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8/19/2010

News

Balls out
Lingerie Football League brings guts and garters to Orlando

 

Under the sweltering summer sun on a playing field in south Orlando, a group of young women in workout shorts and sports bras stands in a loose huddle, focused on their coach. They’re all long legs, lean bodies and ponytails; from a distance you can catch a glimmer of nail polish or the glint of an earring that catches a ray of sun. They could easily be mistaken for cheerleaders, but when the girls break with a shout and take their positions on the field, it’s clear that they aren’t here to support the players – they are the players.

A whistle blows, the football is snapped. There’s some bumbling action, then a strong pass clears the herd. The ball flies through the air until it’s intercepted by a player who takes off running. She doesn’t get far before being stopped by the defense – no tackling, though, because the women aren’t wearing protective gear or uniforms. That’ll come later. This is just a tryout-camp practice being held by the newest sports team to debut in Orlando. 

The women playing football here today hope that this fall they will don the gear of the Orlando Fantasy: blue-and-white helmets and shoulder pads, and bras, panties and garter belts adorned with the team’s logo – fuzzy, white angel wings, similar to the ones worn by the women in Victoria’s Secret commercials. 

The Fantasy is one of 12 teams that play in the Lingerie Football League, an all-women’s tackle-football organization founded by a man named Mitch Mortaza, who has said in interviews that he created it due to “overwhelming demand from fans all across the country and the desire of thousands of women that wanted the opportunity to play football.” 

“It’s about women taking over a man’s game,” says a blond-haired beauty in a promotional commercial posted at the Lingerie League’s website (www.lflus.com) “This is our game now.”

Perhaps – but only under certain conditions, created by the men who run the league: The women must play in skimpy uniforms, for instance, and unlike players on men’s football teams, they’ve got to be fit and lean and pleasing for the cameras in order to make the team. They play for teams with seductive-sounding names like the Bliss, the Desire and the Temptation, and according to player contracts posted on thesmokinggun.com, they must acknowledge that accidental nudity sometimes comes with the territory.

Since the final lineup for the team hadn’t been announced by press time, the LFL allowed several finalists to talk to the press and have their photos taken for this story. Tiffani Hardin, for instance. The 20-year-old beauty is a model and a junior in clinical psychology at the University of Central Florida who says she’s played tackle ball with boys since she was a kid. Her dad was a football coach, she says, and he made her do it. It was his idea that she try out for the Fantasy. She’s one of the few here who has ever worn real football gear, much less played the game

Lenni Michaels and Brenna LeMaster, both in their early 20s, say they have always been athletic and played competitively, but they’ve never had a chance to play football. The LFL is their chance to be both sexy and athletic; neither consider the uniform to be too revealing and compare it to a bathing suit you’d wear to the beach. Both say their parents aren’t worried about the uniforms their daughters will be wearing this season – they’re more concerned about the potential for injury.

This year the LFL, with teams in Dallas, Miami, Tampa, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle and Los Angeles, expanded into two new markets: Orlando and Baltimore. The Orlando Fantasy kicks off its first four-game season this fall, with two home games played at the UCF Arena.

The inaugural season of the Fantasy is a test – for the league, the venue, the fans and the athletes. In today’s sports world, there is no question that women can play tough, competitive games and that female athletes are hungry for opportunities. But finding enough audience to sustain women’s sports can prove challenging. While women’s teams have enjoyed some success in other sports – basketball, for instance – women playing tackle football has been a slow sell to American spectators groomed by the NFL to see the sport as the ultimate man’s game. The Lingerie Football League hopes to change that – sort of. It plans to carve out a niche for women’s football by teasing spectators into the sport using a time-honored formula: sex and violence. 

itch Mortaza is tall and tan – in photos, he looks the playboy type in his dark suits, expensive shades and shirts unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. 

The Las Vegas businessman was in Orlando this summer, sweating it out on the field alongside potential Fantasy players during the team’s second phase of tryouts.

“It doesn’t take a prick like me to tell you what’s happening,” he barks at the women, some of whom obviously aren’t up to his standards for the league. “Why are you working six hours a day, under the sun, if you’re not committed to getting yourself in shape? We have national TV – are you fucking out of your minds? We’ve canceled games over this!”

