[This is the first of five articles I wrote previewing the 2016 women’s football season. For the next installment in the series, read here.]

Well, it’s silly season in women’s football…that wild and wacky time of year when new teams appear, while established teams call it quits, jump from league to league, merge, or split in two. Ah, the offseason. Here’s a mid-offseason update to get you caught up on the last three months of happenings within the sport.

Becoming the #2’s #1

The biggest shakeup of the 2015-2016 offseason is one that is still bizarrely unconfirmed. Many women’s football fans already know the long saga of the Pittsburgh Passion, but just in case, here you go.

After winning a major national championship in 2007, the Pittsburgh Passion hit a six-year championship dry spell from 2008-2013. During that time, they stamped themselves as a top contender in the premier league in women’s football (the IWFL from 2008-2010 and the WFA from 2011-2013), but they were unable to get over the hump and capture a second national title.

The triumvirate of the Chicago Force, Boston Militia, and D.C. Divas were largely to blame for the Passion’s frustrations. In five playoff appearances from 2008-2013, Pittsburgh went a combined 0-5 against those three teams. Meanwhile, either Chicago, Boston, or D.C. went on to win the conference title all six of those years.

The Pittsburgh Passion then rocked the sport after the 2013 season by leaving the WFA and going back to the IWFL. While the IWFL was the premier league in women’s football from 2008-2010, they were clearly the #2 league in the sport by 2013, a much smaller league with no franchises on Pittsburgh’s competitive level. This set the Passion up to completely overwhelm and dominate the smaller league.

The Passion obliterated their competition in the IWFL in 2014 on their way to the IWFL national title. It became the first time since 2008 – when a single top competitive league in women’s football was first established – that a team from the #1 league in the sport dropped down to win a title in the #2 league. Take a look at the chart below.

Year #1 League Champion #2 League Champion
2008 IWFL Dallas Diamonds NWFA H-Town Texas Cyclones
2009 IWFL Kansas City Tribe WFA St. Louis Slam
2010 IWFL Boston Militia WFA Lone Star Mustangs
2011 WFA Boston Militia IWFL Atlanta Xplosion
2012 WFA San Diego Surge IWFL Montreal Blitz
2013 WFA Chicago Force IWFL Carolina Phoenix
2014 WFA Boston Militia IWFL Pittsburgh Passion

Look at the six champions of the #2 leagues from 2008-2013. Five of the six – the H-Town Texas Cyclones in 2008, the Lone Star Mustangs in 2010, the Atlanta Xplosion in 2011, the Montreal Blitz in 2012, and the Carolina Phoenix in 2013 – had played in that league for their entire existence when they won the league title. The lone exception is the 2009 St. Louis Slam, although that’s largely a technicality. After the NWFA dissolved in 2008, most of its members jumped over to the newly-formed WFA for the 2009 season. The St. Louis Slam, who had played in the NWFA for their entire existence, went on to win the WFA title in its first year in 2009.

The point is…every single #2 league champion from 2008-2013 was native to that league (or, in St. Louis’ case, a predecessor league). Their titles didn’t result from an abrupt change in leagues…to the contrary, each of those teams won the championship in the league in which they originated or in which they had competed for years.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, jumped into the IWFL in 2014 from the WFA, ready to dominate. I want to be very clear: I have a lot of respect for many of the teams in the IWFL, including the Blitz, the Phoenix, and several others. But those teams were on a different level developmentally from where the Passion were when they entered the league in 2014. Pittsburgh left a league of competitive equals to go to a league where they faced none.

I gave an example of what I’m talking about back in January 2014 shortly after the Passion made the move to the IWFL. The reigning 2013 IWFL champions were the Carolina Phoenix, a solid team that boasted a roster of 36 players. The 2013 Pittsburgh Passion, on the other hand, featured 96 players! I know quality is more important than quantity in many respects, but such a massive difference in roster size is a huge advantage in women’s football, where smaller teams are often forced to play players both ways out of necessity.

Of course, teams jumping from larger leagues to smaller leagues and immediately rolling to titles is nothing new in women’s football; teams like the Memphis Dynasty and Jacksonville Dixie Blues have made similar moves in the past. However, it had never been done on this scale before…an elite team in the #1 league that had narrowly failed to get over the hump and win a championship jumping down to the #2 league and capturing a high-profile national title.

