On a drizzling day last winter, Rebecca Samuelson drove from her job at Redfin, a technology startup in Seattle, about an hour south to a high-school football field in the city of Kent. When she arrived, it had already been dark for at least an hour. She quickly changed and headed out to the field to practice alongside the other 30-some members of the Seattle Majestics, a full-contact, 11-on-11 women’s football team. There, she and the rest of the Majestics ran drills, practiced plays, and otherwise prepared for their season, which takes place each spring. She got home around 10:30 or 11 pm, sore and bleeding, and went to bed, mentally preparing to face not only another full day at the office, but also the gym, practice, fundraisers, and any other team-required activities the next day.
And she paid for the pleasure to do so.
Though it’s been over 40 years since the passage of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, disparities in funding and opportunities for women in sports persist. While 40 percent of high-school girls play a sport, women receive roughly $183 million less than their male counterparts in athletic scholarships from the NCAA. After college graduation, women have incredibly limited opportunities to continue in sports, and if they do become professionals, the pay is dismal.
For most adult women who want to play, recreational and amateur leagues are the default. Here, it’s not a matter of how much they’ll be paid—it’s a matter of whether or not they can afford their own league dues. In the case of the Majestics, one of 40 teams across the United States in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), the starting fee is about $700.
Often confused with the Legends Football League (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League, though the women still play in glorified undergarments and ineffectual pads), the WFA is a nonprofit organization that sets itself apart by not playing a modified version of the male sport. WFA games are tackle, completely padded gridiron football.
The WFA has operated as the largest women’s tackle football league in the country since it was founded in 2007 by husband-and-wife team Jeff and Lisa King, of Exeter, California. Both of the Kings are former football players; Jeff played in college until he was sidelined with a knee injury, while Lisa played with the Los Angeles Amazons for two years. Passionate about the sport, they created the WFA to create a more cohesive league for women—because, while women’s tackle-football teams and leagues have existed for decades, funding has always been an issue. The WFA’s nonprofit status makes it much cheaper to establish franchises and allows for most of the money raised to be invested back in the teams.
While some WFA players have logged close to a decade or more playing women’s football, there’s a wide range of ages and experience levels on each team. Most of the women of the begin playing in the WFA in their late 20s, a full decade or more later than male professional football players, and find their local teams largely through word of mouth or Google. Like most of the problems facing the WFA, this late recruitment is due to its tight finances. The WFA doesn’t have the resources to court athletes at the high school or college level, and even if they did, they’d have little to promise them aside from long days and a love of the game.
The women of the WFA practice multiple times per week, travel to play against other teams, and condition their bodies during the offseason, just like the pros, though their season takes place squarely in the NFL’s offseason. Practices happen at night, games on the weekend. There are film sessions, fundraisers, and other team events. Somewhere in between, the teammates try to find time for family, social engagements, and their full-time jobs.
The Majestics’ McKenzie Tolliver, for example, works in nonprofit residential development, while Rebecca Samuelson is a technical marketing manager. Some of the women are at the top of their field, working for major companies. And they make a choice to do this, year after year.
It’s not an easy decision: Players are often torn between familial and financial demands and their own competitiveness. “It’s not a job. It’s not something I get paid for. But I want to be the best I can be,” says Tolliver, who plays both safety and tight-end and is also a mother of two. “I end up taking time away from my family, from my husband, as well as things that go along with my job…. If I’m going to take the time away, I need to be in top shape. I want my coaches to yell at me as if I’m Marshawn Lynch. I want a championship.”
A championship isn’t a vanity title in the WFA. According to the league, championship winners are eligible for “over $20,000 in rewards,” making champions the only players who can hope to recoup even some of their personal expenses.
The game also takes a physical toll. Tolliver admits that she’s “injured all the time,” and has had multiple surgeries. Unlike the NFL, however, where as long as you’re a player your medical costs are covered, WFA athletes must use their own healthcare to cover injury costs.
For Tolliver and her teammates, the long hours and hard work have paid off: Last year, while the Seattle Seahawks were struggling to find their foothold in the NFL, the Majestics went undefeated in the regular season. They put up an average of 49.4 points and 247.4 rushing yards per game, allowing just 30 points against them all season.
And all of this occurs largely unnoticed by their city, and by the world.
There are a multitude of reasons why the teams of the WFA struggle to draw crowds, not the least of which is that men don’t seem interested in watching women’s football, and media outlets don’t seem interested in broadcasting it. Even in the era of Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe, men’s sports are simply what are on TV. In 2013, sports played by men accounted for 93 percent of all the sports on television. Even in the Majestics’ local TV market, they can’t get airtime—though the Pacific Northwest ESPN affiliate, ROOT Sports, routinely shows male prep football during its evening programming.