He dismisses them for the day, inviting most to come back; he shit-cans others, though, because they aren’t in respectable enough shape for LFL camera close-ups.

For Mortaza, this isn’t harsh; it’s business. To play for the LFL, he says, you have to have three things: “Beauty, athleticism and confidence.” And it has to be the whole package – that, he says, is the key to making the game sell to its prospective fanbase, which is mostly beer-drinking college students aged 21 and up; the live audience attracts the younger crowd, he says, while the home viewer skews slightly older. Mortaza is not just promoting a game, but a special brand of female athlete – scantily clad hotties who can lure men in with their bodies while playing a full-contact sport, but keep viewers’ interest throughout the game by proving they can kick ass on the field. 

“You may come in the door lured by the sex appeal,” Mortaza says, “but you’ll leave blown away by the competition.” 

Mortaza says he started the LFL with a silent partner; the idea came to him when he was attending the Super Bowl in 2003. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing the Oakland Raiders, and Mortaza noticed at halftime that people were leaving their seats rather than watching the entertainment – they wanted more football. In 2004, he launched the Lingerie Bowl, in which women played tackle football in their underwear, as a pay-per-view halftime special. It has been broadcast as a pay-per-view special during Super Bowl halftimes ever since and its popularity is what urged him to turn the once-a-year event into an actual league with real teams and a scheduled playing season. The league played its first full season last year. 

This, says Mortaza, who grew up playing football and worked in sports promotion before starting the LFL (he was also once a contestant on the TV show Blind Date), is what draws people to watch women play the sport. He acknowledges that there are some women’s leagues, such as the Independent Women’s Football League, trying to make a go of it by playing games the traditional way – no gimmicks – but “nobody’s ever heard of them.” Why?

“When it comes to football,” he says, “there’s a ceiling for what women can do with it.” 

omen have played tackle football in the United States since 1926, and they’ve always been treated like sideline entertainment. Lack of funding usually killed the pioneering teams that tried to get audiences to take them seriously – or even just attend their games. The concept of all-female football leagues fizzled until 1965, when a Cleveland, Ohio, talent agent formed the mildly successful semi-pro Women’s Professional Football League. The WPFL enjoyed some moderate success and had teams in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Bowling Green. Still, historical reports say that founder Sid Friedman started the league as a gimmick more than as a serious sports venture. 

In 1970, Patricia Barzi Palinkas broke through the gender barrier when she became the first woman to play on a men’s semi-pro team, the Orlando Panthers. But it wasn’t until the 1972 passage of Title IX, federal legislation that required schools to provide equal programming for girls and boys, including in athletics, that girls even began to get the basic training they’d need to become truly competitive in sports at college and pro levels. 

After Title IX, a succession of women’s football leagues formed, dissolved and reformed. Currently the reigning organizations are the Independent Women’s Football League, established in 2001, which has 51 teams playing in the U.S. and Canada; and the Women’s Football Alliance formed in 2009 with 41 teams, some of which were drawn away from the IWFL. Globally, women’s football has seen some growth as well: USA Football, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of youth and international amateur football, sponsored a women’s team at the debut International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in Sweden. The team won the gold.

According to Steve Alic, director of communications for USA Football, women’s tackle football is gaining ground.

“Professional women’s leagues have been in existence for longer than 10 years,” he says. Still, he says, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for women to make it at a professional level in the sport. Even for young men, he says, it’s a daunting numbers game: “Let’s say there are 3 million [male] youth tackle players,” he says. “You have 1.14 million high school players, 60,000 in college in all divisions, and then there are 1,600 NFL players.”

He says that only a “small slice” of male youth players ever get to play football at the pro level; there are even fewer opportunities for women, though he says the game is “evolving.”

ome of that evolution is taking place right here in Orlando, which already has a professional women’s football team. The Central Florida Anarchy, whose members dress in traditional tackle-football gear, are a WFA team that plays 11-on-11 under modified NFL rules on a 50-yard outdoor field. On summer evenings, you can often catch a glimpse of the women playing in their green-and-yellow uniforms at Barnett Park or the Central Florida Fairgrounds. 

This year the team didn’t make WFA league championships, but one of their players, seven-year pro-tackle star Andrea Snead, was picked to be on the WFA’s first-string all-star team. Unfortunately, during the Anarchy’s last game of the season – a fierce matchup against the Tampa Bay Pirates on the swampy playing fields at Barnett Park – the 41-year-old Snead tore a ligament in her knee and was forced to sit out the all-star game. 

