Three and Out


The Super Bowl was played on Saurday.

The Women’s Professional Football League’s (WPFL) Super Bowl, that is, and in it, the Houston Energy clobbered the New England Storm 39-7 to claim the league’s first title. Stacey Agee, the Houston running back, was the hero of the game, scoring three touchdowns.

But it’s Andra Douglas, the owner/quarterback of the New York Sharks—who bowed out early in the WPFL playoffs—who may well emerge from this week’s post-championship meetings as the belle of the ball. On the heels of the WPFL’s first ever championship game and the league’s somewhat shaky beginnings (in this inaugural season the WPFL canceled some games and didn’t pay players), rumors have Douglas taking her relatively well publicized team to one of two even newer leagues—the National Women’s Football League (NWFL), headquarted in Nashville, or the New York-based Women’s Continental Football League (WCFL). That makes her and her team the focus of three—count ’em, three—women’s tackle football leagues.

“My goal is to ensure that my Sharks have an arena to play in, and to promote women’s football,” Douglas told the Voice before heading to the Houston meetings. “I’m willing to listen to anyone, to hear what they have to say.” But Douglas describes the current climate for women’s football as frustrating. “This is the time when we all need to band together.”

To be sure, unity would help in this new, unproven sport. But currently a merger seems unlikely. Capitalizing more on general public enthusiasm for women’s athletics than any specific call for gals to hit the gridiron, sports promoters are coming out of the woodwork to claim a piece of the undercooked football pie.

In the beginning, there was the WPFL, which begat the NWFL when Catherine Masters, a consultant to the league and owner of its Nashville franchise, split over structure and scheduling disagreements. The NWFL, in turn, begat the WCFL when general counsel Robert Arleo took off to form his own league after undisclosed tension with Masters.

“I’m not saying ‘gender discrimination’ just to play the gender card. I’m saying it because it’s true.”

It’s easy to confuse the three, with their similar acronyms and echoing sound bites over the state of women’s sports. Masters says it’ll be the women who suffer if football fails. Arleo says it breaks his heart to have his players ask when the next game is when there isn’t one. WPFL cofounder Terry Sullivan says he got involved for the sake of women athletes.

None of these visionaries, however, seem overly concerned that three leagues might confuse fans and media and alienate an already small base of corporate sponsors. Even Larry Perry, the new co-owner of the WPFL, sounded unfazed when reached over the weekend at the league championship in Houston. Preparing for his meetings amid rumors of teams abandoning ship, the new front-office man says he “welcomes the competition.”

So then, each league is stubbornly concentrating on its own survival and superiority. Masters, for instance, says of her NWFL, “We’re doing it for the right reason. . . . I’m not doing this for the bucks.”

According to Masters, the NWFL has teams in Hartford, Nashville, Huntsville, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, Tampa, and Pensacola. An eight-game schedule, she says, will start on April 21. She’ll decentralize decision making and control—ownership costs $35,000, plus 15 percent of ticket sales and sponsorship money, with teams paying their own bills, but keeping any additional revenue. The league will try to slowly build regional fans and support. “This is not a cheap thing to do,” she explains. “And if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s curtains.”

Arleo claims he too knows what he’s doing with his WCFL, which currently only consists of the New York Gems. They played one game, a December 2, 50-12 exhibition loss to Douglas’s Sharks on Long Island. “I figured if I could have one game out at Hofstra,” he says, “put the team together, get the media attention, then it would domino to financing and we could just roll.”

Instead, he’s faced unreturned calls from potential sponsors and what he considers a surprising lack of interest. Despite no apparent grassroots demand for any women’s pro football league, Arleo says that his game plan—an eight-team Northeast league with a spring schedule, originally intended to start on April 1—makes smart business sense. What’s standing in his way, he says, is sexism.

Arleo freely acknowledges that without some $2 million in start-up money, he’s through. “It’s gone from an 800-pound gorilla to a 1200-pound gorilla,” he says

“I’m not saying ‘gender discrimination’ just to play the gender card,” Arleo continues. “I’m saying it because it’s true.” He says he’s approached local and national names—everyone from Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spano—about ownership or sponsorship of teams, all to no avail. “They don’t believe that women can play tackle football,” he surmises. “And even if they do, they don’t care, and they’re not interested enough to come out and give some financial support.”

Arleo downplays the suggestion that too many leagues may doom an already questionable business venture. “The WPFL’s sitting out either in Minnesota or Colorado. Catherine’s sitting down there in Nashville,” he says. “But I’m sitting 40 floors above Grand Central Station, and I shouldn’t be having these problems. I am in the sports and media capital of the world, and I’m not getting anywhere.”

Both new leagues could be bolstered by adding the WPFL’s New York Sharks, who’ve garnered positive and lengthy coverage in the local dailies and even a bit of national attention with a spot on Live! With Regis. Douglas says she’d be happy to keep her team in the WPFL if the league resolves its freshman woes. “It’s the only league that’s up and operating at this point. If things are presented well, I’ll certainly stay with them. But that doesn’t preclude me from listening to others.”

It’s hard not to hear Masters, something of a PR whiz. She’s landed her league positive mentions in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine (with a sumptuous photo spread), and elsewhere, even though they’ve yet to play a regular-season game and even though several of the franchises she initially said were firmly on board—Baltimore, Alexandria, and Pensacola, among others—haven’t actually handed over money yet.

All that, says Masters, will change in the next few weeks, as will the league’s financial backing; right now, the NWFL doesn’t have any major sponsors. “We’re actually working on several big ones,” Masters says. “I’m not at liberty to tell you.” But, she continues, adding to her relentlessly enthusiastic, continuously vague pitch, “one of them’s really cool.”