The Framework for a Professional Women’s Football League
It’s a question I’ve been asked on multiple occasions. “Neal, do you think there will be a professional women’s football league in my lifetime?”
My best answer to that question would be, “How long do you plan to live?” I follow that up by asking if the questioner is a smoker, so I can get a realistic view of how much time I’m working with here.
Seriously, though, I’m of the firm belief that a professional women’s football league is not an impossibility. In fact, I think we could see one in the next five to ten years…if it were executed correctly, which is naturally easier said than done. But before women’s football players and fans get too excited about the prospect of professional women’s football, I would caution readers that a professional women’s football league would undoubtedly look much, much different than what some fans may have built it up to be in their minds.
Still, it’s a captivating topic for most folks in women’s football, because it’s the grandest aim of the sport’s most ardent supporters. So let’s paint a realistic picture of what such a league could look like…and how it could realistically happen in your lifetime (depending on how long you plan to live).
Professional, Semipro, and Amateur
Let’s start with the most basic of basic questions: what do we mean by professional women’s football? After all, many women’s football teams now call themselves “professional” or “semiprofessional”. Neither label is technically correct, at least in the way mainstream sports uses them.
Historically, there have been three classifications of athletes: professional, semiprofessional, and amateur. Professional athletes referred to those who made a full-time living in sports…in other words, athletes for whom sports was their primary profession. Commercial opportunities have blurred those lines somewhat – many athletes now make as much or more money off the athletic field through endorsements of commercial products as they do on it earning a salary from their chosen sport – but a pro athlete is someone who considers their sport and the resultant commercial opportunities as their sole source of income.
A “semiprofessional” athlete, technically, is an athlete who makes money at their chosen sport but not enough to live on. These athletes earn a stipend for playing their sport, but it’s not large enough to make a full-time living, so they generally have other jobs to support themselves. While technically semipros, semiprofessional athletes are often called pro athletes by outsiders. I’m not a huge fan of the “semiprofessional” term, as it makes it sound like the athletes are “kind of professional, but not really.” It’s almost like calling these people pro athletes with an asterisk.
Finally, an amateur athlete is one who accepts no money to play their sport (which means they usually wind up paying their own way, even if that just means paying ancillary expenses). The way you can think about these three classifications are that NFL players are professionals, arena football league players are semiprofessionals, and high school football players are amateurs (or at least they’re supposed to be!)
Note that these classifications are solely based on how one is compensated for the sport they play, not the skill with which they play it. By the definition outlined above, women’s football players in the United States today are clearly amateur athletes, and there’s no shame in that. After all, amateur athletics – which for most of the 20th century included both the Olympic Games and all college sports, including college football – has produced some of the most recognized and revered athletes this country has known.
Pro-Am Women’s Football
But today, no athlete wants to be called an amateur, and understandably so. The word “amateur” has a second definition, and a far less flattering one. While an amateur can describe “a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis”, it can also describe “a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.” Yikes on definition two.
When I’m pressed to label today’s women’s football players, I tend to refer to them as “professional amateurs,” or pro-ams. I’m a big fan of Charles Leadbeater’s work, “The Pro-Am Revolution.” (It’s linked here if you’d like to read it in its entirety.) Leadbeater’s basic point is that many people are now pursuing amateur activities to professional standards, which means that people are often able to become national or global leaders in fields that aren’t necessarily their full-time jobs. It’s fascinating stuff.
In sports, the pro-am label has been co-opted by golf to refer to tournaments that include professional and amateur athletes alike. But in the context of women’s football, all of the women playing the game today are “professional amateurs” – amateurs in how they are compensated, but professional in that they are the best female players in the world at their chosen sport.
What is Professional Women’s Football?
When I talk about a professional women’s football league, I’m not actually talking about “professional” women’s football…the day that women earn a full-time living playing football is still far off. I, and most female athletes I speak with, are talking about a semiprofessional league where women can draw a paycheck for playing football, even if it’s not a full-time salary. While technically semiprofessional, I’d consider that to be a pro league – and a great step in the right direction over the current “pay to play” format.