Coulda Been A Contender

The biggest irony of Pittsburgh’s move to the IWFL is that the 2014 WFA season might have been their best chance to overcome the Chicago-Boston-D.C. troika. All three teams lost one of their best playmakers to injury for a substantial part of the 2014 regular season – quarterback Sami Grisafe for Chicago, running back Whitney Zelee for Boston, and quarterback Allyson Hamlin for D.C. Had Pittsburgh stayed healthy, 2014 might have been the year for the Passion to finally secure home field advantage throughout the WFA playoffs…but we’ll never know.

The Pittsburgh Passion repeated their IWFL title in 2015, and this time the D.C. Divas captured the WFA championship. It was another ironic outcome for Pittsburgh – of the Chicago-Boston-D.C. triumvirate, the Divas were the team the Passion had the most success against, defeating them in regular season games in 2012 and 2013. Yet it was the Divas who came away with the most coveted championship in women’s football by overcoming Boston and Chicago for the crown, while Pittsburgh was left to run roughshod over a smaller league.

On top of all that, the Pittsburgh Passion racked up their long winning streak against IWFL competition without facing their top rivals from the WFA on an interleague basis. The Boston Militia and D.C. Divas would have been receptive to playing the Passion in interleague matchups, as they struggled to compile eight-game regular season schedules in Pittsburgh’s absence. Yet no interleague games between Pittsburgh and top WFA teams were scheduled in 2014 and 2015, and it was precisely that lack of local competition that Militia owner Ernie Boch cited as the primary reason for folding his team after winning the WFA title in 2014.

The Pittsburgh Passion’s presence in the IWFL the past two seasons created an awkward situation. Outsiders with little knowledge of the sport and die-hard Passion partisans alike celebrated Pittsburgh’s championship success with glowing praise, but knowledgeable women’s football fans had to reconcile Pittsburgh’s success with the reality that their recent championships were only achieved after switching leagues and no longer competing against their top competitive rivals.

Full disclosure: I have been openly critical in the past of Pittsburgh’s move. If Pittsburgh wants to play in the IWFL, I have no issues with that, of course – every team should be allowed to play in whatever league they want. But if you’re going to call your team a dynasty (or at least not shy away from others doing so), you can’t duck the top teams in the top league and pretend they don’t exist. You can’t leave a league filled with competitive equals, refuse to play them on an interleague basis, and then demand “world championship” respect for dominating a league filled with less-developed teams. It doesn’t work that way…

…or at least it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, there are so many folks out there who scarcely know women’s football exists that it’s easy to pull the wool over their eyes. When they hear, “We went undefeated and won the title!” they don’t examine it any more closely than that. It’s one of the natural drawbacks of a less-publicized sport, and sometimes teams and leagues try to leverage the overall public’s lack of awareness about women’s football for their own gain. Since part of my mission is to help make the sport more accessible to the general public by educating potential women’s football fans about the realities of the sport, I often find myself at odds with those who’d prefer not to have such information publicized.

On that note, Pittsburgh Passion fans and players don’t want to hear any of this criticism of their favorite team. The thing is, I know that the Pittsburgh players and fans aren’t to blame for any of it – after all, they don’t get to decide what league the Passion plays in or what interleague matchups they schedule. All the players can do is try to win against the schedule put in front of them, and they have performed admirably in that regard. The blame rests with the people who put that schedule in front of them, and while players and fans may have input on that issue, they don’t have the final say.

I believe Teresa Conn, the co-owner of the Passion, is the one who ultimately held the cards here, and that’s the other complicating factor. No one wants to say anything negative about Conn, who is a longtime veteran of women’s football and, according to anyone you care to ask, a real credit to the sport. She has been involved in growing women’s football for over a decade and is a giant within the game. But with all that said, I think she’s a good woman who made a severe miscalculation, and I don’t think moving the Passion to the IWFL will go down as one of the best moves of her career. But that’s just my opinion.

Believe me, I’m not trying to enrage probably the largest fanbase in women’s football, since I have a lot of respect for the Passion organization. But as always, I have a responsibility to be honest and call it as I see it, even if that means making enemies here and there. The thing is, what those Pittsburgh fans and players may not understand is that I’m actually arguing that they deserve better. The Pittsburgh Passion are a proud franchise in women’s football history that deserves to be competing against the elite in the sport rather than hammering less-developed teams by thirty points every week. Pittsburgh-Boston and Pittsburgh-D.C. are the kinds of games that can grow this entire sport and attract mainstream attention…and mainstream respect.

Where’s Your Passion?

