Women’s Indoor Football League: The Tryout Scam
[This is part two of my long investigation into Ray Blanchette, Ray Damon, and the Women’s Indoor Football League (WIFL). For the previous installment in the series, read here. This article was originally posted on December 8, 2013, and was revised with new information on January 6, 2014.]
Yesterday we looked at Ray Blanchette and his history of shady dealings in the sports world. Despite that, maybe you still want to try out for the Women’s Indoor Football League. Here’s the good news: you probably can’t.
The WIFL’s Stolen Tryout Money
As I mentioned yesterday, Dion Lee first conceived of the WIFL being a national women’s football league. He even organized three West Coast tryouts for the WIFL in early 2013 – Los Angeles on January 12, Phoenix on February 9, and Seattle on March 2.
When Blanchette became the face of the league in March, he announced that they were making changes to the tryout tour for efficiency’s sake. However, he stressed that “mainly those changes will consist of a few dates being changed here and there but nothing of the major sort.”
Before long, however, he did in fact make a major change, shifting the focus of the WIFL’s 2014 launch from being a nationwide league to a league operating exclusively on the East Coast. Fifteen teams, all along the eastern seaboard, were announced as participants in the WIFL’s inaugural season.
Of course, this made the three tryouts that had been held on the West Coast essentially worthless. The women who had spent money to try out for a WIFL team on the West Coast were now told that there wouldn’t be a team within 2,000 miles of them. This change also meant the abrupt cancellation of announced tryouts in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, and Oakland.
However, none of the players who pre-registered for any of these now-cancelled tryouts were ever offered refunds by the WIFL. When the players that had registered for the cancelled West Coast tryouts requested a refund, the WIFL said that no refund was forthcoming, but the players would not have to pay for a tryout “when” the WIFL eventually expanded to the West Coast. Of course, that wouldn’t be until at least 2015 – an eternity in women’s football – assuming it ever happened at all. But that’s better than getting your money back for something you paid for and which the league didn’t deliver, right?
The WIFL has steadfastly refused to refund tryout money for events that they themselves cancelled. When the topic of tryouts was brought up on the WIFL Facebook page, one athlete in Chicago posted a message saying she was still waiting for her refund from the cancelled Chicago tryouts. Her comment was, not surprisingly, quickly deleted.
The WIFL did successfully hold a player tryout in Lakeland, Florida, on May 4, 2013. However, the league staffwriter and the front page of the league’s website both misleadingly tout the fact that the WIFL has held four player tryouts, without acknowledging that three of those were held nearly a year ago on the West Coast under previous management in an area where the league no longer plans to operate (at least in 2014). So when the WIFL brags about the four tryouts it has held, rest assured that they’ve only held one under current management…and in the geographic area where the league plans to operate.
The Lakeland Tryout
The WIFL has only held one successful tryout since Ray Blanchette took over in March. Even that tryout wasn’t without turmoil. After originally announcing that the tryout would be run by the coaching staff of the UIFL’s Lakeland Raiders, the WIFL reported that the Raiders had pulled out and blasted the men’s semi-pro league, saying, “We never should have had any dealings with anyone affiliated with the UIFL. We are a PROFESSIONAL league.” (Or a vaporware league that hasn’t played a game. Either way.)
Anyway, the fact that the WIFL’s lone completed tryout was held in Lakeland, Florida, is no accident…it happens to be Blanchette’s home town. Logistically, he hasn’t been able to hold a tryout anywhere except the city where he lives…doesn’t that seem like a red flag?
The league produced a five-minute video covering the Lakeland tryout and played it incessantly in the background of the WIFL infomercial. The Lakeland tryout was designed to draw enough players to fill the 25-player rosters of three proposed WIFL teams, and while Blanchette praised the incredible turnout, you can see from the video that they were woefully short of drawing even 25 players, much less 75. In the interview, Blanchette said that the turnout would have been even higher, but there were conflicts around Lakeland that weekend like “Star Wars Day at Disney”. This was just exceptionally silly. I’ve got news for Ray…every day is Star Wars Day at Disney, or some other silly promotion just like it. Do you think women won’t have similar conflicts when the regular season starts and you’re asking them to show up for 12 games held every weekend over a four month span?
The Lakeland tryout was evidence that if the WIFL wanted to have any measure of success, it would need traditional football players to do so. Ray Blanchette particularly raved about the performances of Sabrina Kelly and Aiyisha Tribble, two star athletes that were 2013 WFA All-Americans for the Tampa Bay Inferno. In addition, if you watch the Lakeland video, you’ll see a player prominently sporting a t-shirt with the green A logo of the WFA’s Orlando Anarchy. Blanchette himself acknowledged that he set up the tryout so as not to interfere with the schedules of the Tampa Bay Inferno and Orlando Anarchy, because many of the participants of the Lakeland tryout were on the rosters of those two teams.
Several WIFL myrmidons then spread out across the social media platforms of traditional outdoor women’s teams, trying to drum up support by linking to the WIFL’s page; the WIFL then acted shocked when those teams objected. It was a failed strategy, of course. It’s not much of a sacrifice for a WFA athlete to show up for a WIFL tryout…after all, at least it’s a nice workout for a reasonable price, and in an ever-changing sport, it’s good to keep your options open. However, actually leaving your established WFA team and joining the WIFL isn’t something that a sane female athlete would do unless she believed that the WIFL wasn’t a scam. She’d need to be convinced that the WIFL and its teams are somehow better or more stable than the WFA and its teams. Yeah, about that…
The WIFL Tryout Scam
Since the Lakeland tryout on May 4, the WIFL hasn’t successfully held a player tryout in over seven months. This despite months and months and months of broken promises, incessant sales pitches, and unexplained delays.
