King Kaufman's Sports Daily

As one of several championships is contested this weekend, women's pro football is still trying to find its footing.


Salon Staff
August 10, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Here's something I bet you didn't know: It's championship weekend.

The International Women's Football League Championship Game in Atlanta Saturday pits the hometown Xplosion against the Detroit Demolition in a rematch of last year's title game in Long Beach, Calif., which the Xplosion won 21-14.

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Women's pro tackle football doesn't get a lot of attention. A Google News search on "IWFL championship game" reveals three newspaper mentions since July 11. Searches on Detroit Demolition and Atlanta Xplosion don't pull up much more typing than that.

When Salon and this writer paid a visit to the nascent world of women's professional tackle football six years ago, the sport was going through its early, sorting-out phase.

Jodi "Moose" Armstrong, then a fullback for the Indianapolis Vipers, tried to list the various struggling leagues around the country. "There's the WAFL," she said, "there's the NWFL, there's the WSFL, there's the WFA, there's something else in the West, I forget what it's called. It's alphabet soup."

Six years later, the good news is -- well, there's a little less soup is all. There are still competing leagues, but there are only three major ones now. The IWFL and the National Women's Football Association play in the spring and summer. The Pittsburgh Passion won the NWFA title a few weeks ago. The Women's Professional Football League, which plays in the fall, opens its 2007 season Aug. 18.

So there are something like 75 teams, more than twice as many as in the NFL, and they're drawing from a talent pool that, shall we say, is a little smaller. Girls high school football, after all, doesn't exist, though a smattering of girls play on boys' teams.

The surviving leagues struggle to find players, fans, sponsors and money.

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"In a perfect world, I don't know if it's the NFL or somebody in the NFL is going to say, 'Here are the top 30 teams nationwide, here's some money, let's see what happens,'" says Moose, now known as Jodi Houglum and playing for her hometown team in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Vixen of the WPFL, the fall league.

"With all the leagues, you have the very good teams and the very bad teams," says Boo Hunter, a former offensive lineman with the California Quake who is women's football's chief chronicler on her Boo's Unofficial Guide to Women's Pro Football. "And then when you have those teams playing each other you get the 70-0 blowouts, which nobody likes and is not a lot of fun for the fans."

Hunter, a computer programmer by trade, says the various leagues haven't been able to "play nice together" because "there are different personalities and management styles, which, you know, isn't anybody's particular fault. But the current leagues, as they're running right now, they're never going to get together."

That means women's leagues will be competing not only against other niche sports but against each other until one emerges the strongest. The IWFL, whose championship game is Saturday, may be that league, Hunter says, though it's too early to tell for sure.

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"For the last two years the champions of the NWFA have gone to the other springtime league, the IWFL," she says, "which, you know, is interesting and you can draw your own conclusions about that, but it looks as though right now the IWFL is getting the top end of the springtime teams."

The IWFL also seems to be have made the most headway in terms of getting support from the NFL, though that's been at the level of individual teams rather than the league as a whole, as with the NBA-owned WNBA in basketball. The Seattle Majestics, for example, will play a postseason scrimmage at Qwest Field prior to a Seattle Seahawks exhibition game Aug. 25. The Arizona Cardinals provided game uniforms for the Tucson Monsoon last year.

The WPFL, the fall league, is the smallest of the three, with only 15 teams.

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"We're actually quite stable," Houglum says. "We've turned down some franchises we felt weren't quite ready for prime time, so to speak. As the years have gone by, we're attracting a better caliber of athlete. It's hard to balance the need for players with turning people away. For a long time we basically said, 'If you're breathing, come and try out,' but this year we actually cut a few people."

Houglum owns a printing and publishing business, but until recently worked for Wachovia Securities. She hit on the increasingly popular niche-sport idea of Green Bay Packers-style fan ownership, and she says the Vixen are hoping to raise at least $50,000 by selling off 49 percent of the team.

"Instead of having to have one person come in with 100 grand and risk his whole nut on something that's pretty crazy," she says, "why can't you say, 'Hey, you're a fan, you're my dad, you're my mom, you're my brother, give me 40 bucks? Own a share in the team, and maybe someday we'll make a little money.'"

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But probably not. Women's football mostly draws crowds in the hundreds, not the thousands and certainly not the tens of thousands. TV deals are nowhere in sight.

We live in a nichey entertainment world, one that's always looking for new options. Women playing tackle football -- "professional" is a misnomer: Most of the women end up paying to play -- is new, and while the quality is nothing like what most of us are used to watching on Saturdays and Sundays, at its best it's comparable to non-elite boys high school football.

While football is America's most popular sport, boxing would need to rally to die, but women's boxing is on TV all the time while women's football barely makes YouTube. What gives?

"The marketing sucks, quite frankly," Hunter says, though she admits there's not a big market for any women's team sport. "I can't say any of the leagues are doing a good job with marketing, because nobody knows we're out there, nobody knows when the good games are happening. Everyone thinks we're still powder puff."

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Houglum, 32, was a pioneer in the sport, playing for one of the first teams, an earlier version of the Vixen called the Minnesota Vixens, with an s. She says she's been frustrated at how the problems of those early days have persisted, but that she's heartened by what she calls steady growth.

"Not many of us make money," she wrote in an e-mail follow-up to our interview, "and many players still pay to play, but I think that's mitigated by the fact that we are still playing football. If these leagues didn't exist, if the owners hadn't decided to stick it out, that's 3,000 women nationwide who would no longer have a chance to make their gridiron dreams come true."

That may be the various women's "professional" football leagues' real niche, as a participatory sport.

"I'd like to think that it's not such a weird thing anymore for young girls to want to play team sports," Hunter, 43, says. "And God bless Title IX for that. Back when I was in high school, back in the dark ages, girls just didn't play sports. We've sort of had a whole generation grow up with that, that it's not such a weird thing to be a sporty chick."

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I asked Houglum where she honestly sees women's pro football in 10 years.

She said, "If we're still around -- you said be honest -- then I think that two if not all of the leagues have combined, and somehow we've got some big financial backing. Somebody stepping in.

"And if I win the lottery, I'll do it."

Previous column: Human rights and the Beijing Games

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