Holly Custis was in agony.
It was a Monday evening in March and she was sitting in a Seattle-area hospital room waiting for the painkillers to kick in. Her left kneecap had swollen to the the size of a small melon. Despite the pain, she was hopeful. She didn’t remember hearing the telltale pop! of a break, only a sharp “lightning-type pain” and then waves of pain so fierce she fought to catch her breath.
X-rays and MRI scans later revealed the 33-year-old human resource officer had fractured her left femur and tore two ligaments, the thick strands of muscle that hold the bones in the knee together.
Broken bones and torn ligaments aren’t on the list of hazards human resources officers typically face on a daily basis. But Custis has a side job. For the last 10 years, she’s played competitive women’s tackle football, devoting her evenings and weekends to three-hour practices, away games, and training camps. Over the course of her football career, Custis has torn her MCL, sliced her nose open and been stitched back together too many times to count. Not including her latest injury, which required five-and-a-half hours of surgery and will mean 10 months of recovery time, she’s paid several thousand dollars to cover medical expenses even with health insurance.
“People have this misconception that we play powderpuff football and because we’re women it’s somehow easier. It’s not,” Custis says. “This is legit 11-man, shoulder pads and helmets, full tackle, knock-you-on-your-ass football.”
Custis doesn’t get paid to play, nor do any of the more than 3,000 women playing in amateur tackle football leagues across the country. Each season, Custis scrounges up the funds she needs — fees for players range from $500 to $2,000, depending on how well the team fundraises or sells tickets — to finance another season. The funds are pooled by team managers and used to rent practice fields, venues for games and cover some travel expenses for away games. If teams make it into the playoffs, they have to quickly come up with enough funds to finance their travel to and from the games, which are often played against teams in other states.
“It’s difficult for everybody unless you’re in a position where you can pay for [expenses] out of pocket,” says Custis. “You learn to figure your way around it.”
As the 2016 women’s tackle football season kicks off April 2, Yahoo Finance spoke with players and coaches about what it takes to keep the sport going.
A tale of two leagues
Amateur players in any sport typically pay to play, but for amateur women tackle football players, many are hungry for more — the chance of playing at a professional level. That kind of progress could be decades away for the fledgling sport, which really only took off in the early 2000s and has had some significant growing pains already.
“A sport needs to develop for 40 years sometimes to get to the point where it starts generating financial revenue and being successful,” says Sam Rapoport, director of programs for USA Football, the governing body for professional football in the U.S. “Women’s tackle football still has some growth to do.”
The greatest barrier has been the fact that there are two competing leagues, the Women’s Football Alliance and the Independent Women’s Football League. If women are one day paid to play sports like tackle football at a professional level, they’ll need support not only from fans but from media sponsors who want to broadcast their games and brands that will line up to buy advertising. Having dual leagues makes it much harder for teams to score advertisements and sponsorship deals.
“The challenge when media want to cover their games is, well, which league do they cover? How do you decide which is the better league?” Rapoport says. “We need to overcome that before we can do anything else.”
Stalemating any potential for a merger is the fact that the leagues have been in an ongoing turf war over the last seven years, right around the time the WFA was founded and began poaching top players and entire teams from the IWFL’s roster.
It was her disenchantment with the way teams were managed in the IWFL that lead Lisa King to co-found the Women’s Football Alliance with her husband in 2009. She had played for years in the Los Angeles area. “We wanted to make it more affordable for these teams to compete,” King says.
King says she thought the IWFL was making it more expensive than necessary for players to form new teams. “It was great for older women with careers, but the 20-year-olds coming out of college weren’t able to afford to play,” King says. They began charging teams $2,000 in startup fees to compete with the IWFL, which at the time charged $2,000 to $6,700. IWFL has lowered their fees since then but WFA quickly became the bigger league with 44 teams to IWFL’s 36. Due to the tensions between league leaders, teams from opposing leagues do not often play one another.
Still, King is open to the idea of a merger, she says. “It would be a great thing for women’s football if it were to happen. It would decrease costs for the teams … and it just makes perfect sense.”
Talks between the two leagues about a potential merger briefly gained momentum in 2014 but sputtered when IWFL chief operating officer Kezia Disney declined to move forward. In emails viewed by Yahoo Finance, Disney contends that the leagues’ differing rules and scheduling conflicts would be too difficult to work out.
Yahoo Finance made several attempts to contact Disney. She referred us to Laurie Frederick, the IWFL CEO, but attempts to reach Frederick failed as well.
“There’s no love lost between the two leagues, that's for sure,” King says.
The chances of attracting sponsors would greatly improve if the leagues could combine their marketing and branding strategies. Nat Latman, co-owner of the Houston Woodlands Wildcats, says the popularity of the Lingerie Football League, in which women play football in underwear and sports bras (for the record, they aren’t paid either) has hurt other leagues’ hopes of breaking into the mainstream. The Lingerie League is the only women’s tackle football league to get any consistent media coverage.
“[The sport] doesn’t get the respect that it deserves,” he says. “Whenever I call anywhere for anything, a field, for sponsorships, I have to throw a disclaimer out that our girls are full tackle, full pads, and we don't play in lingerie.”
