We have entered the offseason in women’s football, a time that I often refer to as “silly season”. New teams are popping up, old teams are folding up, and old and new teams alike are getting up and moving from one league to another. It’s a wacky time of year in the sport, for sure. As teams start to move about, I want to take a moment and discuss a frequent hot-button topic in women’s football: the prospect of a merger between the two top leagues. In the end, I’ll finish up by examining the bizarre and antiquated tradition in women’s football known as the “50-mile rule”, a rule that is keeping the sport – and one league in particular – from achieving its full potential.
One League…Or One Premier League?
I’m on record as never having been much of a “one-league” guy. This is mostly a nod to all of the smaller, regional, developmental women’s football leagues out there like the USWFL and LAFL. I don’t believe we will ever see a day when those leagues go away and we are only left with one women’s football league…and if so, I’d argue it would be a catastrophic development for the sport.
Let’s say the NFL wakes up one day and decides to start the WNFL, which is the gold standard of best-case scenarios for women’s football fans. Even under that ideal (and impossibly unlikely) scenario, will smaller developmental women’s football leagues cease to exist? No…actually, I’d argue the opposite, that interest in women’s leagues outside of the WNFL would explode as female athletes around the country sought to find an outlet to develop their skills in the hopes of hitting what would then legitimately be considered the “big time” in the WNFL.
I’ll put this another way…the only way we reach a point where there is only one women’s football league in the United States is if interest in the sport has dropped off so badly that there is now only enough interest to sustain one. And that would obviously be a very, very bad thing, not a good one.
What I think most of the “one league” advocates truly want, however, is for a single league to take a clear position as the top league in the sport. After all, that’s what the men’s side has. There are numerous “professional football leagues” for men, but many fans only know of the top one – the NFL. All other leagues pale in comparison; in fact, the NFL is so synonymous with “men’s professional football” that a fair number of people think it’s the only men’s pro league out there. That’s the setup that most “one league” folks think the women’s game would benefit from adopting.
The Importance of Rowing The Same Boat
Right now, there are two women’s football leagues that are truly national in scope – the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) and the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL). They are national in scope in the sense that any new team formed anywhere in the country – from Maine to Florida to California – has two guaranteed options, the WFA and IWFL, because those two leagues have teams from coast to coast. Of course, depending on where a new team is located, the WFA or IWFL might make more geographic sense based on what teams already exist in the league. But the WFA and IWFL would be able to accommodate a team from anywhere in the U.S. better than, say, the USWFL or LAFL could accommodate a team from California.
For decades, there have been two national women’s football leagues locked in a feud of sorts. In 2001, there were two major spring women’s football leagues – the IWFL and the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA), formerly known as the National Women’s Football League. These two leagues battled for supremacy in the sport from 2001-2008, when the NWFA folded. Eighteen teams in the NWFA when it folded in 2008 formed the core of a new league in 2009 called the WFA, and from 2009 right up through this moment, the WFA and IWFL have been locked into the same stalemate the NWFA and IWFL had been going all the way back to 2001.
I’ve never really been all that concerned about having two national women’s football leagues in the sense that, again, it just shows that there is enough interest in the sport to sustain two, which isn’t altogether bad. However, I have to admit, it’s difficult to come back after a great WFA championship weekend in Pittsburgh – after seeing all the outstanding teams and players that descended upon the town that weekend – and then see updates on Facebook of all the great players and teams that were in Charlotte that same weekend.
I guess what I’m saying is that I do see the benefit in having all of us rowing the same boat, so to speak. What sense does it make to have ESPN in Pittsburgh covering the WFA while the Sporting News is in Charlotte covering the Minnesota Vixen and the IWFL? Why can’t we have ESPN and the Sporting News in the same town covering the same group of women?
Pick Your Pony
So I get where the folks imploring for a WFA-IWFL merger are coming from. But here’s the big question…in the event of a merger, who would run the new league? Some people argue that what has prevented a merger in the past is “egos”, but let’s be more specific. What has prevented a WFA-IWFL merger from happening (at the league level, at least) is the fact that WFA head Lisa King and IWFL heads Laurie Frederick and Kezia Disney can’t agree on who’s running the merged league…they both think it should be them. King operates the biggest league, while Frederick and Disney operate the oldest league. They can’t run it together or even really both be involved in running it, for obvious reasons…so who would call the shots in a merged league?
