A League of Their Own


In the Sharks, New York has its latest professional sports outfit. It also has the most intriguing, eloquent, and determined group of athletes one could ever meet. There’s the lanky quarterback/owner, the wry 50-year-old in the defensive secondary, and the ferocious right end nicknamed after a truck. They and their colleagues on the team—and across the country—give a good name, and good copy, to the newly formed Women’s Professional Football League, now nearing the end of its first season.

With snappy logos, modern Web sites, and smart, quotable jocks, the WPFL’s got everything going for it—everything except the fan base, infrastructure, corporate sponsorship, financial stability, and broadcast deals that are usually de rigueur for successful sports leagues. Let’s just say this part of the revolution in women’s sports definitely will not be televised.

But the fact that the league seems to have emerged from the thinnest of air doesn’t mean it’s not revolutionary. “A journey of 10,000 steps starts with one,” say Andra Douglas, the Sharks’ owner, sometime quarterback, and a full-time creative director for Money magazine. “Women athletes need to be recognized like men, and this is a step in that direction.”

Like many on the Sharks, Douglas came to the WPFL from years of organized flag football and rugby. (Her Florida State rugby squad was a two-time national champ.) She’s thoughtful and sincere, as are so many of her teammates. They’re media savvy too.

“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. That is always my bottom line . . . validating the dreams of women.”

Take 50-year-old Carol Sullivan, a lifelong jock who knows perfectly well that she’s a great marketing tool. She remembers urging her new boss to take advantage of her age. “I said, ‘Andra, this is a new league, some people will be skeptical. You just can’t do the same-old same-old,’ ” Sullivan recalls. She’s been talking to the media ever since.

Still, Sullivan is careful to steer the public away from the notion that the WPFL is some sort of freaky sideshow, a role typically assigned to upstart women’s sports. The message, says Sullivan, is that “we’re anybody’s daughter.” She pauses, and lets a full, crinkly grin spread across her face. “Except for me.”

So, then, it’s Sullivan and the girls ferociously hitting each other at top speed and in full pads (though skill levels vary widely). The WPFL plays NFL rules, but with a smaller ball. The league is the brainchild of Carter Turner and Terry Sullivan (no relation to Carol), two Minnesota-area businessmen with a somewhat checkered history of start-up sports leagues and businesses behind them. It began in the fall of 1999, with a barnstorming tour by two Midwestern teams, the Minnesota Vixens and the now-defunct Lake Michigan Minx. The WPFL kicked off its first actual season in October, with 11 teams stretching from Austin, Texas, to New York City and New England.

That impressive geography has proven costly, however. High-priced airline travel has taken its toll on the infant league’s finances, and it teetered on the brink of collapse in late November. That’s when Colorado Valkyries owner Larry Perry stepped in with an investment group that bought majority control of the league—and added some stability. Part of the schedule was soon sacrificed to thriftiness, with playoff games moved up and some regular-season contests rearranged for the sake of proximity.

Despite the league’s shaky start, Perry shares Terry Sullivan’s faith in the WPFL. “We don’t expect to make a profit for three years,” he told the Rocky Mountain News when his $1 million buy-in was announced. “But we feel that women’s football is an idea whose time has come.”

It’s a thought many repeat: The time is right for women’s pro football. But it’s a little unclear exactly which clock supporters are reading. Without a feeder system of Pop Warner or scholastic or collegiate female football players, the WPFL faces limits in both available talent and potential audience, says Wayne Wilson, vice president for research and information at the Amateur Athletic Foundation. “I can’t think of an example where mass interest or participation has grown [exclusively] out of a professional league in a team sport,” he says. “I just can’t think of a precedent.”

But waiting for a traditional infrastructure to develop would mean waiting forever, says league founder Sullivan. In the meantime, he and others insist that there are plenty of girls and women out there who want to play football—enough to make the venture a worthy cause. Many of the league’s players and fans remember their disappointment at not being allowed to play tackle football as girls. Many yearn to change that.

“I coach girls’ basketball as well, and I’ve got kids that want to play football,” says Anna “Tonka” Tate, the irrepressible Shark who was a recent guest on Live With Regis. “When I was growing up, people would look at me like I was crazy if I wanted to play football. Now it’s something that’s possible. It’s doable. And I’m just glad that I’m making history and being able to be a part of what’s going on.”

“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.

“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.”