

Gridiron gal: New York Sharks owner/qb Andra Douglas
photo: Cary Conover
Gridiron gal: New York Sharks owner/qb Andra Douglas

"My guess is that if these franchises were playing at high school fields, drawing three or four thousand people, providing some family entertainment, and showing off some women's athleticism, that's probably a success—if they can do that on a year to year basis," he says.

Right now, though, the Sharks and other WPFL teams aren't playing before crowds of 3000. The league's averaging about 800 fans a game, says Jodie Armstrong, a fullback for the Vixens who also serves as Minnesota's director of media relations and works in the league office ("We're grassroots," she laughs).

The league has only one significant national sponsor—Bike, which provides equipment—and local sponsorship clearly isn't yet where it needs to be. Other questions remain. The WPFL offers its players only $100 per game and worker's compensation—and some states' laws make even that form of insurance impossible. A critical league meeting is scheduled for next month in Daytona Beach, Florida, following the WPFL's January 13 championship game. There, it is presumed, a game plan for the future—including decisions about expansion or contraction, marketing schemes, and other crucial strategies—will emerge.

Armstrong is quick to point to the league's failings thus far—she never was paid for her service last year on Minnesota's barnstorming club, and she doubts whether all players will see their promised payments this season either—but she retains a contagious passion for the game.

"You've got 440 women, and we all have one dream," says Armstrong. "We really don't care whether we get paid. It's the fact that we're out here breaking some ground, laying the path for that second grader who looks at us and says, 'Hey, that's cool.'

"I believe in this, and I believe in my fellow women," Armstrong continues. "In three years, come back and look at us, and if we're still around, positive changes will have happened. We will have succeeded in spite of the people who run this thing."

Most New Yorkers will have to wait until next year to meet the Sharks. The team's season came to an unexpected end earlier this month, when they lost a 10-7 nail-biter to the New England Storm in a road playoff game that was originally supposed to be a regular-season home game.

"It's just a heartbreaker," Douglas says of the narrow playoff loss. "I still think we were the better team." She's convinced, though, that there are already bigger triumphs for all involved.

"We lost a game but we won the battle," she says. "Because we are professionals. We'll be back next year, and that's what counts."

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