A lot of people often reference the NFL-AFL merger of 1966 when discussing a similar merging of the WFA and IWFL (and do so in a way that is not analogous, but that’s another story). Well, when the NFL and AFL merged in the 1960s, team owners – from both leagues – agreed that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would continue as the commissioner of the merged league, which would still be known as the NFL. AFL commissioner Al Davis resigned his commissioner post in protest (although he still owned his team, the Raiders). The point is, the teams in the two leagues had to choose between Rozelle and Davis. The issue had to be addressed, and the choice had to be made.
I want to be clear about this: it’s not “brave” or “courageous” to call for a WFA-IWFL merger without also addressing who should lead the new league. Simply saying that there should be a merger without saying which side should back down isn’t being courageous…it’s pandering. Almost everyone agrees there should only be one top league; Lisa King and Kezia Disney agree about nearly nothing, and even they agree there should only be one top league. The main crux of their disagreement is that they both think they should be running it.
So that’s the deal…you have to pick your pony. If you want to advocate for a merger, you have to choose a side and say who should be running the merged league. As usual, I’ll be the lightning rod and reiterate my view that Laurie Frederick and Kezia Disney need to step aside and make way for the next evolution of this sport.
The WFA-IWFL Feud
There should be no WFA-IWFL feud…the WFA has won already. The WFA has been the top league in women’s football for the past six years, which is an eternity in this sport. They’re the ones who should be taking the lead in women’s football.
The problem is that the WFA has not been able to differentiate itself enough from the IWFL to capture the women’s football landscape in the same way the NFL has done on the men’s side. While the WFA has been the top league in women’s football for quite some time, casual observers may not be able to tell at a glance what makes the WFA superior to the IWFL. A dearth of media coverage compared to men’s football and the fact that the IWFL erroneously continues to market itself as the best league in women’s football contributes mightily to that confusion.
Yes, the IWFL was the top league in the sport from 2008-2010. But 2010 was six years ago, and more importantly, the IWFL’s reign at the top of the sport ended when ten of the top teams all simultaneously defected in the same offseason. And these weren’t ordinary women’s football teams – these were some of the bell cows of the sport.
Think about it – Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Diego all collectively defected from the IWFL in 2010, with Seattle and Portland following three years later. The Sharks went back, and the teams in Boston, Kansas City, Dallas, San Diego, and Portland have undergone a few organizational changes since then. But the core of the top teams in these ten cities represent almost the entirety of the top division of the WFA. They all used to be in the IWFL and have rejected that league’s leadership.
The IWFL gets a lot of publicity for the fact that it is the longest-running league in the country…but is that necessarily a good thing? If you’ve been running a women’s football league for 16 years and it’s still clearly the #2 league in the sport, shouldn’t that tell you something? And the fact that outrageous fiascos like the Central Division playoff debacle keep happening after 16 years…isn’t that a pretty big warning sign that this league’s leadership isn’t exactly open to change?
All of this is without even getting into my personal lack of faith in Kezia Disney’s leadership as a whole. I have my reservations about Lisa King – the fact that she runs both a team and the league as a whole makes her an easy mark for charges of conflict of interest, fairly or unfairly. Plus, running a team and running a league are both basically full-time jobs…it’s difficult to find enough time to do one of them well, much less both.
But that pales in comparison to King’s alternative in the IWFL. Let me say this…while women’s football is all about female empowerment, the sport needs the support of men to thrive. It just does. If you have a long record of treating stray pets better than most human men, that’s a problem you’re never going to overcome trying to create a nationally-recognized sports brand. Even when the IWFL does something that should be regarded as truly admirable – like having an all-female crew officiate their championship weekend – you’re left to wonder if that’s because the league is truly committed to creating opportunities for women within the sport or a convenient way of getting around the fact that league leadership has a long history of difficulty dealing with men in positions of authority.
Now, maybe some other national women’s football league springs up in the future that is even better than both the WFA and the IWFL. I wouldn’t rule that out, but it’s far too easy to get sucked into comparing the WFA to a hypothetical league that doesn’t exist yet. Naturally, since the WFA does have some flaws and a non-existent league can easily be considered flawless in the mind’s eye, any league that actually exists right now will be found lacking in that comparison. As Paul Simon reminded us in Kodachrome, everything looks worse in black and white.
