The History of Women's Football

History of Women's Football (so far…)

Although the idea of women playing professional tackle football may seem relatively new to most people, its roots reach back three quarters of a century. The first evidence of women playing organized football was in 1926. It was then that an NFL team called the Frankfort, Pennsylvania Yellow Jackets employed a women’s team for halftime entertainment.

Around 1965-1966, a Cleveland talent agent, Sid Friedman, started a women’s semi-pro tackle football league as a “gimmick.” The league began with only two teams, Akron and Cleveland, and was called the Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL).

The curiosity and popularity of women’s football began to grow, and in 1971 Friedman’s original WPFL added teams in Cleveland, Toledo, Toronto, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Two additional teams, the Detroit Fillies and the Pittsburgh Powderkegs, were independently owned and operated outside of Friedman’s organization.

Part of the surge of interest in football, and women's sports in general, can be traced to the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title “Nine”, passed into law on June 23, 1972, was the landmark federal legislation that, among other things, mandated financial equality in collegiate athletics. According to an article in Sports Illustrated, “ Participation in women's sports has increased from 300,000 in 1972, to some three million today.”

In 1974 the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) was formed. The seven original teams in this league were made up of several teams from previous upstart leagues of women’s football. These teams included the Dallas Bluebonnets, Fort Worth Shamrocks, Columbus Pacesetters, Toledo Troopers, Los Angeles Dandelions, California Mustangs and the Detroit Demons. In 1976 the NWFL added several new teams and incorporated three divisions: the Eastern, Southern and Western. These new divisions included the Oklahoma City Dolls and the Tucson Wild Kittens, drawing approximately 1,000 fans per game. By this time, the average cost to start up a franchise was approximately $10,000.

After the City Dolls handed the Toledo Troopers their first ever loss during the regular season (defeating them 14-8 in Oklahoma City), the teams faced one another in the first official NWFL Championship game in 1976. Toledo initially claimed the victory 13-12 when a City Doll point after attempt was ruled no good. After further review of the game films however, the ruling was turned and the game was declared a tie. Toledo and Oklahoma City were declared co-champions and had to share the league title.

In 1978 the NWFL franchises based out of California decided to break away and form their own league, the Western States Women’s Professional Football League. This league was run by the Dandelions’ owner, Russell Molzahn, and consisted of the Dandelions, Hollywood Stars, Mesa, Arizona American Girls, Phoenix, Arizona Cowgirls, Tucson, Arizona Wild Kittens, Long Beach Queens, and Southland Cowgirls. This league was formed as the decision of the NWFL to limit play between the different divisions due to the cost of travel.

By the end of the 70’s, many found the financial burden of owning a women’s football team too much to bear. The City Dolls decided to suspend operations in 1979, and an attempt to revive the team three years later failed. The nearly unstoppable Toledo Troopers folded before the beginning of the 1980 season due to finances. That same season, the Southern division of the NWFL folded as well. By 1982 the only teams remaining in the NWFL were located in Ohio and Michigan.

Throughout the 80’s the NWFL went through several transformations in their attempt to get the league running successfully again. Finally, in 1988, the league broke off into two separate organizations; the NWFL (based out of Toledo) and the Women’s Tackle Football Association (WTFA based out of Grand Rapids MI). While the WTFA wanted to continue to play tackle football, several teams in the NWFL chose to change their game to flag-touch football instead. Failed leagues and teams aren't unique to women's football. The Xtreme Football League, which promised football fans a more exciting product than the NFL, folded after one season -- even with the backing of a major television network and Vince McMahon, who helped turn professional wrestling into a prime-time, teen-age soap opera.

A chance at professional football is what women wanted and what they 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 Organization, who humorously defines 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 15-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.

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 Metrodome. 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 “No Limits” Barnstorming Tour across the country. 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 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 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. IWFL currently has over 1600 women playing the sport for 51 teams across North America from Southern California to Montreal and Washington to Florida with consistent expansion into to new markets.

The Women's Football Alliance (WFA) began play in the spring of 2009 with thirty-six teams playing in its inaugural season. Some of the teams transferred from other leagues such as the Women's Professional Football League, Independent Women's Football League and National Women's Football Association, while others began their inaugural season of play.

The WFA is designed to create the highest level of women’s full tackle football in the nation. The WFA is the “Teams” league made up of 44 teams across the United States and Mexico. The Monterrey, Mexico Aguilas Regias (Royal Eagles) have joined the WFA for the 2010 season. The Aguilas Regias showcased their talent in the International Bowl where they played the New Orleans Blaze. The game was played on August 15, 2009, prior to the 2009 WFA National Championship in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The 2009 WFA National Championship in New Orleans, Louisiana saw the St. Louis Slam take on the West Michigan Mayhem. St. Louis took advantage of West Michigan's mistakes to claim the National Championship of the Women's Football Alliance with a 21-14 victory against the Mayhem on Saturday, August 15, 2009 at the Pan American Stadium.

Regardless of the league you champion, or the team you play on, the bottom line is - these women are making the sacrifice to be out on the field every week. They do it for the love of the sport. Currently, no players have multimillion dollar contracts or signing bonuses. The mission of these leagues is to provide women the opportunity to play tackle football and promote women athletics. In spite of the many struggles, it appears that women’s football is finally making an impact and increasing in popularity.


Check out Coach "Lady Stephens" and her junior varsity football team.

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