Director of NAL Coverage
Female football is a sport that currently doesn’t have much mainstream exposure and in my mind, the sport doesn't get a fair chance. When the most well known league in your sport, the Legends Football League (LFL) is known for using its players looks to sell tickets, you realize the microcosm of the sport you see may not be a fair representation of what female football truly is. The sport is much older than most people know, with the first account of female football dating back in 1926 with the Frankford Yellow Jackets having the female games during halftime. Ever since then, the sport has grown.
However, I want to talk about female arena football, a female category of what is already considered a niche in itself. The Arena Football League (AFL) had its test season in 1986, but it would take until February 1, 2004 for female football to hit the mainstream. What event catapulted the sport of female football into mainstream culture you may ask, why that would be the pay-per-view event during the Super Bowl halftime known as the Lingerie Bowl. The name leaves little to the imagination. Team Dream battled Team Euphoria as scantily clad women battled in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as Team Dream won six to zero. One of the main draws of the Lingerie Bowl was the looks of the female players. Interestingly enough if the fans of the game were looking for attractive females to gawk over they could have seen the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction free of charge. The Lingerie Bowl was played on and off until 2009 when the Lingerie Football League (now the Legends Football League) formed from the annual bowl game. However, this wasn’t the first or last time a female broke into the world of indoor football.
The first female player to play in a professional indoor football game was Abby Vestal who kicked for the Kansas Koyotes of the American Professional Football League in 2007, scoring her first points via three extra points on April, 23 of her debut season. Two female kickers popped up in the Continental Indoor Football League (CIFL). The first of which was Katherine Hndia (the first ever female to score in an NCAA Division I-A game) kicked for the Fort Wayne FireHawks for three games that season before being released due to a developing blood clot in her kicking leg. That same CIFL season Julie Harshbarger (which is a great last name for a football player by the way) began her kicking career as she played for the Chicago Cardinals. She continued playing through the 2016 season when she played for Champion Indoor Football’s Chicago Eagles.
Possibly, the most famous example of a female playing indoor football is former Arizona Cardinal assistant coaching intern and current Atlanta Legends defensive specialist Dr. Jennifer Welter. On February 15, 2014 she first took the field as a running back for the then Indoor Football League member Texas Revolution during a preseason game against the North Texas Crunch where she ran the ball three times for negative one yard. She made the Revolution’s regular season roster and would later become their linebackers and special teams coach, making her the first female coach in a male professional league.
There have been many female indoor players, but there once was a daring league that tried to dethrone the LFL as the top indoor female league. In 2012 the Women’s Arena Football League (WAFL) had its inaugural season. They were a more family friendly alternative to the LFL. With six teams the league took the field to chase the Diva Bowl (the league’s championship game name). The WAFL decided to have its players wear normal football attire instead of the LFL’s more provocative outfits that included bikini wear. Sadly, even with this family friendly brand in mind the league folded after one season with the Houston Lady Oilers being the only champions.
In 2018 Gregg Fornario of the West Virginia Roughriders started Professional Arena Football (PAF) alongside New England Cavalry owner Kevin James. After not finding suitable teams for the PAF, the league folded with the Roughriders returning to the American Arena League. Out of the ashes of the PAF rose the New England Arena League (NEAL). One of the many features that makes the upstart NEAL stand out is its Women’s Division. I reached out to Mr James about trying to establish a female indoor division, he said “I’m actually one of the parties trying to establish a WAFL.” When asked about players getting paid unlike the LFL he said, “One-hundred percent these ladies would be paid. I can’t say if its 100 bucks a game… or 500 bucks a game. Our goal is to follow the markets calling for it. If it makes money. Ya know? If it doesn’t make money it doesn’t make cents…”
One of the LFL’s draws is it’s football being played by scantily clothed women. When I inquired about the uniforms Mr. James said, “...No booty shorts… real helmets, not hockey helmets, real shoulder pads. Not hockey or lacrosse pads. Arena football for women… legit just like the males.” Another topic I brought up with Mr. James was naming the teams. I have seen names like the Rock Hill Lady Raiders who play in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), DC Divas (also of the WFA), San Diego Seduction (a former LFL team), Los Angeles Temptation (a current LFL team) and something that made me curious is why so many of them market themselves of female football instead of football played by females. I asked Mr. James what kind of names he wouldn't take. In response to my inquiry he said “...We wouldn’t take derivative names. Lady Patriots wouldn’t be allowed…” I asked him about names that could be considered suggestive like the Seaside Babes. Mr. James gave the logical answer of “We are pretty open-minded… but we only want legit brands and logos. Stuff we would want to sell and wear ourselves. I think babes we would consider… We don’t want the women’s rights groups coming after us. Or PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). We wouldn’t use names like rabbit killers…”
I reached out to Manouchka Nikki Joseph of the WFA’s Cali War. I asked her if she would consider playing indoor football if it meant better pay. She said, “Possibly, at least experience like the guys. I wished we had a combine! That [would] be super cool.” I have reached out to the LFL about paying their talent but they have not responded. Manouchka cleary has passion for the game. She said, “I’m 43 and still play like I’m 27… Actually 27 all the time…” She later continued “I’m just a player who just wanted to try it and fell in love playing it. I’m just trying to make room for my future.” When I inquired about her thoughts on the LFL not currently paying its players she said, “They play now with us. [The] LFL limited the big girls from playing. My leagues have room for all shapes and size.”
I was happy to interview Raksha M. Bethencourt, a linebacker for the Orlando Phantoms of the Florida Champion Football League (FCFL). When I explained the concept of a non LFL style female arena league and asked if she would support it Ms. Bethencourt was ecstatic. “Of course! The real question is, are they modeling it after mens arena football? Do the players get paid? What kind of facilities are being supplied? If we aren't getting paid, what the cost to play?”
I explained that players will be paid although the dollar value is not yet known and the ladies would wear normal uniforms unlike the LFL. Rakasha is very much pushing for equality. She said, “I'd say, if we can get the same treatment as the opposite sex, then I'm all for it. I think it would be a huge breakthrough for women everywhere.” One of the big talking points I brought up was how to convince people that non LFL female arena football exists. Raksha said “Dr. [Jen] Welter’s involvement would be crucial. She's been doing this for so long and has so much credibility that I think a lot of female football players would follow her. I know I would.” As far as the time of year to play she said, “I think a good way [to market ourselves] would be to play the season during the off season of mens season. We could have the [Alliance of American Football] AAF, women's football, college and then [National Football League] NFL. Who wouldn't love football all year long?” Considering Raksha is breaking gender barriers in the FCFL I felt obligated to ask her if the would consider joining this hypothetical women's arena league after fulfilling her commitment to the Phantoms. She said: “If it would allow me the ability to provide for my family AND further my abilities in football then, yes. No doubt.”
Female indoor football is a very untapped section of indoor football that I hope to see given the representation and legitimacy it deserves. With female football as a whole growing it only is a matter of time before the arena world gets a non- gimmicked version of female arena football.