“It’s a big disappointment,” she says. “But there’s always next year.”

Three other teammates were chosen as second-string all-stars – wide receiver Shannon Heinz, tight end Mimi Greenwood and corner Paulette Jackson – but none of the players could afford the $500-per-head travel costs to go to the league’s all-star games in Las Vegas. 

That’s because the Anarchy, unlike men’s pro players, do not have funding to back them. The team is self-funded – the players, coaches and officials are all volunteers who do their part for the love of the game. In contrast, the 20 women who will secure contracts from the LFL to play for the Orlando Fantasy will be paid – each player will receive a percentage of the money taken in at the gate, and the rest goes to the league. Though Mortaza refused to confirm specifics about compensation for his players, some of the women trying out for the team say they were told winning teams would split 20 percent of the take among the teammates; losing teams would split 10 percent of the door. Mortaza says his payment strategy motivates the women in the LFL to play harder. 

Sue Plowden, executive director and a player for the Anarchy, says it actually costs her players to participate in the team – they pay approximately $1,000 to play for a season. That covers the $350 they pay for registration, $100 for uniforms and costs associated with field rentals and referees. The women also pay their own travel expenses for out-of-town games and contribute to cover travel costs for the coaches. In addition, all players must provide their own health insurance – particularly important since injuries are expected in a full-contact sport.  

The team doesn’t have hordes of commercial sponsorships, which is one way professional athletes make money to support themselves, so Plowden worked out a deal with the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to let the Anarchy sell concessions for a percentage of the take. That brought in approximately $2,500 this season; she’s working on a similar deal at the Amway Arena. Income from ticket sales, she says, added up to about $1,000.

It costs about $36,000 per season to run the Anarchy, says coach Tony Chaves, who’s been with the team for six years. “You can imagine how much hustling my kids have to do to make that money,” he says. 

Despite the relative poverty of the team, its players are proud of their accomplishments – and Chaves is proud of them.  

In a post-season letter of appreciation to his team, Chaves expressed his desire to see the Anarchy grow to the point that the team is truly an all-female endeavor: “The total evolution of this team will only come about when us guys are nothing more than fans. That has always been my ultimate goal. I’ve never made that a secret.”

Despite the frustrations of playing for an unfunded team on an underfunded league, players for the Anarchy won’t compromise to make a buck. Several members of the team were invited to Lingerie tryouts in May, including Plowden. 

“We all chose not to go,” she says. “The biggest thing was the uniform.” She’s quick to note that it’s not just that some of the Anarchy players don’t have the body types to suit LFL regulations. “We’re trying to promote the authentic game of football,” she says.

Chaves, however, is not shy about expressing his feelings about the LFL. He says he has “a very big problem” with the league.

“They are everything that is wrong with the sport I love,” he says. “They are making a mockery out of a game I have played since I was 16.”

However, not even Chaves has an answer for how to drum up more engagement and involvement in women’s sports. He says there’s a stigma attached to women’s sports that’s hard to shake – it keeps spectators and sponsors at bay, making it difficult for the teams to achieve the kind of financial success enjoyed by men’s teams. Some people, he says, question the notion that women can play truly competitive, physical tackle ball at all, despite evidence to the contrary, which can be seen at games played by teams like the Anarchy all the time. 

“What is particular to female athletes is that they bear an additional burden of having to constantly justify their game,” author Anna Clark wrote in an April 23 article on homophobia and women’s sports at Salon.com. “Women’s sports are compelled to prove again and again that they are worthy of attention, fans and funding.” One of the reasons for this, Clark noted, is homophobia. As an example, she cites the fact that for many years Penn State University’s head basketball coach, Rene Portland, instituted a strict “no lesbians” policy for the school’s Lady Lions team. Clark wrote that Portland “curiously defended [it] as a strategy to take the stigma of lesbianism out of women’s sports.”