That was a long and winding road to here, but it brings me to the biggest news of the offseason. The Pittsburgh Passion have spent the past two years isolated from most of the other elite teams in women’s football. Times may be a-changin’…although it appears the WFA dropped the ball on the announcement.

In years past, the WFA has had teams submit bids on hosting the league’s championship weekend, with preference going toward defending league champions. I know the D.C. Divas, as 2015 WFA champions, were excited about the prospect of hosting the 2016 national championship game…Washington, DC, has never hosted a women’s football national championship game, so folks here were fired up about the possibility.

Instead, the WFA declared on October 2 that it was awarding the 2016 WFA championship game (and, apparently, all WFA national championship games for the foreseeable future) to a group headed by the owners of the Pittsburgh Passion. It was disappointing news to many in the Divas camp, although there are rumors that this deal brings with it the possibility of high-level media coverage…rumors which, even unsubstantiated, make the awarding of the championship game to Pittsburgh a bit of a no-brainer.

But here’s where things get weird: nowhere in the WFA’s October 2 announcement did they actually say that the Pittsburgh Passion were joining the WFA for the 2016 season. For over a month, neither the WFA nor the Pittsburgh Passion have confirmed that, hey, the Passion have returned to the WFA.

Now, it stands to reason that this is the case. First and foremost, why would the WFA award its national championship to an ownership group of a team from another league? That’s ludicrous on the face of it. For the IWFL’s part, they have scrubbed the Pittsburgh Passion from their team directory (and that’s one page on their site they keep religiously updated with the latest accurate information, unlike, say, this page).

So I think it’s safe to say that the Pittsburgh Passion have returned to the Women’s Football Alliance for the 2016 season. But for over a month, that statement has been 99 percent solid but not 100 percent confirmed.

(Again, for those who think I don’t criticize the WFA…this has to be regarded as a massive PR blunder. What should have happened is for the Passion and WFA to jointly make a public statement that Pittsburgh has returned to the WFA after a two-year absence, followed by a second announcement that the Passion have been awarded hosting rights for the 2016 league championship weekend. Alternately, you could break the news of both developments at the same time, emphasizing the Passion move first and the league championship game location second. To make the second announcement first and then fail to make the first announcement for over a month is, well, less than ideal, to be kind.)

WFA Expansion

I have also been critical of the WFA’s rather apathetic approach to expansion the past several years. Since acquiring a flood of refugees from the IWFL in 2011, the WFA has basically been contracting ever since. In 2012, the WFA featured 58 teams, but by 2015, that number had shrunk to just 40 teams.

That’s not a horrible number overall, but there were geographic strains as well. The WFA had just two functional teams – the Boston Renegades and the D.C. Divas – on the East Coast by the end of 2015. From as far south as the Carolinas all the way up through Maine, and as far west as Pennsylvania, there were only two WFA teams in that entire region. Considering that this region encompasses many of the biggest media markets in the country, the lack of WFA representation in the Northeast was troubling, to say the least.

I’m pleased to see that the league has rebounded with an aggressive round of expansion this offseason. New planned additions to the WFA for the 2016 season include:

Philadelphia Phantomz
Richmond Black Widows
Fayetteville Fierce
Memphis Stars
Alabama Fire (Birmingham, AL)
Franklin Nightmare (Franklin, TN)
Port City Jaguars (Shreveport, LA)
Flint City Riveters
East Texas Lady Crusaders
Mile High Blaze (from independent)
Colorado Voodoo (from IWFL?)
Pittsburgh Passion* (from IWFL)

The asterisked Passion are, as noted, unconfirmed. It is unclear if the Colorado Voodoo are the former Colorado Springs Voodoo of the IWFL…that would appear to be the case from the logos and social media chatter, but the IWFL hasn’t officially scrubbed the Voodoo from their team directory and, again, that’s something they ordinarily keep pretty well up-to-date.

In other team news, the WFA’s Portland Shockwave and Portland Fighting Fillies have announced a merger to become the Portland Fighting Shockwave. The merger into one Portland franchise should allow the Fighting Shockwave to better challenge the regional supremacy of the Seattle Majestics in the Pacific Northwest. I love the move…anything that allows for the possibility of an elite women’s football team in Portland I’m all for.

The other major WFA news of the offseason was the addition of a second league championship for smaller-market teams. This will provide postseason opportunities to newer teams that may not be capable of competing in the playoffs against the elite WFA franchises at this stage of their development. It’s unclear at this point if there will simply be a separate playoff bracket for small-market teams or if this will be a full-fledged second tier, similar to what the IWFL had in place from 2008-2010.

