New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 6, 2013
NEW YORK » The players on the offensive line, wearing helmets and shoulder pads, were crouched down on the field in Brooklyn. "Green 20! Green 20! 10 hut!" the quarterback shouted. The football was handed off to a running back who rushed up the middle before being tackled by several defenders. The whistle blew. Soon practice was over and the team's coach, Richard Harrigan, offered words of praise, "Good job, ladies, bring it home. Sharks on three. One. Two. Three. Sharks!"
The "ladies" — players on the New York Sharks — were preparing to face off Saturday against the Central Maryland Seahawks at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn to inaugurate the 2013 season of the Women's Football Alliance. Yes, it's opening day for the women's football league, and while the players might be excited, they might be the only ones.
Men's professional football, of course, is a staple of American sports culture. The National Football League is a multibillion dollar empire with bulging player salaries, rabid fans, exhaustive and lucrative television coverage and enormous stadiums.
The women's version is the opposite: Teams play in front of a few hundred people, games can be watched mostly on the Internet and there are no salaries. In fact, players have to pay to play — an $850 per-player fee to finance things like travel, staff, referees and use of fields. The fee does not cover equipment, which the players also must pay for.
"I've probably spent close to $10,000," said Karen Mulligan, 35, the Sharks' quarterback, who has played women's football for 11 years.
But women's football has managed to chug along, spreading out across the country among various leagues.
"We have no money to advertise, no budgets to put the word out and yet it just grows exponentially," said Andra Douglas, 53, the owner of the Sharks.
The Women's Football Alliance has more than 60 teams separated into 13 divisions with each team playing eight regular-season games. The season culminates in a championship; this year it will be on Aug. 3 in San Diego, at a site to be determined. (Last year's title game was played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh).
The rules are the same as the NFL, except the women play with a slightly smaller football. But while NFL teams carry a 53-man roster, the 40 or so players on the women's teams often have to play multiple positions because there are not enough to fill all of the slots.
"I'm not sure about this year, but last year I was backup QB, I was starting tight end, wide receiver, free safety, punter and holder," said Laura Baden, a Sharks player.
Whatever women's professional football lacks in recognition or money, it makes up for in talent and passion. Most players have full-time jobs and families, yet they sacrifice social events, nights, weekends and their bodies, for the sheer joy of the sport.
"I'm willing to pay for it, raise funds, be out until midnight two nights a week after I work an 11-7 shift at work because I'm showing myself, the world, my family, that everything is possible," said kicker Julia Colangelo, 25, who is a social worker.
Elle Cartabiano, who owns her own company and is a wide receiver on the Sharks, played in a women's football league that has attracted widespread attention — the Lingerie Football League. But as the name implies, that organization is as much about who is wearing the uniform — and they do wear skimpy underwear — than what they are doing with the football.
"It's night and day," Cartabiano, 23, said, referring to the two leagues. "Both the girls and athletes and the team structure and the game, everything is better. It's way better. This is so much more of a real team that I'm used to. The Lingerie Football League was not a very team-oriented environment."
The New York Sharks were formed in August 2000 after Douglas used $20,000 of her savings to buy the team and have them join a women's league. "I bought it so we could play," said Douglas, who used to be the team's quarterback. "I didn't get it to get into owning a sports team."
But she might not be the owner much longer. "Well, this is no secret, I actually, I want to sell the team," she said. "Wonderful things happened these past 13, 14 years, and part of me wants to just kind of end it and not let bad things happen."