But that’s not dealing in the reality of the moment, and the reality is that right now, Lisa King is the best we’ve got. In the feud between the WFA’s leadership and the IWFL’s, it’s really no contest.
Team Owners: The Power Is In Their Hands
Although these comparisons are often misapplied, I’d like to make one more note about the NFL-AFL merger. When the NFL and AFL first launched merger talks, team owners in the NFL and AFL decided to discuss the possibility and terms of the deal without the knowledge or involvement of either Rozelle or Davis. (Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt is most often credited with a key role in spearheading those discussions.) The point is that when the NFL and AFL league commissioners couldn’t see eye to eye on anything, it was the team owners in both leagues who initiated the merger talks.
That’s fascinating because with the free movement of teams in women’s football, King and Frederick and Disney don’t need to agree on anything for a merger to take place. All we really need is for the bulk of the teams in the IWFL to agree that this merger is necessary for the growth of the sport and realize that they hold the power to make it happen.
The IWFL’s failed leadership aside, a simple numbers game indicates why the WFA should be the destination for the top teams in the sport. If ten of the top teams in the WFA all moved to the IWFL (or another newly-formed league), all that would do is reverse the Supergroup Defection of 2010 and pass the baton of leadership in this sport to another entity. The divisions, however, would still exist. On the other hand, if ten of the top teams from the IWFL all moved to the WFA, it might just be a matter of time before Frederick and Disney were either forced to step into a merger discussion with the WFA or compelled to step down as Al Davis did.
The two biggest pieces of news this past week in the sport were the announced moves of the Baltimore Nighthawks and Carolina Phoenix from the IWFL to the WFA. Throw in the departures from the IWFL of the Rocky Mountain Thunderkatz and the Houston Wildcats in the wake of last year’s playoff fiasco and the Detroit Pride’s disappearance from the team directory, and that’s five IWFL absences just into the first week of October. I might be overly optimistic, but maybe team owners in the IWFL are starting to realize what AFL owners did in 1966…that the prospect of “one league” is entirely within their control.
Before I move on to the next topic, let me not gloss over how exciting it is to have the Nighthawks and Carolina in the WFA. It will be interesting to see what tiers they wind up in…I’d imagine both of them will compete in WFA2, although both are candidates for WFA1. Carolina, in particular, could compete with many WFA1 teams well; I’d love to see the battle of the Phoenix between Carolina and Atlanta. Carolina and Baltimore are two strong organizations that have been around nearly a decade, two franchises I’d all but given up hope of seeing in the WFA. It’s a great sign.
The Absurdity of the 50-Mile Rule
The WFA is already the top league in women’s football. Yet if the WFA really wants to achieve that “one league” dream and quickly become even more powerful than they are today, the league needs to re-examine its bizarre and antiquated regulation known as the “50-Mile Rule”.
In short, for years, women’s football leagues have enforced a rule stating that no new women’s football team can be admitted into the league if they are located within a 50-mile radius of an existing team. The need for such a rule seems straightforward on the surface – it prevents a new team from undermining an existing team by competing for players, fans, and sponsors. In the absence of such a rule, anyone who is unhappy with an existing team could “hold that team hostage” by threatening to start their own team down the street, damaging the existing team’s bottom line.
This rule has been in existence in some form or fashion in many women’s football leagues dating back practically to the re-launch of the sport back in 1999. It’s a commonly accepted and unquestioned rule in many corners.
And I just don’t understand it. It’s ineffective and often counterproductive, and it needs to be sent to the trash bin of bad ideas ASAP.
First, let’s think about this logically. Let’s say I own a women’s football team and that they compete in the WFA, for all the reasons listed above. Now let’s imagine that one of my players comes to the conclusion that I’m a blockhead who doesn’t know how to run a women’s football team (not exactly a stretch) and decides to start her own team right down the street.
With the 50-mile rule, I have the right to block her from placing her new team in the WFA. But do you think that will discourage someone who has gone to the lengths of starting a whole new team from simply putting her new team in the IWFL?