In part, this is due to a sexist contention that women’s sports just aren’t interesting—who can forget Sports Illustrated analyst Andy Benoit’s assertions during last summer’s Women’s World Cup that “women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching”? Further, unlike the Legends Football League, or professional sports like tennis or soccer, WFA players wear a full-coverage uniform that obscures their faces and their bodies. The regulation uniforms prioritize safety and efficacy, not the showing of skin. From afar, they look just like the boys, which makes it difficult for male viewers to participate in another popular pastime: objectifying the players.
“I cannot even tell you the number of serious-minded sports broadcasters who have discussed the WNBA and LPGA solely in terms of the attractiveness of their participants, feeling free to make suggestive and snide comments in the process,” sports journalist Dave Deckard wrote for SB Nation last year. That sexism runs the gamut, ranging from “hottest” lists (“The courses are not the only stunning thing on tour,” wrote Men’s Health of their 2015 list of the “hottest” women in golf) to flippant, sexist statements like those of Ted Bishop, the now-ex president of PGA of America, who compared someone he disagreed with to a “li’l girl,” or those of a reporter who asked Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl” and “tell us about your outfit” during this year’s Australian Open.
WFA teams struggle to attract viewers in person in addition to on TV. They play on high-school football fields, often well outside of town, which makes it difficult for players, let alone audiences, to even get to the pitch. And the WFA has none of the marketing resources of other sports, or even the LFL, which means even in cities with championship teams, most people have not heard of the league.
The lack of a following has a dramatic impact on the finances of the league. The WFA estimates that the annual cost per player—which accounts for field rental, equipment, uniforms, videography, web hosting, and some of the travel—is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,200 to $2,500. If teams go to the playoffs, the tab can be much higher. There are also paid trainers, though the coaching staff is volunteer. To help cover costs, players pay league dues, but the rest is paid for by sponsorships and fundraisers. For $1,500, for example, a company can get its logo on the Majestics’ jersey. And while several players’ employers have sponsored the team, it’s difficult for a league with such a small viewership to convince companies to spend money to advertise.
Instead, the teams get creative. In Seattle, Majestics team members sell concessions at CenturyLink field during Seahawks games. “Everyone thinks that people get paid to run the stands. That’s not true. Most of the concessions are run by nonprofits, like the Majestics, and the people are volunteers,” explains Samuelson. However, due to the strict contract policy for vendors in the stadium, they’re not allowed to wear their jerseys, advertise what they’re raising money for with signage, or otherwise spread the gospel of the team. On average, players earn just a few dollars per hour for the team on 10-hour days, selling expensive snacks to sports fans who have dropped hundreds of dollars to watch men play the same sport.
“These dudes get to do what they love, they do it for a living, and I’m up here having to sell hot dogs so that I can afford to pay for a field in Kent to play the sport I love,” says Samuelson.
Which forces the question: Why put in so much time and money?
“You have to be able to see the bigger picture,” says Tolliver. “I don’t think I’ll be in the group that eventually gets paid, but I want to pave the way for that. If we do this right—if all of the women in the league do it right—we could be paving the way for those individuals who could get paid. So we have to treat it as if we’re getting paid now.”
Because this is truly what the women of the Majestics, the WFA, and of all of the women’s football leagues really want: another avenue for young women to make a living playing sports. And they know full well that it won’t come as long as the existing players aren’t leaving it all on the field, week after week.
The era of professional women’s football, though, is still a long way off. There is a maximum of 30,423 college-football scholarships available in the United States, and not a single one is available for women, though Kent State kicker April Goss recently challenged the all-male paradigm of college football, making her first appearance in a NCAA game in September after four years on the team. (She scored a point against Delaware State and received a standing ovation.) And in May, 12-year-old Sam Gordon’s Utah Girls Tackle Football League (which was started by a WFA player) became such a major news story that Peyton Manning showed up to one of the league’s practices.
Still, most high schools only offer men’s football, and when women play on men’s teams they are relegated to kicking positions and see little playing time. Without their own teams, young women will never see football as a viable option, and without a professional league, there’s no chance of going further than college ball.
Despite this, Tolliver and the women of the WFA are hopeful. “If you look at where we were 30 years ago, my mom didn’t get to play sports, and the women who did play sports were totally ostracized,” she says. “In 30 years, if we do continue to progress at the same pace, I think there’s an opportunity.”