In 2002 the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about the city’s Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Orlando Miracle, taking out ads in local gay publication Watermark and in the souvenir publication for the city’s Gay Days celebration “despite public comments two years ago that they would target mainly family and youth groups.” The Orlando Miracle were sold by their owner, the Orlando Magic, to a casino in Connecticut in 2003.

ot many experts consulted for this story, including Alic, had even heard of the Lingerie Football League. Mary Jo Kane, longtime director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, had to be brought up to speed on the league before she could respond to questions about it. After doing her homework, she has some harsh words for Mortaza’s strategy. 

“I am not so naïve as to not believe that the LFL might attract male viewers,” she says, “but it doesn’t have anything to do with sports. It has to do with soft pornography and selling sex to a market.” 

Kane is an expert on Title IX past and present, and her expertise recently earned her a seat on the ESPN advisory panel. She has long been outspoken on the long-term negative impact of sexualizing of female athletes, including in media coverage. Despite Mortaza’s claim that sex appeal can draw fans to the games, she insists that over the long term sex “doesn’t sell women’s sports.” In fact, she says, the opposite is true.   

“It alienates the core fan base [for women’s sports],” she says, “which tends to be women, dads with daughters and older men who are interested in women’s athletic competence, not how they fill out the bikini.”

Mortaza dismisses Kane’s critiques. He says that dads are already bringing their daughters to watch LFL games, and that the skimpy-uniform tactic has already worked for pro beach volleyball, in which women are required to wear bathing suits as uniforms. “Give me a break,” he complains. 

Kane insists that the path to success for women’s sports is not all that different than in men’s: She points out that Division 1 college basketball is the most successful women’s sport to date. “They have legendary coaches and TV coverage,” she says. “They sell competence, athleticism, tradition, rivalry … and they are doing just fine in terms of interest, fan base, attendance, corporate sponsors and TV contracts. It’s not rocket science.” 

ccording to Mortaza, the LFL has close ties to the NFL, but there’s no “official affiliation.” However, with the exception of Orlando and Los Angeles, Mortaza strategically set his teams up in cities that have an existing NFL presence, and there have been reports in the media that he would eventually like to sell his teams to existing NFL franchises – which is exactly what the WNBA did with its teams before it folded. 

Though the LFL is only moving into its second season, Mortaza claims it has been a success. One league game is played per week, and they are broadcast via webcasts from the LFL website. The league, he says, “made more than we lost” in its 2009 inaugural season. It launched with 10 teams and hopes to build on that success with its new teams in Baltimore and Orlando. It hasn’t all gone smoothly, though: Two of the original 10 teams – Denver and New York – have been “suspended due to not having adequate arenas to play in” for the season, says Stephon McMillen, LFL media director. 

All has not been well in Orlando, either. Mortaza had to add a second tryout camp late in July, because he wasn’t yet satisfied with the quality of applicants who tried out for the team the first time around. The second camp was needed just to fill the roster. 

 Two Fantasy coaches were fired before they could even get started shaping the team: Ben Bennett, a former star quarterback with the Orlando Predators, left in early June, reportedly due to a personality clash with Mortaza; his replacement was Orlando Predators defensive specialist Kenny McEntyre, who was fired in late June after a cut player complained about inappropriate behavior. Mortaza says he has never had problems like this with coaches before, and he takes the blame for “lack of judgment of character” for the problems. As of press time, no coach has been announced for the upcoming season. 

Although the Fantasy will call the UCF Arena their home this season, UCF spokesman Grant Heston makes it clear that there is no relationship between the LFL and the university. The LFL, he says, has simply rented the space.

“The Arena has made no commitments beyond those two games,” he says, “and none will be made without a thorough review by UCF and Global Spectrum, the company that manages the arena and books events.”

As of mid-August, the LFL still doesn’t have a list of players up on its website; nor has it announced who the coach is going to be. The team plays its first game on Sept. 24 at UCF. 

At 31, Jeanette McCoy is one of the older women hoping to be on the field that day. She says she’s never played football before, but she trained hard enough in two and a half weeks to make it through the second tryout camp.

McCoy is a personal trainer and the mother of a 7-year-old, and she says she feels at home in this mashup of sex and aggressive sport. She says she takes issue with those who say LFL players have sullied the sport by taking their clothes off. She says the LFL is a place where she can be herself – feminine but competitive. Hard but soft. 

“You are all a completely different breed of animal,” Mortaza belts out at the women, getting them pumped for competition.

“Bring on the pain,” says McCoy, and she gets ready to play some ball.

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