You see, I can’t stop her from starting a new team, only from placing that new team in the WFA. She can still put a new team in the IWFL and pull recruits, fans, and sponsors away from my team.
That’s what I mean when I say the rule is ineffective. It does nothing to prevent someone from undermining me by starting a new team in my region…it just forces that team into another league.
Who’s The Boss? (Or Who’s Stronger?)
Next, let’s compare relative strengths of teams. “Strength” is a hard thing to measure, but putting that aside for now, let’s imagine that a new team forms in a region which is immediately stronger than the existing team. I’ve heard from some people who think this is a relatively rare occurrence, but this actually happens more often than those folks probably think.
I can list numerous examples in women’s football history where a defecting team is actually stronger than the existing team. One of the first early examples of this was when the Massachusetts Mutiny (which would later form the core of the Boston Militia and today’s Boston Renegades) broke away from the New England Storm. The Mutiny’s very nickname was a nod to their break from the Storm, and their very real “mutiny” resulted in a strong, competitive seven-year run. In fact, the Mutiny were still around and competing for titles long after the Storm had closed up shop.
It’s not exactly farfetched that a women’s football team owner in a major market might be underutilizing the resources at their disposal. Again, I can list numerous examples of teams like the Utah Falconz who broke free from and quickly surpassed the reigning power in the area like the Utah Jynx. Frankly, that’s the primary reason for starting up a new team in the same region as an existing team in the first place…because you feel the existing team isn’t getting the most out of the market they’re in. It happens all the time.
Now, in that scenario, why should the WFA enforce a rule designed to keep the newer, stronger team out of the league in favor of an older, weaker franchise? The older team’s inability to fully capture the market fomented the conditions that led to the creation of the new team in the first place. How does it help the WFA as a whole to drive the newer, stronger team into the arms of a rival league in a futile act of loyalty to a weaker existing team? That’s what I mean when I say that the rule is often counterproductive…it forces the top team in that region into the arms of your rival league. Why would any league insist upon that?
On the flip side, imagine the situation where the newer team is merely as strong or is weaker than the existing team. In this case, I concede that there is more of a justification for protecting the existing team by not giving the new team room to grow, allowing them to eventually undercut the existing team. But again in this case, there’s nothing the WFA can do to keep the new team from existing in another league and being a thorn in the existing team’s side from over there. I still don’t see the justification for driving what could be a competitive new team into the arms of a rival league, and in the end, the best protection from having your team undercut in your own market is by running an exemplary organization.
Here’s the kicker…if two teams are going to share the same market regardless, there are actually several huge benefits to having them both in the same league:
1) The league can work to minimize the number of weekends both teams are playing at home, ensuring that local women’s football fans don’t have to choose between attending one team’s game over the other
2) The league can prevent one team from taking players from the other team midseason, which can’t be as easily policed if the teams are in different leagues
3) If the teams are of similar strength (like the two Portland teams the past couple of years), an inner-city game can increase interest in the sport locally.
These are but a few of the ways a league can ensure that two member teams in the same region play nice with each other. If the two teams are in separate leagues, there’s nothing to keep the situation from turning nasty in a hurry. Doesn’t it make more sense – rather than prohibit two teams from occupying the same space – to develop guidelines in which two nearby teams can coexist harmoniously? Shouldn’t the league simply trust that two member teams in the same market will eventually sort things out, the way that it came together in Kansas City and Portland, for example?
Why does the 50-mile rule even exist anymore? I think it’s because it’s a time-honored tradition that, like so many time-honored traditions, has overstayed its welcome but which lingers on because “that’s how it has always been done.” It makes sense on the surface if you don’t think about it too hard. But it’s a rule that paradoxically weakens a league by shoving strong new franchises into the arms of their competitors, all in an ineffective show of “loyalty” and support for existing members that may be getting outpaced in their own market anyway.
