Women’s Indoor Football League: The Men Behind the Scam
[This is part one of my long investigation into Ray Blanchette, Ray Damon, and the Women’s Indoor Football League (WIFL). This article was originally posted on December 7, 2013, and was revised with new information on January 6, 2014.]
Most women’s football leagues are currently in the off-season, so I tend to take a break from writing about it in the winter months. However, I’ve been wanting for some time to shed a bit of light on the Women’s Indoor Football League, a new women’s football league that, in my opinion, is nothing more than a scam ripping money off from well-meaning, unsuspecting female athletes. And though my attention at this time of year is almost entirely on college sports, I can’t sit quietly by and watch people that love women’s football be victimized by the massive fraud that is the WIFL.
It’s time to bring this scam to light…and hopefully, my next few posts will reveal why the Women’s Indoor Football League is a blatant rip-off. If these posts prevent one single female athlete from getting sucked in to the WIFL scam and losing both her money and her faith in the sport, the effort will be worthwhile.
History of the Women’s Indoor Football League
The WIFL began with the best of intentions. It was the brainchild of Dion Lee, a longtime coach and advocate for women’s football. Lee has an impressive record as a promoter of women’s football. He has served as director of the WASUP Girlz Tackle Football League, a Pop Warner-style football league for girls aged 8 to 18 in Las Vegas. For five years, he oversaw the Women’s Football Camp and Conference in Vegas, the longest running football skills camp for women who want to play traditional football. He has hosted a podcast, Four Quarters with Coach Lee, for over five years, and he runs the Women’s Tackle Football Group on Ning, arguably the largest women’s football message board community online. Coach Lee has even dabbled in radio broadcasting, serving as the play-by-play announcer of the 2010 WFA All-American Game.
Lee has a reputation for being absolutely relentless in his promotion of the sport of women’s football, and it all started on the sidelines. Dion Lee has served as the head coach of the Las Vegas Showgirlz of the WFA for several years, and in 2011, he spent one season as the coach of the Las Vegas Sin of the Lingerie Football League. However, Lee was fired after one season with the LFL, which is a long story in itself (we’ll leave that one for another day).
Suffice it to say, Dion Lee was disillusioned by his experience in the LFL. As such, in late 2012, Dion Lee formulated a plan for a new women’s indoor football league that could compete head to head with the LFL. Like the LFL, this new league would be an indoor women’s football league, playing a style similar to Arena Football. However, unlike the LFL, this proposed new league would feature women in full uniforms and helmets, similar to traditional outdoor leagues like the WFA, IWFL, and WSFL.
Dion Lee envisioned an indoor league that would combine the best features of the indoor lingerie football leagues and the traditional outdoor football leagues. As a result, this traditional indoor football league would carve out a unique niche in women’s football.
Rather than create his own league from scratch, Dion Lee made the mistake of contacting an investment partner in September 2012 named Blanchette Sports Holdings (BSH). BSH, headed by a man calling himself Ray Blanchette, claimed an “official trademark” on the name of the Women’s Indoor Football League (WIFL), among other things. Lee decided to partner with Blanchette Sports Holdings to create the Women’s Indoor Football League, and Lee was quickly appointed as the commissioner of the WIFL.
Lee’s enthusiasm and experience initially furnished the WIFL with an air of credibility. Lee announced in late 2012 that the WIFL would be launching in the spring of 2014. By planning the league’s launch 18 months in advance, Lee had plenty of time to make sure the WIFL would be everything he hoped it could be.
Lee launched plans for the WIFL to conduct a nationwide tryout tour throughout 2013 in a search for the best women’s athletic talent in the country. Since he lived in Las Vegas, he successfully organized and funded three WIFL tryouts on the West Coast in early 2013. Everything appeared to be going smoothly for this new league until March 12, when Lee abruptly parted ways with the WIFL.
Why would Lee leave a league that was growing and which was his idea in the first place? The answer is that he had a falling out with his investment partner Ray Blanchette, the owner of Blanchette Sports Holdings. Lee wasn’t getting much financial support from his “investment partner,” and Blanchette and Lee had different visions on how the WIFL should be run. In a coup of sorts, Blanchette, who was now calling himself the “founder of the WIFL,” took the reins as the face of the league from Dion Lee, and the WIFL hasn’t been the same since.