Personally, I hope it’s the latter, but either way, I think it’s a great development for the WFA. Let’s face it…many, many women’s football teams know well before the season starts – if they are being candid – that they’re not going to take down the Chicago Force, for example, come playoff time. What, then, do these teams have to play for? It’s important for the WFA to give these teams something to compete for, some kind of incentive to remain in the same league as Chicago while knowing that there are still goals to attain. I think that was the idea behind the “regional bowl games” proposed by the league last year, and I assume that’s the purpose behind this small-market championship as well. Regardless, I’m all for it.

With all these new developments and a dozen new teams on board already, it’s looking like a very nice offseason for the Women’s Football Alliance.

IWFL Expansion and a New Look for the WSFL

The IWFL has publicized six new potential additions to the league for the 2016 season, including four expansion teams: the Woodland Wildcats (near Houston, TX), the Bakersfield Bombers, the Maine Mayhem, and the Granite Grey Wolves. The Mayhem and Grey Wolves will take over the territory of the Northeast Rebels, who announced their dissolution earlier this offseason after four straight winless seasons. The Mayhem will operate in Maine, where the Rebels resided for most of their history, while the Grey Wolves take up residence in New Hampshire, where the Rebels played their final few seasons in the former territory of the defunct New Hampshire/Manchester Freedom.

I don’t know much about the Bakersfield team, but mark my words: the Woodland Wildcats look like they could be a real contender in the IWFL. Laura Cantu, the legendary former quarterback of the Houston Energy, is the team’s head coach and a member of their front office…that alone should tell you the Wildcats mean business.

The IWFL also has two new acquisitions from other leagues. The Tulsa Threat are moving to the IWFL after five seasons in the WFA. Also, the New York Knockout are returning to the IWFL after one season competing in the W8FL, where they won the 2015 W8FL championship.

Meanwhile, the Women’s Spring Football League (WSFL), the #3 league in women’s football, has announced that it will rebrand into the United States Women’s Football League (USWFL). The league, under Mary Butler’s leadership, had probably the best season in its existence in 2015, featuring a solid ten-team core. To this point, there is no public news about any offseason changes to the league’s lineup of teams, so no new info to report there.

Full disclosure: I covered the WSFL (now USWFL) in-depth last season, providing recaps for every single league game as a volunteer staff writer. I did this in an effort to promote the league, which – as the smallest of the three major U.S. leagues – gets too little coverage otherwise. About midway through last season, however, I found my line of communication to Butler’s office abruptly cut, for some reason. Numerous messages went unreturned.

I’m a loudmouth, so it’s certainly possible I said something to upset the league…or perhaps it’s just a misunderstanding where the league got too busy to respond to my requests. Honestly, no ill will either way. Butler has hired Tracy Parker to serve as USWFL commissioner and has made vocal statements that only she and Parker officially represent the league or are authorized to speak on its behalf. Perhaps that’s directed at me, perhaps not…I truly don’t know and again, honestly, no ill will either way. I think Butler is an effective leader who should do a fine job for the USWFL, and I wish her and her league the best. But I wanted WSFL/USWFL fans to know that it appears my days as an unpaid league staff writer have come to an end…which, again, is A-OK.

While the USWFL appears to still have a solid core of teams in place, the four-team W8FL has had two major departures. The two teams that played in the 2015 W8FL championship game, the New York Knockout and the Cape Fear Thunder, are not expected to participate in the W8FL in 2016. It is also unclear if the W8FL will undergo a similar rebranding as their parent league, the USWFL.

Finally, two old names from women’s football past have declared their intentions to restart. The Dayton Diamonds and Las Vegas Showgirlz are both attempting to return from hiatus. The Diamonds competed for four seasons before folding after the 2011 WFA campaign. The Showgirlz closed up shop last year after nine strong seasons from 2006-2014 and were replaced in the WFA by the Sin City Sun Devils. The Showgirlz have stated that they plan to compete as an independent team in 2016 as they try to complete their resurrection.

A New Era of Women’s Indoor Football?

The Lingerie Football League (or Legends Football League, if you prefer) has received a fair amount of publicity lately for their smutty brand of women’s indoor football. It’s worth noting that while women’s outdoor football has been around continuously since 1999, legitimate women’s indoor football has never really taken off. There have been various attempts over the years – the most notable of which was the Women’s Indoor Football League (WIFL), a vaporware scam that bilked a lot of well-intentioned female athletes out of tryout fees and inspired me to write a 20-part exposé on the league. (Yes, seriously…don’t steal from women’s football players. It makes me mad.) Well, the concept of legitimate indoor women’s football is being floated again, with two different leagues trying to make a go of it.