A Tale of Eight Cities
Now, let’s review the extent of the problem with the 50-mile rule. There were eight markets in 2016 where WFA and IWFL teams overlapped:
Washington, DC – D.C. Divas (WFA)/Washington Prodigy (IWFL)
Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia Phantomz (WFA)/Philly Firebirds (IWFL)
Detroit, MI – Detroit Dark Angels (WFA)/Detroit Pride (IWFL)
Houston, TX – Houston Power (WFA)/Houston Wildcats and Houston Energy (IWFL)
Austin, TX – Austin Outlaws (WFA)/Austin Yellow Jackets (IWFL)
Salt Lake City, UT – Utah Blitz (WFA)/Utah Falconz (IWFL)
Denver, CO – Mile High Blaze (WFA)/Colorado Freeze (IWFL)
Long Beach, CA – Pacific Warriors (WFA)/Carson Bobcats (IWFL)
These nine teams in the IWFL last year are, technically, by rule, territorially unable to apply for WFA membership. And some of these nine teams – principally the Falconz, the Yellow Jackets, the Bobcats, the two Houston teams, and up until last year before the WFA’s Minnesota Machine went on hiatus, the Minnesota Vixen – are some of the strongest teams left standing in the IWFL.
Now, I want to make this very clear, something I will reiterate throughout this section – I’m not saying that any or all of these IWFL teams would come over to the WFA. They may be perfectly happy where they are, and that’s fine. That’s not the issue. The issue is that I think it’s absurd for the WFA to tell them they can’t come over if they want to. That’s my point. Not that they would, but that the WFA shouldn’t be the ones preventing them from doing so.
We can see a number of market conflicts that are, to be blunt, a bit absurd. Listen, I love the Utah Blitz, and I believe that they have every right to self-determination and to be able to fight for their existence and survival. But is there any scenario in which it would make sense to tell the Utah Falconz that they aren’t allowed in the WFA because the Blitz already have the market covered?
The Utah Falconz are one of the ten best teams in the sport and the only IWFL team that, IMO, could truly win a championship against the elite of the WFA. The Blitz, on the other hand, have struggled recently to get their roster up to about 20 players in any given year. I’ll state this another way…in the WFA’s tier system, the Falconz are solidly WFA1, while the Blitz are decidedly WFA3. Are you honestly telling me that a WFA3 team should be able to blackball one of the top ten teams in the sport from joining the sport’s premier league? Am I the only one who thinks that’s insane?
And what does the WFA think will happen with these nine geographically-overlapped IWFL franchises? Does the WFA think the Falconz will just up and disappear any time soon? They’re clearly going to continue to exist…all the 50-mile rule does is force them to continue bringing credibility to a rival league.
The Falconz aren’t the only team that could be blackballed by a lower tier team. Let’s look at those eight markets again, and this time, let’s show the tiers of the WFA teams involved and speculate as to the tiers of the IWFL teams. When discussing the IWFL teams, however, it’s important to remember that teams slotted into a certain tier could hypothetically have a chance to “play up” a tier, should they choose to.
Washington, DC – The D.C. Divas are WFA1, while the Washington Prodigy would be a likely candidate for WFA2.
Philadelphia, PA – The Philadelphia Phantomz are WFA2, although they seem like a WFA1/WFA2 tweener to me…a team that could be dominant in WFA2 or solid but maybe not dominant in WFA1. The Philly Firebirds used to be a solid WFA2 entry but the rise of the Phantomz has reduced their roster to the point where they might be able to qualify for WFA3.
Detroit, MI – The Detroit Dark Angels are solidly WFA2. The Detroit Pride are hard to read…they might be a WFA2 team but could also fit in WFA3, depending on how their roster shakes out.
Houston, TX – The Houston Power are a WFA2 team in name, but competitively, they actually stacked up better with WFA3 teams last season. They competed in WFA2 but were one of the lowest ranked teams in that tier and would have been middle of the pack in WFA3. Meanwhile, the Houston Wildcats and Houston Energy both might actually qualify for WFA1 status.
Austin, TX – The Austin Outlaws were WFA3 last year. The Austin Yellow Jackets seem like a WFA1/WFA2 tweener, but I’d lean toward WFA1.
Salt Lake City, UT – The Utah Blitz are WFA3; the Utah Falconz are solidly WFA1.
Denver, CO – The Mile High Blaze are WFA2, while the Colorado Freeze roster leads me to believe they would be a good fit for WFA3.