Professional leagues are, by definition, leagues where players are paid to play. On the other hand, current women’s football leagues, like the WFA, IWFL, and USWFL, are “pay to play”…players fork over several hundred dollars a year to both their team and their league for the opportunity to play.
(Before we go any further, let me dispel an absurd notion that I see come up from time to time. When women’s football teams and leagues charge women a team fee or league fee in order to play, it’s not because they’re racking up huge profits on the backs of subjugated female athletes. It’s not that they don’t “appreciate their hard work,” as is often said in ignorance.
The reality is that there is a large amount of overhead in running women’s football teams and leagues, and these massive expenses need to be at least partially offset by fees from the athletes themselves. Most women’s football team owners I know, actually, are running their teams at a loss…these owners are just trying to recoup enough money to keep their annual operating losses at a manageable level so they can come back again and give it another try next year. But team owners aren’t taking players’ team fees and rolling around on a pile of cash like Scrooge McDuck. That’s just not the economic reality of women’s football at the moment.)
To create a true professional women’s football league, there’s an important milestone that must be passed, one that – once achieved – will signal that we are finally on our way to converting women’s football into an honest-to-goodness professional sport.
Free To Play
Let’s throw out some vague, hypothetical numbers. Let’s say that the average women’s football player today pays something like $800 a year in team fees in order to play. Now let’s say that we want to create a league where women are paid to play – say, along the lines of $600 a year.
Well, to get from their current salary of -$800 a year to the desired salary of $600 a year, we have to pass a very important milestone…and that milestone is a salary of $0 per year. In other words, a point at which players aren’t necessarily paid to play, but where they are no longer required to pay (their team and their league) a fee to play.
This is what I like to call the “free to play” barrier. Granted, the sport isn’t actually free to play at this point – as we will see – but it’s free in the sense every single player in the league is free to play without being required to pay a fee to the team or league.
It’s an interesting barrier, because several considerations change once you pass that point. In a “pay to play” format, the more players you have on your team, the better; 65 players is preferable to 50, and 80 players is preferable to 65. Although it doesn’t really help your competitiveness on the field to add players to your team at that point, as only 11 can play at any given time, being able to spread a number of set team operating expenses across 80 players via team fees instead of 50 is a major advantage.
There are a number of expenses in running a football team that are set, whether you’re talking about a team of 30 players or a team of 100. For instance, the cost to rent a field is the same, regardless of how many players are playing on it. So if the cost to rent a field is $100, it’s better to have 80 players who can chip in toward that cost than to have only 50 pitching in. It results (theoretically, at least) in a lower team fee for everyone.
That’s the “pay to play” model. But once you pass the “free to play” barrier and into “paid to play” territory, fewer players is actually much better. If a team has to cut a check to every player on the team in a paid league, a 40-player team is much more desirable than an 80-player one. That’s just one of many factors that change once the “free to play” barrier is passed.
Other Professional Women’s Sports Leagues
Up to this point, it’s probably been fun for people to dream about the prospect of professional women’s football. Here’s where I throw a dose of cold water in your face: once professional women’s football arrives, it’s probably going to look a lot different than you might envision it in your head. And one of the main ways it’s going to look different is in team numbers and geography.
When I talk about professional women’s football, many people probably have visions of a women’s NFL – a 32-team league operating from coast to coast. But that’s not the reality of women’s sports in general, I’m afraid.
The most successful league in women’s team sports is undoubtedly the WNBA, which receives substantial backing from its big-brother league. But while the NBA has 30 teams from coast to coast, it’s worth noting that the WNBA has a significantly smaller footprint with only 12 member franchises. And bear in mind, that’s with massive support – in terms of facilities, marketing, and hundreds of other factors – from the NBA, support that women’s football isn’t getting from the NFL any time soon.