Who Is Ray Blanchette?
To understand why the WIFL is a scam, you need to know Ray Blanchette’s background. Blanchette first appeared in March 2012 writing a number of sports articles for the websites Outside the Redzone and Saturday Blitz. His sportswriting appeared on these sites from March 2012 through June 2012, and his tagline at the bottom of the articles identified him as the owner of Blanchette Sports Holdings, “a new sporting company that will operate 8 different sports leagues.”
In truth, Blanchette and his company Blanchette Sports Holdings (BSH) advertised at least nine “vaporware” leagues, including the WIFL, the National Baseball League (NBL), Professional Championship Wrestling (PCW), the Independent Hockey League (IHL), the American Softball Association (ASA), the American Basketball League (ABL), the Women’s Basketball Association (WBA), the Indoor Soccer League (ISL), and the Professional Indoor Football Association (PIFA).
If you haven’t heard of any of these leagues before, there’s a reason. They’re “vaporware” leagues, which means they only exist in an organizational sense. I like to call these leagues “Randall Stevens” leagues. For you movie buffs, you might remember Randall Stevens as the character Tim Robbins creates to pin his money laundering crimes on in the classic movie The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a great line in the movie, first used by Robbins but repeated later by Morgan Freeman, about Randall Stevens: “He didn’t exist…except on paper.”
Well…that’s a vaporware league; that’s what all of those leagues “created” by BSH are. They don’t exist, except on paper. Blanchette goes around trying to collect money for these “pro sports leagues” that will surely hold sporting events at some point in the undetermined future, but in reality, he winds up pocketing most of it, because none of these leagues ever actually play any games.
Blanchette’s first foray into sports management began in June 2012, when he tried to sell investors into buying a franchise in the Professional Indoor Football Association (PIFA) for $10,000. The PIFA, of course, hasn’t to date played any games; it’s unclear if anyone took Blanchette up on his offer, but if they did, the sucker would have lost a cool 10 G’s to own a “franchise” in a “league” that still doesn’t exist.
By September 2012, Blanchette was using the National Baseball League (NBL) as his principal scam. He hired a commissioner, unveiled a bunch of fancy logos, and started making wildly unrealistic promises regarding how the NBL was going to operate (consider this sentence a foreshadowing of the WIFL). Among other things, he claimed the NBL – an independent minor league baseball league – was going to play a 72-game schedule with a $360,000 team salary cap. You can read the reactions of fans of indy baseball in the comments section of the above link…they laugh it all off as totally implausible (consider that foreshadowing, too).
The only commenter in these articles defending the NBL’s announcements was “Fred Flinstone”, but that was quickly revealed to be one of Blanchette’s aliases…basically, Blanchette himself pretending to comment in third person. As one fan rightly points out in the comments, “There are more red flags here than any other proposed league I have ever seen…[Blanchette] has presented no credentials or experience necessary to successfully launch and operate such a massive venture, let alone one league or even one team.”
In an April 2013 interview, Blanchette declared that things had been “going pretty good” with the NBL until the league’s commissioner got sick and the league had to take a “hiatus”. (Makes you wonder about the stability of his league when the illness of a single man can delay the launch of the entire venture.) In that same interview, however, Blanchette stated that the commissioner was feeling better and that the NBL would be “kicking off soon.” In fact, on the Blanchette Sports Holdings website, you can see the NBL logo emblazoned with the statement, “Inaugural Season 2014.” Blanchette went so far as to upload a promotional video to Youtube on November 8, 2012, promoting a 2014 start for the NBL. Yet by December 2013, no progress in league operations had been reported.
Early in 2013, Ray Blanchette had moved along to promoting Pro Championship Wrestling as his next great league. He hired his buddy, Jonathan Ragus, as the president of the PCW, and he announced plans for the first PCW match to take place in Philadelphia in the fall of 2013. Naturally, like all of Blanchette’s schemes, this match never materialized.
