New York Shark Alice Wong gets ready

(WOMENSENEWS)–As a loan officer at First Choice Mortgage Company in Pearland, Texas, Melissa Ward, 28, is often dressed in business slacks and classy skirts.

But many Saturday afternoons, you can also catch her sporting the red and white uniform of Houston Energy, a women’s tackle football team.

“When I tell people that I play football, they look at me and say, ‘you’re too small,'” says Ward, who is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 145 pounds. “The other thing they say is, ‘you’re too girly.'”

But on Nov. 4, Ward and her 42 teammates looked anything but small and girly as they tackled the Dallas Diamonds for the championship title of the Women’s Professional Football League.

They lost by just seven points in what proved to be the closest women’s championship game to date. Thirteen of the players then rested a night, dusted off their uniforms and went on to play the next day in the first all-pro game featuring the league’s top players. (Although the women don’t make a living from the sport, the league refers to them as professionals.)

“It’s historic,” says Jody Taylor, media relations for the Women’s Professional Football League, “because it’s the first time an organized women’s pro football all-star game has happened.” Although the Belmont, Texas-based league had hoped to hold an all-pro game in the past, Taylor said budgeting difficulties made it impossible. This year, increased donations from private donors–and the willingness of participating players to subsidize the game–made it a reality.

Organized Sport Started for Women in 1960s

Women’s football has been kicking around as early as the 1920s, but initially it was little more than an entertaining gimmick, akin to mud wrestling. Women’s games were featured as entertainment at everything from masquerade balls to NFL halftime specials.

Melissa Ward of the Houston Energy

But when Cleveland talent agent Sid Friedman started a women’s semi-professional tackle league in the mid-1960s, it quickly caught steam, growing to include teams in Toronto, Buffalo, Toledo and Pittsburgh. Competing leagues started up, but all soon faltered due to financial difficulties.

Women’s football experienced a resurgence in 1999, when an exhibition game was staged at the Minneapolis Metrodome. The match’s success led to the first Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL) season in 2000, with 11 teams competing nationwide, followed by the formation of the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) and the National Women’s Football League (now the National Women’s Football Association, or NWFA).

Membership grew over the years. In 2000, the WPFL had 11 teams, while the Independent Women’s Football League had four and the National Women’s Football Association had just two. Six years later, the leagues feature 15, 30 and 37 teams respectively.

The three leagues are characterized by administrative and ideological differences, playing in different seasons and prompting disputes over which follows NFL rules most closely.

Sufficient recognition and funding, however, continue to elude women’s football.

Brian Wiggins, the coach of Houston Energy, which plays in the WPFL, recently purchased the team, but declined to reveal the price. After coaching them for two years, Wiggins says he was impressed by the women’s ability, and that he “just fell in love.”

To meet the cost of staging games and traveling, he requires his all-volunteer squad to raise $1,600 apiece. Wiggins, who owns the Pearland, Texas-based First Choice Mortgage Company, estimates that his own out-of-pocket expenses will run upwards of $10,000 for the year.

“It’s all for the love of the game,” Wiggins says. “Nobody’s getting rich here.”

Players Fund the Play

Andra Douglas, owner of the New York Sharks, an IWFL team, also puts her own money into the sport.

Douglas, who grew up watching the Miami Dolphins in Florida, played semi-professional golf and college rugby, but football was always her first love.

After she moved to New York in 1983, Douglas joined the Long Island Sharks, an amateur flag football team–a version of American football in which players remove flags from their opponents in lieu of tackling them.

After the 1999 formation of the WPFL, the team decided to change its name to the New York Sharks and give tackle a shot.

“We thought someone would purchase us,” said Douglas, who was then vice president of creative services at the New York-based Time Warner media company. “It’s New York, and we had a good record. But nobody wanted us. So that’s when I took the money out of my 401(k).”

The cost of keeping the Sharks afloat runs as high as $85,000 a year. The biggest expenses are related to travel, field rental, Web page maintenance, referee costs and coach salaries. This year, Douglas paid her six coaches a total of $5,000, which, she says, “probably covered their gas and tolls.”

Right now, the Sharks are aiming to break even. Tickets cost $12 apiece. The Sharks usually sell a couple of hundred, mostly on game day. Sponsors are “mom and pop shops,” Douglas says, “people we know.”

The Sharks themselves cough up most of the budget. Players are required to raise an average of $700 apiece; they do so by selling tickets and merchandise and soliciting personal donations. Some simply write a personal check, while those who can’t reach their quota receive help from the rest of the team. Funding mostly “still comes from the National Bank of Andra,” says Douglas, who says she supplies about half of the $85,000 annual budget herself.

Bids for NFL Support Pay Off

Along with other teams, the New York Sharks has made repeated efforts to garner NFL support. And the male-dominated NFL is slowly beginning to respond.

When Douglas recently approached the NFL about funding the first junior player development program for girls and run by women, for instance, the league agreed.

“Forty percent of our fans are women,” says Cedric Jones, senior director of youth football at the NFL. “Women buy 70 percent of our product. A lot of the households around the country are now owned by women. So we try to provide an opportunity for women to have a firsthand view of the game and to understand the game.”

But the free program, set to take place in the Bronx last September, failed to kick off. Organizers invited female teens aged 14 to 17 to explore various positions in the game while emphasizing character development and life skills. The Houston Energy in play.

The NFL, poised to commit equipment, uniforms and funding at a cost of about $60,000 for the three-day event, required at least 120 participants and Douglas and her team only managed to recruit about 30. For now, the program has been postponed to allow more time for recruiting and is tentatively set to run in February or March.

One teen who expressed interest is 16-year-old Samantha Valdez. She plays softball and basketball, and just finished her second summer with PowerPlay at the YMCA in Manhattan, a group that encourages girls’ participation in sports and provides them with female mentors.

Valdez–who attends Washington Irving High School in the Bronx–says she’s “kinda sad” the program has been postponed because she’s afraid it won’t run at all. She isn’t aware of another venue in which she can explore her interest in football.

Professional players like Ward–who was a high school cheerleader but really wanted to be on the field with her two brothers–can relate.

“I was a little envious,” Ward says. “If they’d had girls’ football, I would have played.”

Rachel Jones is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is currently living and working in Caracas, Venezuela.

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For more information:

“Women’s Pro Football Teams Having Growth Spurt”:

“Woman’s Place: On Couch, Watching Superbowl”:

New York Sharks:

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