Women’s soccer currently has 10 teams, but it took some time to get there. The Women’s United Soccer Association tried to launch with eight teams back in 2001, but even with an initial investment of $5 million from outside sources, the league folded after three years. A few years later, Women’s Professional Soccer tried it again in 2009, this time with seven teams. This league morphed into the current ten-team National Women’s Soccer League, but as you can see, it took almost two decades since Brandi Chastain’s famous celebration to get here.
The Example of The National Women’s Hockey League
If you want a template that a professional women’s football league should follow, look no further than the National Women’s Hockey League, which is currently in the midst of its third season. The women’s pro hockey league has four teams, all clustered together in the Northeast. The four markets covered by the NWHL are New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston, and Buffalo, NY. These four teams are all within a tight seven-hour radius, and that’s the format a professional women’s football league in its infancy must follow as well.
The first pro women’s football league, in my opinion, should have no more than four teams, located in distinct metro areas within a tight four-to-six hour radius of each other. Given those parameters, there are four regions that would be ideal for a professional women’s football league.
Pacific Southwest: San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas
Texas: Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio
Southeast: Atlanta, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando
Northeast: DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York City
Now, I know what you’re thinking…if there were a four-team professional women’s football league in just one area of the country, what about all the great women’s football players who live everywhere else in the country? My response is two-fold.
First, I’ve seen players in the WFA relocate across the country just for an opportunity to play with a different team in the same pay-to-play format! If a legitimate professional women’s football league starts up in one area of the country and you want to be a part of that revolution and you don’t live there, well, get there. This is a chance to blaze a major trail in the world of women’s football, after all. And second, if a professional women’s football league winds up working in one of those four clusters, it should provide a template for a second professional women’s football league to be developed in another one of the clusters in short order.
Here’s the thing…women’s football players want a professional league where players are paid to play (or at least where it is free to play), but they also want a national league. I’m saying that maybe you have to choose one, at least for the time being. The Women’s Football Alliance is a coast-to-coast league, but the expense of maintaining the league’s national footprint is one of the principal reasons why the league is “pay to play”. I’m proposing the idea of a women’s paid pro league, but in order to get there, it has to have a tight geographic footprint.
Professional women’s hockey doesn’t have a coast-to-coast league, just a four-team league in one heavily populated section of the country. That’s how professional women’s football can start, too.
The Professional Women’s Football League
For the sake of this hypothetical example, let’s imagine a four-team professional women’s football league in the Northeast, since that’s where I reside. I’ve always believed that a professional women’s football league should be named – are you ready for it? – the Professional Women’s Football League.
Seriously, in the alphabet soup of women’s football leagues, why has no one tried the PWFL? I’m sure there’s a reason, but I can’t imagine what it is. The PWFL is a great acronym that immediately hints at what women’s football players truly are…PoWerFuL. It instantly calls to mind a league full of powerful women.
Hopefully that’s an acronym that will only be used when someone decides to create a professional women’s football league that is truly professional…not “professional” in the way that many teams in the current pay-to-play format have used it over the years. And by the way, if anyone does decide to use the PWFL acronym, I’m going to hunt you down and force you to buy me a Pepsi for stealing my ideas.
My four-team Northeast league would include DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh. Technically, Baltimore would fit the footprint better than Pittsburgh and would offer less travel. But Pittsburgh has the largest fanbase in women’s football, the best local media coverage, and a history in women’s football that is second-to-none. So, with all due respect Baltimore, you’re out. I’d stretch the footprint to include Pittsburgh, even if it’s a solid six hours from Pittsburgh to NYC.