Branding issues aside, the competing leagues have crowded the field in some markets. Latman is still surprised the IWFL gave its approval when he decided to co-found his team, making it the third tackle women’s football team in Houston last summer. “Should there really three teams in Houston? No,” he says. “But because there are two competing leagues, no league wants to lose a team to the other, so they say OK and the bar [for new teams] gets lowered.” When players get fed up with a team’s progress or don’t like their coaches’ styles, they can scrape together the $2,000 fee it takes to start a new team, hold tryouts and have a new team in a matter of months.
Team managers have tried their own strategies to lower costs for players. Latman and his head coach, Laurie Cantu, began fundraising for their first season a year in advance. Players sign up to volunteer to run concession stands at local sports venues and the team sells sponsorships to local businesses from $50 to $10,000 (most sponsorships are under $2,000, he says).
Their combined efforts were enough to come up with the $30,000 needed to fund the season. Players pay a $500 deposit for uniforms and equipment, which is refundable.
Ultimately, no matter how teams decide to play the game, the end goal is the same: to make it easier for the next generation of women athletes. “These women train just as hard as the men and they really deserve the recognition,” King says. “They pay for their own season and they’re able to juggle careers, families, and still train to play at a high level.”
The Boston Renegade
Women’s tackle football is a tough concept for mainstream football fans — and most people in general — to wrap their heads around. People are usually so incredulous about the sport that Adrienne Smith began keeping photos and videos of her team, the Boston Renegades, on her phone as proof. “People are flabbergasted,” she says.
Smith grew up watching football with her dad, who would set up her teddy bear, Ginger, in front of the TV while they watched games together. When a player made a tackle, Smith tackled Ginger. She played football with her cousins and dabbled in powderpuff football at her high school in Alexandria, Va. The thought of playing tackle football full-time never occurred to her until 2005, when, grieving over the recent death of her mother, she saw a listing for tryouts for a team in New York. By that time she was in business school at Columbia University. The team became something of a life preserver.
“It was a good decision for me physically and it helped me with my depression,” she says. “I also met women who would become some of my best friends for years.”
Smith still lives in New York City, where she runs her own business, a Harlem tour company, and plays wide receiver for the Boston Renegades. The commitment means a five-hour bus ride at least once a week for practice, which begins in January, and every weekend when the season starts up in April. To save money, she uses discount bus company Bolt Bus, crashes with her teammates and chips in for gas. She’s still using the same shoulder pads she purchased for her first season 10 years ago.
“At this point it’s how life is for a woman who wants to play organized tackle football,” Smith says. “It’s exhausting.”
When she talks about the progress the sport has made over the last five years, she’s more optimistic. Smith was one of 45 women handpicked to represent the U.S. in the first-ever international women’s tackle football tournament in 2010 (total cost to each player: $2,880). They won gold that year and again in 2013. Smith made it her personal mission to get the team invited to the White House, the same way other men’s pro sports teams are recognized after major championships. She finally got there in 2014, when she was invited with a few other players to attend the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. Women tackle football players were invited back again in 2016. She’s still writing a check for $500 to play this season, but Smith says she’s pleased with where the sport is heading.
“I’m not suggesting women’s football is going to ever garner the $40 million salaries we see for men,” she says. “But I do believe we can get to place where we can have the best female talent out there able to play without having to come out of pocket.”
Life after the game
Katie Sowers never imagined she’d be planning her retirement before age 30, but seven seasons playing tackle football have taken a toll on the 29-year-old Kansas City native.
“With the way my body feels right now, very soon [I’ll be retiring],” says Sowers. A few years ago, she dislocated her hip and suffered a separated shoulder within a 12-month span. A doctor told her she should never run again, a fact she admits somewhat sheepishly. “Obviously, I’m not really following orders quite well.”
Sowers has been the quarterback for the Kansas City Titans for several years and pulls double duty as the team’s general manager (her twin sister is the team’s wide receiver). By day, she works full time as the athletic director for the city’s parks and recreations department. “I’ve always wanted to be a leader of a team but with a full-time job it does get pretty draining emotionally,” she says.
As a player herself, it can be tough to collect dues from her teammates, which her role as GM requires. If players can’t afford their fees or the entire amount, she’s likely to let it slide.
“Hopefully in the future, [paying to play] will be something we look back on and laugh,” she says.
Sowers is one of few amateur women’s tackle football players to earn a rare spot coaching a men’s football team. In January, she served as assistant head coach under former University of Florida Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis at the East-West Shrine Game, the collegiate equivalent of an all-star game. Her appointment came a few months after fellow WFA player Jen Welter became the first female coach in the NFL (Welter’s appointment was an internship and she no longer coaches for the NFL).
A job in coaching might be her next step, but the prospect of a paycheck won’t make hanging up her helmet any easier. “I couldn’t stand not being in the game if I was still able to play. It will be a struggle to transition from player to coach or whatever I do next,” she says.
Adrienne Smith is hoping to find a way to combine her love of football with her background in media and business. She recently launched her own media company and a blog, The Gridiron Queendom, and is shopping around a reality TV show following women’s tackle football teams to various media outlets.
Like Sowers (and many other athletes), Custis may not have a choice about her own retirement. Her injuries will sideline her for at least 10 months. She hopes she’ll be fit enough to try out next winter for a shot at competing in the international women’s tackle football championship. She can’t afford another injury. After taking a week off in February to participate in a training camp in New Orleans and another week to recuperate from her surgery, she’s used all of her paid time off and sick leave.
If you ask her, it was worth it.
“I’ll play until I basically can’t,” she says. “I want the girls behind me to be able to play without even thinking about it. It should be a normal part of life.”