This history of women’s professional football, although not as glorious nor abundant in record or mythology as the NFL, reaches back to the early days of the NFL, when teams like the Frankford Yellow Jackets employed women’s teams for halftime entertainment purposes. That was 1926. For the next 39 years, women’s professional football was either non-existent or restricted to sandlot status.
The modern frame of reference for women’s pro football starts in Cleveland, Ohio, 1965. A talent agent named Sid Friedman started a “gimmick” semipro tackle football league and billed it as the Women’s Professional Football League. From a two-team barnstorming effort (one in Cleveland and one in Akron), the WPFL blossomed to include teams in Bowling Green, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Toledo.
As the 1970s began, the semipro Orlando Panthers made football history, for it is believed that the first woman ever to play on a men’s semipro football team suited up a Panther. Her name was Patricia Barzi Palinkas. Yet, as the early 70s saw Friedman’s WPFL disappear, 1974 saw the formation of one of the more successful women’s leagues – the National Women’s Football League (NWFL). The NWFL’s charter lineup included: the Dallas Bluebonnets, Fort Worth Shamrocks, Columbus Pacesetters, Toledo Troopers, Los Angeles Dandelions, California Mustangs, and Detroit Demons.
How much indirect success did the NWFL achieve in only its first year? Linda Jefferson, a running back for the Troopers, was named Women’s Sports magazine’s 1975 Athlete of the Year. Her football career included five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and a fourth-place finish on ABC’s Women’s Superstars.
Come 1976, growth propelled the NWFL into three divisions: the Eastern, Southern, and Western. The Eastern Division was comprised of the Columbus Pacesetters, the Detroit Demons, the Philadelphia Queen Bees, the Middletown (OH) Mustangs, and the Toledo Troopers. The Southern Division consisted of the Oklahoma City Dolls, the Houston Hurricanes, the Dallas-Ft. Worth Shamrocks, the San Antonio Flames, and the Tulsa Babes. Finally, the Western Division teams were the Los Angeles Dandelions, California Mustangs, San Diego Lobos, and Pasadena Roses.
As it turned out, the Toledo Troopers were the league’s dominant team. From 1971 to 1976, the Troopers were an astonishing 39-1-1. Yet, all was not well with the California-based NWFL. Dandelions’ owner Russell Molzahn formed his own spin-off league, the Western States Women’s Professional Football League. The WSWPFL was comprised of the NWFL’s California squads, plus the Hollywood Stars, Mesa (AZ) American Girls, Phoenix Cowgirls, Tucson Wild Kittens, Long Beach Queens, and the Southland (CA) Cowgirls. Expectedly, both leagues suffered financial hardships, and by the early-to-mid 1980s, were all but out of operation, although a rebound effort as late as 1998 was tried under the slogan “Women … It Is Time That We Get A Chance At This Game!”
A chance at professional football is what women received, albeit not stateside. In 1986, the American Football Verband Deutschland (American Football Association of Germany; AFVD) was formed and is currently being run by the German Games Organisation, who humorously define football as “committing attempted murder in the act of gaining 10 yards.”
What started with the Berlin Adler Girls losing 56-20 to the Hannover Ambassadors/Cologne Crocodiles has expanded to a 10-team league today with the season culminating in the Ladies Bowl. Teams vying for the coveted trophy include the Berlin Adler Girls, SG Braunschweig/Wolfsburg Blue Lions, Cologne Crocodiles, Frankfurt Gamblers, Hamburg Maniacs, Hanau Witches, Hannover Ambassadors, Mulheim Shamrocks, Munich Cowboys, and the Nuremberg Hurricanes.
In 1999 two businessmen, Carter Turner and Terry Sullivan decided to research the feasibility of a professional women’s football league by gathering together top female athletes into two teams and playing an exhibition game in front of an audience. The game between the Lake Michigan Minx and the Minnesota Vixens at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota was a success and turned into a six game exhibition tour across the country dubbed the “No Limits” Barnstorming Tour.
The Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL) was formed in 1999 by founders, Carter Turner and Terry Sullivan. The initial idea was to put two teams together (the Minnesota Vixens and the Lake Michigan Minx) with outstanding athletes and play an exhibition game at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This game was to prove how well women could play the sport, the quality of the game itself, and the marketability of the game to other sports fans across the US. This game turned into a six-game exhibition tour across the country dubbed the “No Limits” Barnstorming Tour. The tour was a success and concluded in an all-star game held at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The WPFL was also invited to participate in the NFL experience in Atlanta that same year; playing in a short exhibition game during super bowl week.
After the success of the tour, it seemed that the time had come to form a league for women all across the country with an interest in playing tackle football. The WPFL formed two conferences and four divisions. An 11 team league was launched in 2000. Unfortunately this first official season was full of controversy, with teams missing money, forfeiting games, and being stranded at airports. Turner left the league that same year, and investor, Larry Perry stepped in. The season concluded with the Houston Energy defeating the New England Storm and being named Super bowl Champions in January 2001. Turner meanwhile started up a new league, the Women’s Affiliated Football League (WAFL), which included 14 new teams stretching from Tampa Bay to Hawaii to Seattle. The WAFL was short-lived however, and the teams that started in that league have since transitioned into new leagues or continue to play as exhibition teams only. The WPFL eventually folded in 2007.
The NWFA was formed in August 2000 by entertainment entrepreneur, Catherine Masters. The league originated with 2 teams, the Nashville Dream and the Alabama Renegades, who played exhibition events from October to December of 2000. After the success of what she called a “pre-season showcase”, Masters added another 8 teams to her league in 2001. The first championship showed the Philadelphia Liberty Belles defeating the Pensacola Power 40-7 and drew over 5,000 spectators to the game. An increasing number of teams began to join the league, and by the 2002 season the NWFA consisted of 21 teams in five different divisions.
The NWFA was originally called the National Women’s Football League, but changed its name after the 2002 season. The name change came after pressure from the National Football League. The NFL also required the league to change the logos of some teams whose logo resembled those of NFL teams. In 2006, Catherine Masters was inducted into the American Football Association’s Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame. The NWFA eventually folded in 2009.
The Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) originally started in Austin, Texas and grew to a 14 team league with an additional 2 exhibition teams for the 2002 season. The New York Sharks, undefeated in the 2002 season, earned a trip to the inaugural IWFL championship game held in Ashland, Oregon in July 2002 and defeated the Austin Outlaws 24-4. The IWFL is still in operation and consists of 28 teams across the United States, including the Montreal Blitz which is based in Canada.
The Women’s Football Alliance was established in 2009 and began its inaugural season with 36 teams. Many of these teams were already established teams moving in from other leagues such as Women’s Professional Football League, Independent Women’s Football League and National Women’s Football Association, while others will began their inaugural season of play in the WFA.
The first season of play ended with a championship game, which was played in the rebuilding (post Katrina) city of New Orleans, Louisiana and was hosted by the New Orleans Blaze. The game was between the St. Louis Slam (American Conference – St. Louis, MO) and the West Michigan Mayhem (National Conference – Kalamazoo, MI). The game came down to the last few plays and the St. Louis Slam became the first National Champions in the WFA with a final score of 21-14. Additionally, there was an International Game played between the upstart Aguilas Regias of Monterrey, Mexico and the hosting team, New Orleans Blaze. The Blaze won this game 12-0.
The WFA grew in the second year (2010) to have over 40 teams competing for the National Championship. The national championship for the 2010 season was accompanied by the first All-American game. The term All-American is used by the WFA to represent the best players at all positions from all WFA teams. The teams were chosen partly based on statistics and partly based on the vote of head coaches. The All-American game was played just before the championship game in Las Vegas, Nevada and were hosted by the Las Vegas Showgirlz. The All-American game was won by the American Conference. The second championship in the WFA would again come down to the last few plays and have a score differential of only 4 points. The Lone Star Mustangs (American Conference – Dallas/Fort Worth) defeated the Columbus Comets (National Conference – Columbus, Ohio) to become the second National Champions of the WFA by a score of 16-12.
The Women’s Football Alliance is still in operation and is comprised of 49 teams across the U.S.
The world governing body for American football associations, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), held the first ever Women’s World Cup in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2010. Six nations participated in the inaugural event: Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. The United States won the gold by beating Canada, 66-0. The next World Cup will be held in 2013.