But it’s a great four-market cluster. The D.C. Divas and Pittsburgh Passion are two of the top Blue Bloods of the sport, and the New York Sharks used to be and are a team with great history. New York, Philadelphia, and DC are major media markets, and again, Pittsburgh has as much local media support of women’s football of any city out there. DC, New York, and Pittsburgh rank #1, #2, and #5 all-time in wins among active women’s football teams in the pay-to-play format. It seems like a prime location to start something like this, but that doesn’t mean the other three areas I mentioned wouldn’t be, too.
The next big question involves how the league should be structured and whether you want to go with a franchise model or a single-entity model. Major pro sports like the NFL, NBA, and MLB follow a franchise model, where a single individual owns a team and a collection of owner-controlled teams voluntarily join together under a league umbrella.
Conceptually, the WFA, IWFL, and USWFL operate the same way. An owner controls a single women’s football team, and that owner decides on a year-to-year basis what league the team will play in or if the team will continue operating at all.
There are significant differences between the NFL and WFA, of course. No NFL team would ever voluntarily leave the league…there’s simply too much money involved. NFL teams are cash cows, while women’s football teams (as mentioned before) generally operate at a loss. On that note, women’s football teams fold all the time, whereas you’d have to go back decades to find the last NFL team that truly folded.
That’s why the franchise model in a professional women’s football league would be a challenge. Let’s say the PWFL lured the D.C. Divas, Pittsburgh Passion, Philly Phantomz, and New York Sharks into our new league and continued with a franchise model, where a team owner maintained full control of the individual teams.
It would be tempting to do so. After all, the Divas, Passion, and Sharks have already built up significant name recognition over 15+ years in their communities, so why not take immediate advantage of that?
But I think that would be a mistake. Imagine if a couple years after the PWFL is created, Sharks owner Andra Douglas decided to call it quits and fold up the Sharks. Because she owns the brand under the franchise model, there’s nothing the league could do to stop it and they would not be able to carry on the Sharks name without her involvement. Moreover, now the entire PWFL is in danger…the whole concept of the league is built around the premise of four teams in a tight geographical region. And New York City is the biggest media market in the world, one the PWFL could not stand to lose.
How would the league respond? The natural move would be to find another interested party to start a new New York team…say, the New York Minnows or something. But what happens if the new owner of the Minnows decided to shut that team down in two years? It could be a never-ending cycle and a headache for the league.
Moreover, it’s hard to build and establish a brand when you’ve got a constantly changing roster of teams. That was the whole benefit of bringing in teams with established brands to begin with, but if teams start to shut down, your future is compromised for the sake of short-term gain.
The Single-Entity Model
All of this brings us to the single-entity model, where the league owns all four member teams. While I hate to even mention them, this is the model the lingerie league follows. I’ve been critical of the LFL’s single-entity model before, mostly because it gives league owner Mitch Mortaza considerable power – including the power to fix games – which he exploits on a regular basis. But at the end of the day, I don’t think the LFL’s flaws are as much a single-entity problem as a Mitch Mortaza problem.
Basically, I think a legitimate professional women’s football league would be well-served by following the single-entity model. Each of the four teams could have a general manager who basically serves as the team owner, but with the understanding that these local general managers don’t own the team brand and therefore don’t have the ability to shut the teams down. If they want out at any time, the league can simply appoint a new general manager to run the team, but the brand remains. It puts a lot of power in the hands of the league office, but it would allow for the most efficient operation of the league…provided that the league owner isn’t Mitch Mortaza and the “sport” isn’t lingerie football, of course.
I’ll say that I’m not a lawyer, and it would take a legal mind to come up with the exact legal structure of the league, how much power local GMs have in the operation of their teams as opposed to the league office, etc. It’s a major sticking point in all of this. And it would be imperative that in the competitive quest to win games and championships, team GMs don’t overstep their bounds and start to incur nonessential expenses that players would be expected to offset…because that would constitute charging players team fees, which is exactly what this league is designed to eliminate.