The first is the Women’s Indoor Gridiron League (WIGL). The WIGL tried to launch last year with teams like the Conshohocken (PA) Lady Steel, the Wilmington (DE) Widows, and the Garden State (NJ) Gladiators. None of these teams got out of the planning stages, however. Still, the WIGL has pledged a 2016 comeback, with the South Florida Eagles one of the latest rumored teams. There is also a Facebook group more or less dedicated to the league called the Women’s Indoor Tackle Football Group.

The WIGL is a theoretical offshoot of the Indoor Gridiron League (IGL), a non-pro men’s football league. The IGL is owned by Joe Krause, who also owns the Philadelphia Yellow Jackets of the American Indoor Football (AIF) league. Krause has an intriguing history as the former Vice President of Sales for the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League. Unfortunately, the AIF has a pretty lousy reputation in indoor football and the IGL has never been able to escape non-pro status, which raises questions as to whether or not the WIGL will ever become viable.

Another person trying to establish a women’s indoor football league is no stranger to fans of women’s football. Randall Fields, the former head of the WSFL, has released plans to launch the Ladies Indoor Football League (LIFL) in the fall of 2016. The LIFL intends to operate in the Midwest in its first season with a planned national rollout in the years to follow.

Four teams are set to launch in the LIFL’s inaugural season: the Chicago Assault, the Iowa Heartbreakers, the Milwaukee Ice, and Minneapolis Storm. The LIFL is positioning itself as an alternative to the LFL, with a nearly transparent “I” in the LIFL logo and taking in several former LFL players and coaches.

The Chicago Assault is anchored by a pair of former players of the LFL’s Chicago Bliss, Dana Dixon and Bridget McDonnell. The Iowa Heartbreakers were originally named the Omaha Heartbreakers before moving their headquarters across the Mississippi River to Council Bluffs, Iowa; the Heartbreakers named former Omaha Heart head coach Dontae Allen as the team’s general manager and signed a former Heart player, Marissa Mitchell Riley, to their roster as well. The Milwaukee Ice claims to be a continuation and renaming of the LFL’s Green Bay Chill, which operated out of Milwaukee in its final season. The Ice have signed former Chill assistant head coach Darius Jenkins to serve as their general manager.

[Edited to add (October 2016): The LIFL announced Riley’s “signing” in July 2015, and I have added a link to where the LIFL made that announcement. Riley has since sworn off the league and re-committed to the LFL; please see her comment below. That’s not a surprising development, given that the LIFL has now gone over a year without playing a single game. Despite any claim of “faulse accurations”, my article was correct when it was written. Still, my thanks to Melissa Mitchell-Riley for the update on her current playing status, even though being an LFL player under the thumb of Mitch Mortaza is hardly worth bragging about.]

The LIFL has also publicized plans to launch a developmental league in the spring of 2016 called the Ladies American Football League (LAFL). The LAFL will serve as the spring recruiting pipeline to the LIFL. So far, the LAFL consists of three teams – the Arkansas Falcons, the Music City Mizfits, and the Cape Fear Thunder. The Thunder are coming over from the W8FL, a league they initially joined in 2011 when it was under Fields’ ownership and where they spent several seasons.

Give Thanks for Women’s Football!

A couple teams have also decided to fill an otherwise slow offseason with plans for fall contests. The IWFL’s Detroit Pride publicized an October game against the Kansas City Storm, but the game was postponed at the Storm’s request. The plan was then to hold the contest sometime in November instead, but given the Storm’s shaky history – they have scarcely seen the field the past five years – it seems somewhat unlikely.

Perhaps a better chance would be given to the LAFL’s Music City Mizfits, who have announced that they will make their franchise debut against the WFA’s Derby City Dynamite in a Thanksgiving Day game called the Juice Bowl. The Mizfits are an expansion team in an expansion league, so skepticism is in order until we see them take the field, but it looks like the first game in the LAFL’s history could be right around the corner.

It’s an intriguing development…a one-game fall exhibition during the otherwise slow fall period might help generate some fan interest locally in women’s football and give women’s football players incentive to stay in solid physical shape during the offseason. It will be interesting to see if fall football exhibitions are a trend that will take off in the future.

Still two months away from the start of 2016 women’s football training camps, so there is much more to come! Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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