Ray Blanchette explained this away by saying that the WIFL had taken off so quickly that he had to put everything else on the backburner. But Blanchette has three failed league proposals in just the last 18 months…will the fourth time be the charm for Blanchette and the WIFL? I’ll let you decide that one for yourself.
A League In Turmoil
The thing about scams is, when people find out about them, they tend to jump ship pretty quickly. Not surprisingly, Blanchette’s WIFL has suffered from an unusually large amount of turnover in the league’s front office.
In addition to Dion Lee leaving the league in March, Blanchette reported that the WIFL changed eighty percent of its upper level staff when he took control of the league. He named Troy Smith as the interim commissioner of the WIFL upon Lee’s departure, and he tabbed Alan Botwinick as the league’s #2 by giving him the job of WIFL President. Blanchette also said that he had multiple candidates in mind to be hired as the WIFL’s permanent commissioner, all of whom had substantial experience, and he mentioned in April that he planned to fill the job soon.
Ray Blanchette also hired Jonathan Ragus as the WIFL’s Director of Media. Ragus had many sports media connections, having founded a message board in 1999 named Ranger Nation for fans of the NHL’s New York Rangers. Ragus also founded the website 247sportshub.com and started a podcast network called Fan Junkies Radio, which was later rebranded to 24/7 Sports Hub Radio.
Despite the fact that these were online podcasts – not terrestrial or satellite radio – the WIFL trumpeted a partnership with Fan Junkies Radio-24/7 Sports Hub Radio in January 2013 as a major media deal. The league prominently lists 24/7 Sports Hub Radio, New England Sports 24/7, and New York Sports 24/7 all as “league sponsors,” but these three entities are nothing more than three different names for Ragus’ podcast and website.
One thing that’s fascinating about scammers is that they don’t want to have to publicly answer questions about their schemes. They carefully avoid entering into a public forum where their scams might be challenged. Ray Blanchette is clever enough to keep his comments contained on the WIFL Facebook site (where any legitimate criticism or complaints can be promptly deleted). The only time he has ventured away from Facebook to discuss the WIFL in depth has been three appearances on, you guessed it, Ragus’ podcast.
Two of these podcasts are somewhat fascinating to listen to, because Ragus appears as the show’s host. He interacted with Blanchette as an unbiased host interviewing a guest about his latest venture. In reality, Ragus is Blanchette’s subordinate and an employee of the league’s front office, not a detached observer. This conflict of interest is something neither one mentioned during the podcast, leading listeners to believe that this was an open-minded, neutral conversation about the WIFL rather than an infomercial between two of the league’s staff members on a league-sponsored platform.
More Administrative Upheaval
Anyway, the WIFL’s front office turmoil only began in March. By August 2013, Blanchette – having failed to secure a league commissioner with any real qualifications – named himself the WIFL’s “interim” commissioner. It wouldn’t be long before the interim title was shed and Blanchette was officially cast as the WIFL’s top representative.
As for Alan Botwinick, he said in July, “If I didn’t think this [WIFL] was going to work, I would have told the owner that it probably wouldn’t work.” Evidently, he came to that conclusion not long after making that statement, because he quietly parted ways with the league after less than six months on the job. Blanchette was then unable to secure a qualified, experienced league president to fill the role as the WIFL’s #2 – something that would have been particularly important given Blanchette’s lack of experience as the league’s #1. So Blanchette was forced to promote his “bro,” Jonathan Ragus, to the position, since Ragus was already on staff as the WIFL’s Director of Media.
As mentioned, Ragus had sports media connections but no real front office management experience, unless you count the fact that he had agreed to serve as president of Blanchette’s Pro Championship Wrestling vaporware league. But Blanchette apparently didn’t have a whole lot of experienced applicants clamoring for the position from outside the league, so an internal promotion was the best he could do.
This has been a brief overview of how Ray Blanchette’s WIFL came into existence, and there should be enough red flags here to give anyone pause. But rest assured, there are many, many more troubling issues with this vaporware league. Let’s take a break, and I’ll be back with more tomorrow.
[For the next installment in my series investigating the WIFL, read here.]