As mentioned previously, if the PWFL wants to make the leap into being a pro league, the fewer players, the better. Yet each team needs to have enough players to put on a high-quality contest where not everyone is playing on both sides of the ball. I think a 40-player active roster is the sweet spot, with an allowance for up to 10 “inactive” players at any given time. So a 50-player roster with 40 active on gameday seems like the best way to go.
With four teams, the PWFL would give 160-200 women’s football players a chance to chase the dream of being pro athletes. You can imagine the competition that would be involved for those coveted spots and the level of talent that would be competing for them. Team GMs would have to decide how to construct their roster wisely…because their three opponents are located close enough geographically that a player who doesn’t make their roster could easily wind up playing against them for one of the other three local teams.
Killing Travel Costs
What would a PWFL season look like? Well, it’s actually quite simple. A six-game regular season would feature every team playing their three league-mates in a home-and-home matchup. At the end of the regular season, the top two teams play for the championship at the site of the team with the best regular season record. And that’s it…it’s that simple.
This is where the tight geographic footprint comes into play. Each team would have three regular season home games and three very manageable road games. But none of the road games would necessarily require an overnight stay…no hotels for the league to worry about.
Compare this to the road schedule most WFA and IWFL teams play. Almost every team has at least one game that is more than six hours away, requiring hotels and in some cases airline trips. I remember that an ill-fated attempt several years back at a professional women’s football league bragged about having an airline sponsor that would (supposedly) provide them with discounted airfare.
Look, if you’re looking at “discounted” airfare for a paid league, you’re doing it wrong. Because guess what? Even discounted airfare costs a freak-ton of money. One of my father’s favorite sayings when hearing about such “X percent off” deals is, “I can’t afford to save that much money.” In other words, don’t worry about the 20 percent you’re saving…worry about the 80 percent you’re spending. Basically, the goal is to create a professional women’s football league that doesn’t rely on air travel at all, because air travel is too large an expense to incur if you also want to pay the women to play.
Even if a WFA or IWFL team manages to get by with a reasonable regular-season travel schedule, there’s no way you can play a national postseason schedule without one team – and usually both teams – incurring huge travel costs. When Dallas plays Boston in Pittsburgh for the WFA championship game, both teams have to travel. And even in the IWFL, when Utah hosts Austin in the title game, it’s a great deal for Utah but a heavy cost to Austin. A tight geographic footprint between four member teams would cut travel costs for everyone, which is the goal.
How Many Games?
Finally, note that each team would only be responsible for hosting three regular season games, with one team hosting a fourth game for the championship. In the current WFA/IWFL setup, most teams host four regular season games. While some teams with large fanbases do quite well with this, for most teams, home games are actually money losers.
See, there are major expenses involved with hosting a home game. You have to rent the field, pay for security, pay for medical personnel, and pay for referees. You have to find other game day staff to work concessions, take tickets, and handle the chains. A professional atmosphere requires a PA announcer, photographers, and on and on and on. These are big costs connected to hosting a game.
On the flip side, the amount of money you get from single-game tickets (plus any one game’s share of season tickets sold) is generally less than the expenses associated with hosting the game. In short, when you run a women’s football team, most of the time the actual games are money losers…which you hope to make up with sponsorships, merchandise sales, and other revenue that frankly would be there if you were hosting three games or six.
In that environment, it’s best to limit yourself to as short a regular season schedule as possible. This also helps make every game an “event”, forcing fans to not blow off a home game just because another one is around the corner. I feel strongly that you need six regular season games to make a league work – four feels too LFL-ish, and you have a hard time motivating players if they’re only going to get four shots to play – but reducing the number of regular season games from eight to six would make a pro league more viable. And even the league champions would only have to play seven games, as opposed to the 11 or 12 games that most pay-to-play league champions play now.
Run On The Cheap…
If you’re thinking that it seems like everything in this league is run on the cheap, you’re exactly, totally right. Every single thing that the PWFL would do would be laser-focused on one overriding goal: creating a league where women do not have to pay a fee to the team or league to play. Absolutely everything else is secondary to that one goal. If I were running such a league, I’d earn a reputation as the greatest cost-cutter since Cap the Knife if that’s what it took to provide an environment where we weren’t charging the women to play.
