The Evolution of Women’s Football

It’s Super Bowl season so you can’t blame your Twitter timelines for being a little more football crazed than usual. But did you know that there exists a whole other side to America’s game? The women’s side…

Yup, contrary to popular Twitter belief, women do play full pads tackle football, and have been for a lot longer than most anyone would assume. Stick with us as we break down the evolution of women’s tackle football in all of it’s iterations. 

The Beginning

It’s no secret that the NFL has superseded the rank of “mainstream” entertainment, the league essentially owns a day of the week. But the sport’s longest standing secret, one it hasn’t even let many of its players in on, is that in the period between World War I and II, women’s tackle football was on the cusp of being a staple in the mainstream entertainment world. For roughly two decades, women’s football enjoyed what could be described as no less than a golden age. 

Though all that remains from the original glory days are the black and white photographs and short articles from magazines like Life and Click, the relics offer modern audiences clues as to how the sport went from mainstream to nearly extinct. Afterall, one of the articles that features the images was talking about the league expanding, just a few short months before it ceased operations. 

While it’s easy to assume that the league met its end as a result of public disapproval due to the sport already having been linked closely to masculinity, meaning the women who played were outwardly defying gender norms in a time in which such a thing wasn’t considered brave, it was simply seen as wrong. Yes, the public perception did play a small role in the league not being able to grow as it impeded the national coverage opportunities, the real reason for the end is more so closely connected to the reason the league started in the first place. 

In some of the most popular pictures and articles, you can see that one of the teams is called the Marshall Clampett Amazons, named after a local car dealership, which was the same name as a local softball team. At the time, softball games were considered a social hotspot, whose crowds would be dotted with celebrity faces. Upon further inspection, you can see that the players are the same across both Amazon teams. The rest of the football league was made up of teams in the same circumstance. 

Spread in Life Magazine courtesy of Getty Images

It turned out that the football league was started by one of the promoters of the softball league as a way to extend ticket sales through the off-season and capitalize on the popularity of athletes. And it worked. The football games drew crowds of up to 3000, which is a lot given that this was all happening within California in the 30s. 

The nature of the football players, them being dual sport athletes, can ultimately be linked to why the league folded, as they chose to pursue opportunities within softball. This is how the national perception and cultural disapproval can be considered to play a role. If the perception was a positive one, then whose to say which sport would have afforded its players more opportunities?

Fledgling Enterprises

Despite the end of the California league, avid football fans never stopped trying to revive the women’s game. The next attempt came in 1941 when a league began in Chicago, following much of the same ideas as the one from California. The players were largely sourced from softball teams and for the few games they played, they enjoyed much of the same success. The Chicago league ultimately folded due to the United States entering World War II. 

In 1965 Cleveland talent agent Sid Friedman founded the Women’s Professional Football League as a gimmick. Well, the joke was on him as the league lasted eight years. The league started with four teams, including the Canadian Belles of Toronto and in 1971 expanded to have both an East and West division. The two division format featured Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto, Toledo and Pittsburgh in the East and Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. 1973 marked the end of the WPFL due to financial troubles. Everyone ceased playing except for Toledo, who would move to the next league to pop up. 

The next iteration of a women’s football league came in 1974 by none other than Billie Jean King (yes, the tennis star). King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, which then spawned the inauguration of the first entirely pro league. The National Women’s Football League debuted with seven teams. Dallas, Fort Worth, Columbus, Detroit, Toledo, LA, and California all partook in the action. The NWFL would come to an end in 1979, at which point the Toledo Troopers held a record of 61-4 across their existence, a stat that would get them inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 as the winningest team in football history. 

Toledo Troopers team photo, courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library

After years of there being no new leagues, the Women’s Professional Football League was created in 1999. Though it started with only two teams, the Lake Michigan Minx and the Minnesota Vixens, it wound up growing into one of the most successful pro women’s leagues of all time. Multiple national media campaigns recognized the league, and one of the the New England Storm even had a commercial relationship with the New England Patriots. And if those weren’t enough broken glass ceilings, Jen Welter of the WPFL’s Dallas Diamonds went on to become the first woman to coach in the NFL. This league ended in 2007. 

In 2001, the National Women’s Football Association played its first season. Catherine Masters founded the league in 2000, having the league’s two cornerstone teams, the Alabama Renegades and Nashville Dream played each other in six exhibition games to get the hype going. The NWFA started as the NWFL but changed to Association after pressure from the NFL to change it as it too closely resembled the men’s league. Masters’ league folded in 2008. 

You were probably wondering when we would get to the Lingerie Football League. Well, here we are. In 2009 the LFL began play on a model inspired by an NFL halftime special called the Lingerie Bowl. In 2013 the league rebranded to the Legends Football League, all while maintaining their trademark look. LFL athletes played full-contact, regulation tackle football while wearing shoulder, knee, and elbow pads, helmets, cropped jerseys, and underwear. In 2019 the league announced it would be restructuring as the X League for the 2020 season. They have yet to play under the new name due to COVID-19 and are slated to resume in 2021. 

Current Leagues

In 2009 the Women’s Football Alliance opened its doors as a non-profit business model, a decision that has largely contributed to the league still being operational. The WFA boasts some of the most successful and long standing franchises in history and over 15 of their veterans have gone on to coach or scout for NFL teams, including Katie Sowers and Jennifer King. 

It goes without saying that the WFA has shattered multiple glass ceilings, but there are two that are particularly noteworthy. Firstly, they were the first women’s football league to play their National Championship game in an NFL stadium, a testament to the following the league had garnered. The WFA was also the first women’s football league to have their games broadcast on national television. 

There are three divisions across the WFA, as well as a travel team, and five new teams in development. The league is adamant about wanting to get to a place where their players no longer have to pay to play, stating on their about page that when they accomplish that they “will have tackled [the] final barrier and accomplished [their] vision for the game.”

The other league currently in action is the Women’s National Football Conference. The WNFC, established in 2018, is the first women’s football league to not charge players for the ability to play. They generate their income through branding, marketing, licensing, as well as events. The newest league in the women’s game announced a barrier-breaking partnership with Adidas on the brand’s “She Breaks Barriers” campaign. 

There were originally 15 teams who played in the league’s inaugural season in 2019, which is set to expand to 20 teams in 2021. The upcoming season is slated to be 10 weeks long, including multiple games on national broadcast schedules. 

Other Competitions

Outside of leagues, female football players have the opportunity to suit up for their countries and take part in IFAF’s World Championships. The first tournament took place in 2010 in Sweden and featured six teams. Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Germany all played in the tournament that drew respectable turnouts across all the action. The final, played between Canada and the States, was attended by 707 fans. Since the initial competition, the tournament has been played in Finland and Canada, and is slated to return to Finland in 2021. 

So there you have it, the evolution of women’s tackle football. While you’re enjoying your Super Bowl festivities, just remember that there is a whole other, often forgotten, side to the same sport we all love that truly deserves our attention and support.

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