Long Beach, CA – This is the one market where I actually think the two teams are roughly of equal strength. The Pacific Warriors competed in WFA1, and while the Carson Bobcats could compete in WFA2 (due to the team’s relative youth), they could probably fit in WFA1 as well.
As you can see, the Utah Falconz, Austin Yellow Jackets, and the two Houston clubs could technically be blackballed from moving to the WFA (again, assuming they would want to) by weaker teams in their market! That’s the insanity…these teams may not even be in the IWFL by their own choice. They may be, of course, and if they are, so be it. But these teams may be helping keep the IWFL afloat solely because the WFA is clinging to an absurd notion that locking the Yellow Jackets into the IWFL is somehow making the Austin Outlaws’ life easier. I just can’t get over how ridiculous that is.
Ways To Fix The 50-Mile Rule
So what should the WFA do? Personally, I’d scrap the whole 50-mile rule altogether…I think the costs of enforcing it clearly far outweigh the benefits. If two teams want to exist in the same region, let them both join the WFA and trust in the fact that sooner or later, the situation will resolve itself (as it did in Kansas City and Portland) to everyone’s mutual benefit.
But if that’s too radical of a plan for the WFA powers-that-be, the WFA’s tier system actually provides some alternatives that I’ve spelled out below. Here are a few ideas:
1) Scrap the 50-mile rule altogether. Simple, effective, to the point.
2) Scrap the 50-mile rule for all teams except those in WFA1. I’m going to be honest, here…there should be some major benefits for competing in WFA1. There are a number of teams who could play in WFA2 and compete for titles or compete in WFA1 and be a solid competitor but perhaps a step below the top four or five teams. There needs to be an incentive for these “tweeners” to step up and compete at the top level.
The 50-mile rule could provide such an incentive for some teams. The argument that the 50-mile rule protects existing teams from having another team encroaching on their territory is only compelling if the existing team is actually putting out a top-flight team within their territory. WFA1 status would indicate that yes, the existing team has built something monumental enough that it’s worth being protected by a territorial restriction.
Teams in WFA2 and WFA3 would not be entitled to the same protections, although I suppose if you needed to enact a similar 25-mile rule or something for WFA2 as a compromise, it would at least be more efficient than what the WFA has now.
3) Alter the 50-mile rule to only apply to (new) teams within your tier. Under this rule, an existing team can prevent a new team within 50 miles from entering the WFA in their own tier but cannot restrict teams from entering at other tiers. For example, the Utah Blitz can restrict the Utah Falconz from joining WFA3 but not from joining WFA1.
I’d only apply this rule to new teams, however, allowing for the possibility of promotion and relegation. For example, take the WFA1 Pacific Warriors and the Carson Bobcats. If the Carson Bobcats wanted to join the WFA, under this rule they could do so in WFA2 (as the Pac Warriors have territorial rights to WFA1). But if the Carson Bobcats joined WFA2 and competed well there for a year or two, they should be eligible to be promoted to WFA1 through the normal process of promotion and relegation (which has yet to be hashed out within the WFA). After all, it may prove to be that the Los Angeles market can support two WFA1 teams, and I don’t think the league should turn its back on the possibility.
4) Alter the 50-mile rule to only apply to (new) teams on your tier or below. This is sort of a mix of options 2 and 3. WFA1 teams, after all, would have a 50-mile radius to shut out any new teams whatsoever. But WFA2 teams would only have territorial rights over WFA2 and WFA3…they could not prevent a team in their region from entering the league in WFA1. Similarly, WFA3 teams would have exclusive territorial rights within WFA3 but could not stop a new team from joining the league in WFA1 or WFA2. This allows a new team that is demonstratively stronger than the existing team in their region to enter the league at a higher tier.
I think the 50-mile rule should be scrapped altogether, but if that’s too bold a step, these are a few options for at least reinterpreting and modernizing a woefully antiquated rule. If the WFA wants to unify the sport, it is imperative that it rid itself of an ineffective, counterproductive rule that prevents outstanding organizations like the Utah Falconz, Austin Yellow Jackets, Minnesota Vixen, Houston Energy, Houston Wildcats, and others from even entertaining the possibility of joining the sport’s premier league and instead forces them into the hands of other leagues. A common-sense modification of the 50-mile rule would go a long way toward finally getting all of us into the same boat.
Filed under: General