Not only is every player forced to play a league fee to the WFA or IWFL, but these leagues also charge the teams a franchise fee to play. The teams recoup these franchise fees by using part of the money they raise from players through their team fees. So not only are players paying the league, part of their team fee also winds up going back to the league…whether that league is the WFA, IWFL, or USWFL.
So how do these leagues spend their franchise fees? The IWFL and USWFL don’t even bother to explain what their expenses are. The WFA, on the other hand, lists out a few of the items on which they spend franchise fees. Here are 13 ways a WFA team’s franchise fees are used:
1. 10 Game Balls
2. Hudl Game Film Account
3. Stats Account
4. Team Liability Coverage
5. $105 Custom Uniform Package (2 Jersey, 1 Pant)
6. $1000 Travel stipend for Conference Championship Traveling Teams
7. $4000 Travel Stipend for National Championship Teams
8. Hotels for Championship Teams
9. 50 Silver Rings for Division I National Champions
10. 50 Custom Uniforms for Division I National Champions
11. First Team All-American Jerseys Provided for All-American Game
12. NFL or College Stadium for National Championship
13. Live 3 Camera HD National Broadcast of National Championship
Now, I’m well-aware that this list is far from comprehensive. For instance, I pulled this list off of the WFA’s website…well, how are they paying for the WFA’s website costs for the domain and hosting? Franchise fees, of course, and that expense isn’t listed in the 13 above. (And again, there’s no need for any anti-WFA vitriol on this topic…at least the WFA, unlike the IWFL, actually tries to show some of the expenses the franchise fees pay for.)
Still, the list of 13 expenses above is instructive. Let’s look at that list in context of a PWFL structure.
#5 is just one jersey, but it’s worth mentioning that the single-entity nature of the PWFL should, in theory, constitute considerable savings in the operation of the league. For instance, the PWFL could truly have an “official jersey supplier” of the league, where the league would buy 200 jerseys, 50 jerseys in four different designs. It could buy pads, helmets, and many other supplies in the same way…with the hope that buying in bulk for four teams would result in some cost savings for member teams as opposed to each team having to buy things individually.
#6 and #7 pertain to travel stipends for conference and national championship games. These are costs associated with running a postseason playoff in a league that spans from coast-to-coast. The PWFL, because of its regional structure, wouldn’t have those costs. Nor would #8 come into play…no need to hotels if every team is within driving distance of each other.
Next, let’s take a look at #9, and this is where I know I’m going to get some pushback from women’s football fans. In a PWFL setup, I wouldn’t subsidize players’ championship rings, at least not until the league proves it’s financially solvent.
I get why the WFA does it…it’s a tangible thing, unlike many items on the list above. If a WFA player asks, “What are our league fees going towards?”, an answer of “team liability coverage” isn’t exactly sexy. But if the WFA can say, “Well, if you win the league title, we’ll subsidize your shiny rings,” players can wrap their heads around that. It’s something they can see and touch.
But in a PWFL format, there should be no expectation that the league is going to use their league fees to subsidize player championship rings…because there are no league fees. If a player wants to buy a championship ring, a PWFL would work to design those rings and make them available for purchase…but not pay for them.
Again, would this be controversial? No doubt. But remember, the whole purpose of the PWFL is to create an environment where a woman can show up, play a full season (including playing in and winning a championship, potentially), and leave without paying a dime to the league or her member team. That’s the overriding goal of the league.
Paying for championship rings is a nonessential expense that detracts from that goal. While most players who win championships want to buy a championship ring, it’s a nicety, not a necessity.
Now, once the PWFL proves to be financially solvent, you can start adding player benefits back in, and helping pay for championship rings would be near the top of the list. But in the early years of the league, you keep your eye on the prize…and a laser focus on only what is absolutely necessary for the operation of the league as a whole.
