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New Women's Football League Aims For Next Level

Miguel Perez
Texas Elite Spartans head coach Odessa Jenkins talks to her players during a practice on Sunday, July 23, 2019

Football fans can witness a different kind of title game this weekend: The undefeated Texas Elite Spartans take on the one-loss Utah Falconz on Saturday in the first-ever Women's National Football Conference championship.

Women's tackle football leagues have been trying to break into the mainstream since the 1970s.

The Women's Football Alliance, the largest league, has found moderate success since it launched a decade ago. But the Dallas-based WNFC started up this year with 15 teams across the country, and it aims to take the sport to the next level.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
Kicker Shelby Valdepena Ternus prepares for the Texas Elite Spartans' upcoming championship game.

On a recent Sunday morning at Colleyville Heritage High School, the women of the Texas Elite Spartans were running drills.

Head coach Odessa Jenkins reviewed plays from the sidelines.

"I feel really good," she said. "I feel like my players are prepared, and as long as my players are prepared, I'd bet on them."

She doesn't just coach the Spartans. She's also co-founder of the entire league.

Jenkins launched the National Women's Football Conference earlier this year with currency trader Bryant Sewall. Their goal? To build the strongest audience for 11-on-11 women's football the country has ever seen. 

"The fact [is] that we've played this sport for 60 years. There's been 30 leagues, and the leagues don't take themselves seriously," she said. "Women playing in different helmets. Bad graphics. Bad marketing. No financial investment for us, from us for our own sport. But that time is over."

Jenkins said the first step is to whittle the sport down to its best athletes — and that means getting rid of the "pay-to-play" model. All the athletes in the league have jobs. There are doctors, students, teachers. Most leagues would make the players pick up the costs.

"When we have away games, we're having to pay for our hotels. Pay for our food," she said.

Brittany Bushman, the Spartans quarterback, said, "Any other additional equipment you might want to play with, you have to furnish yourself."

Before the WNFC, Bushman said she invested thousands playing for other teams. Plus, "That doesn't encompass gas money to get to and from practice." It all adds up.

Jenkins said her new league plans to cover costs and bring in revenue through corporate sponsorships. The WNFC has already inked deals with Adidas and the sports equipment company Riddell .

"My business partner and I have invested in a league that is actually putting money up front to make our product look good," she said. "So, there's no excuse to not point a camera at our game anymore."

Jenkins says attention from popular sports outlets is critical to the league's success. Especially given the deep cultural biases that've long stifled the growth of women's football.

Ketra Armstrong studies gender equity in sports at the University of Michigan.

"Seeing a woman in that context — to be sweaty and to be aggressive — it really challenges the norms and gender ideology that has permeated this country forever," Armstrong said.

She says Jenkins is right. Optics matter, and the right marketing strategy could set the WNFC — and the entire sport — on the right path.

Armstrong cites a 1995 Nike ad campaign that featured young girls saying, "If you let me play."

"The storyline that the media packages to frame how they're delivering women's sports has a huge impact on whether it gets the cultural legitimacy that it deserves," she said.

Players like Brittany Bushman recognize that. She says the key is getting more eyeballs on their games.

"Because when people come and see our games, they're impressed. I mean, full pads, full contact," she said. "We're busting heads, so I think the fan base is definitely there, but they want to see those hard-hitting, competitive games all the time."

Spartans coach and league co-owner Odessa Jenkins believes her players deserve crowds as big as the sort NFL teams can attract.

"When you see my linebacker play football, and the way she moves to side to side and the way she reads a defense, it is no different than watching Luke Kuechly do his thing," Jenkins said.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News

As practice neared its end, the Spartans huddled up.

Jenkins wanted to psych them up for the title game. It's easy to do when you love football as much as she does.

"Football is a microcosm of life in a lot of ways. You have adversity everytime you step on the field," she said. "What does it feel like? It feels like fire in your bones. It feels like you're the gladiator of the gladiators."

With the Women's National Football Conference, Jenkins and her team is ready to charge full-force into the future of women's football.

The Texas Elite Spartans play the Utah Falconz on Saturday in Golden, Colorado. Watch the game here.

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.