#10 is along the same lines. Just because you win the PWFL championship doesn’t mean you all get new uniforms. That’s frivolous. I’m sure that’s something the WFA gets comped to them so they pass it along to the championship team, but it’s still unnecessary, so it’s gone.
On #11, which is the subject of All-American jerseys…well, the PWFL wouldn’t even have an All-American or All-Pro Game. No one watches the NFL Pro Bowl, so why are we putting on a women’s version? Besides, in a league with only four teams, every game is pretty much an all-pro game, anyway. It’s an unnecessary expense and therefore gone. (The PWFL would still select all-pro teams at the end of the year as player honors; there just wouldn’t be a game associated with it.)
Finally, #12 wouldn’t apply to the PWFL, because, as mentioned, the PWFL championship game would be played at the home venue of the team with the best regular season record.
You can see already how much less overhead the PWFL would have, mostly due to the regional nature of the league. Many of the operational expenses of current pay-to-play leagues either wouldn’t apply to the pro league or would be deliberately forgone in an effort to keep costs down. There is one area where the PWFL would spend much more than current pay-to-play leagues, however.
…Except to Put On a Show
Remember that the PWFL would feature four teams playing a six-game regular season schedule. That results in just 12 regular season games being played in the league, with a 13th and final game being the league title game.
This kind of abbreviated schedule would allow the league to space out their games to just one contest every weekend. For 12 weeks a year, there would be just one PWFL game that weekend – a national professional women’s football game of the week, so to speak.
These 13 games are your signature events, and you need to portray them as such. And that means capturing the games in the best way possible from a video perspective.
The PWFL should either hire a local film crew to shoot all 13 games or buy the high-tech video equipment needed to do so. You could buy four top-of-the-line cameras to shoot the games, with one providing a standard shot from the line of scrimmage that you see during any televised football game, while several other cameras get alternate views from the sidelines or end zones.
Here’s the thing: while it could be expensive to buy the video equipment to cover these games, you’d have the benefit of only needing to buy one set of equipment, because you’d only have one game going on during any given weekend. Let’s say that week 1 features New York at Philadelphia and week 2 is Pittsburgh at D.C. You could film the game in Philadelphia the first weekend, and then load up the equipment for a short 2.5 hour drive down the road to D.C. for the game the following weekend.
There would be essentially two video packages produced: a live video that could be watched during the game, and a post-produced package that comes out several days after the game. The A camera, which provides the standard line of scrimmage shot, would provide the live feed that fans could stream on YouTube or some other online platform while the game is being played.
The footage from the other cameras would be used for the post-produced version of the game. These cameras would provide different angles for replays in the final production version of the game, plus stats, graphics, and sponsor mentions could be added to the production version that you simply can’t produce in real time during the live version.
The production version of the game is one that you could release on a Roku channel or any local television channels that have an opening in the 1 AM time slot. You could even put these games on DVD if you wanted to. It would be the ultimate business card for your league, the thing you’d take to a potential corporate sponsor to show them what the PWFL product is all about.
The best part of filming games this way is that there would be no need for individual teams to maintain Hudl accounts or keep stats, which are #2 and #3 on the WFA expense list above. After the game, the video feeds of all four cameras would be uploaded to a league account, and players could scout game film off of the camera feeds that were shot. And teams wouldn’t need to keep their own stats…the PWFL would calculate the league stats by pulling the plays right off of the game film. That would ensure that league stats are not only accurate but calculated consistently. Rather than every team calculating tackles in a different way, the league office would calculate every teams’ stats exactly the same way.
Just as I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a film production guy, so the league would need to hire someone with expertise in this area. But basically, what the WFA offers as #13 in their expense list above for their championship game, that’s what I’d want to PWFL to offer for all 13 games played in the league in a given season. And it should be doable, because all 13 games would be played on separate weekends and within a six-hour radius of each other.
Attracting the best players in the country and having high-level video production of the games is imperative in selling the league as a truly elite, professional women’s football league. After all, small regional leagues like the WXFL have four teams in a tight geographic area and probably don’t charge players much by way of team fees, but it’s not a professional league if you’re playing on unmarked fields in Ponca City, Oklahoma. A true professional women’s football league needs high-level marketing and production of games to draw in the best women’s football players in the nation. That’s the goal.
The path to profitability isn’t just about cutting expenses, however. Increasing revenues should also be a priority for a professional women’s football league. First and foremost, just having a women’s football league that could truly be called “professional” – by which we mean, not “pay to play” – should result in major publicity. Major outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, and ESPNW should be doing feature articles about “the first ever women’s pro football league”, and the league can sell itself that way, which will in theory ramp up ticket sales for the scant 13 games on the schedule.
But that pro status – combined with the high-quality filming and production of the games – should also be enough to convince major national sponsors to get on board with supporting the league…maybe not in year one, but within a couple of years. And because costs are low, it shouldn’t take much by way of corporate support to tilt the scales toward profitability.
A single-entity league would have benefits from the revenue side as well. Just as a single-entity league could cut costs by allowing the league to buy bulk supplies in support of all member clubs, it would also allow the PWFL to handle merchandising for all four member clubs. Right now, if you want to buy a jacket with your favorite women’s football team’s logo on it, you have to go to that member team and ask about it. Some teams offer that and some teams don’t, and the quality varies from team to team.
In a single-entity league, the PWFL could offer merchandise for all four member teams, which would ensure that you could buy apparel and other items featuring any of the four teams. That would maximize the revenue by guaranteeing that every team has the same access to merchandise sales as the others.
Would It Work?
Even without travel costs and a shorter schedule, teams would still have a lot of expenses in running their clubs. Practice facility costs remain high, and each team would need to host three games. Gameday staff – from photographers to PA announcers – would still need to be secured, and as mentioned, you’d need to pay for high-level video coverage and marketing. You’d need to work out some sort of compensation for the teams’ general managers and their coaching staffs.
In light of that, could such a league generate a profit without charging players any type of league or team fee? I really don’t know. This setup would come as close as possible to doing it, though. The startup costs would be pretty high, particularly if the league decided to buy its own broadcast equipment, but by the second or third year, you would know if the league is truly headed into profitability or not.
Once you were sure the “free to play” model worked and was profitable, at that point, you could start paying players actual game checks. With a $6,000 budget, you could pay each of the active 160 players in the league a $5 game check for each regular season game played, along with a $10 bonus for a runner up finish or a $20 bonus for winning the PWFL championship. And it could build from there.
In order for a women’s football league to make the leap to professional sports, it would need to cover all of its operating expenses through corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandise, and league fundraisers. A regional league setup should keep expenses down, and the publicity generated by the league’s groundbreaking professional status coupled with the high-level production of the games themselves could spur enough revenue from outside sources to cover the league’s operating costs, at least within a few years.
One final word of warning: someone may take this idea and run with it, building off of the concept to try and launch a professional women’s football league. If that day comes, I’d advise anyone wanting to sign up for such an operation to take a very, very careful look at the people involved. A fly-by-night charlatan could easily exploit the dream of women’s pro football to bilk scads of women out of their hard-earned money…it’s happened before and it will happen again. So if anyone truly proposes an idea like this, take a long, hard look at who is involved, if they have any verifiable, legitimate financial backing, and if they have built up any credibility within the sport. Basically, be careful whose star you hitch your wagon to…frankly, that’s just good advice in general.
In conclusion, I can’t say for certain that a professional women’s football league would work…after all, nothing like this has ever proven to be sustainable before. But there’s a blueprint here, and I hold to the hope that, in our lifetimes, someone reputable might go out on a limb and give it a try.