For anyone curious, here’s the WIFL’s record of player tryouts since the Lakeland tryout in May, with the cities and the originally scheduled tryout dates:
Charlotte, NC (June 29) – postponed to July 28
Washington, DC (July 27) – hyped to the heavens in the official WIFL infomercial (with Cara Vargas optimistically exclaiming that it’s “coming to a surprise location!”), then “postponed indefinitely”
Charlotte, NC (July 28) – postponed until September 14
Philadelphia, PA (August 10) – unlike the others, this tryout was promoted with a specific date, time range, and location (SMG Sportsplex in Warminster, PA, from noon to 4 PM). Furthermore, Jonathan Ragus promised a large media contingent and possible interviews at this tryout, while Blanchette claimed an ESPN writer would be there – both trying out as a player and preparing several features on the WIFL for ESPN the Magazine and ESPNW. With all that hype, it was probably a little more jarring than usual when this one was “postponed indefinitely,” just like the others.
Birmingham, AL (August 24) – “postponed indefinitely”
New York, NY (August 31) – “postponed indefinitely”
Charlotte, NC (September 14) – cancelled
In August, Blanchette issued a statement, saying that a possible sale of Blanchette Sports Holdings and the WIFL to the Joel Cohen Group was off the table. (Maybe the Cohen Group got cold feet when they realized they’d be purchasing a collection of vaporware leagues.) Blanchette then went on to declare that none of these postponed tryouts were the doings of BSH or the WIFL and basically blamed the failed sale of the WIFL for all the problems with the league. He ended his statement by declaring in August that the new dates for the tryouts would be announced “soon.” It’s December, and the dates still haven’t been announced.
But at least Blanchette has been smart enough since August to rarely provide a specific date for the WIFL’s alleged tryouts…instead he just hammers away that they’re “coming soon!!!” For example, Amanda Congialdi, who registered for the Philadelphia tryout, asked on September 2 if the date had been rescheduled. The WIFL responded that the “date should be coming shortly” and that it “won’t be much longer.”
Yes, that was over three months ago. No, it still hasn’t been rescheduled. And they still had the audacity to ask her if she had paid yet.
So let’s recap the tale of the tape…one successful tryout held (over seven months ago, in Blanchette’s home town), seven postponements, one cancellation, and over three months since the last scheduled (and postponed) tryout. Yeah, this league seems legit, all right.
Buy Before You Try – The WIFL Business Model
The conversation with Congialdi is disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is this – if a tryout is cancelled, the player should be given a refund (which, as mentioned before, isn’t happening in most cases). But even if the tryout is merely postponed, the player by rights should be due a refund, because there’s no guarantee she would be able to attend on the make-up date. Yet the WIFL isn’t refunding your money on account of their postponements, either. Instead, they apparently just expect you to show up for whenever the new tryout is held…which could be months from now, if ever.
In August, the WIFL posted a tryout update. In this update, the league said, “We are deciding the new dates for the upcoming WIFL tryouts that will be held in Charlotte, Philly, Birmingham, New York, and DC. The order they will be held will be directly tied into local interest from players, and sponsors. This does not mean some stops will not be held. They will all be held. But the cities with the highest interest will be the ones scheduled first. So get all your friends to sign up.”
If this isn’t an obvious pressure tactic – sign up now so we can schedule your city’s tryouts first! – I don’t know what is. On top of that, it’s a foolish tactic if you really think about it. I mean, if the listed tryouts “will all be held” no matter what, then why do I care if my city is scheduled first? Regardless, you’ll be shocked to know, I’m sure, that none of these tryouts have yet been scheduled…and it’s December.
But here’s the kicker. After repeated advertisements for the rescheduling of the postponed Charlotte tryouts, and going so far two paragraphs above as to flatly declare that “they will all be held,” the Charlotte tryout was indeed cancelled as the league dropped plans to host a team there in 2014. So much for “they will all be held,” huh?
A week later, the WIFL added another tryout to their schedule…this one in Orlando. The WIFL announced on August 30 that the date and location for the Orlando tryouts would be made within two weeks. Yes, it’s December. No, the date and location for this one still hasn’t been announced, either. Yet they continue to tell people the tryouts will be held very soon and pressuring every woman that asks about the tryouts to hurry and pay the pre-registration fee!
Wait…there’s more. The WIFL amended their tryout registration structure in September, eliminating walkup registrations. Now, I would never advise anyone to actually pay the WIFL’s tryout fee after all this, but if you were really insistent, I’d at least advise that you don’t pre-register and instead pay the day of the tryout. That’s the only guarantee you have that the WIFL won’t pull the rug out from under you and postpone at the last minute!
The WIFL did away with that strategy by declaring that everyone who tries out must pre-register and that no walk-ups will be taken. First of all, that’s absurd…you’re a start up league. Let’s say that a tremendous female athlete – strong, fast, quick, great hands, the whole nine yards – shows up the day of the tryout with $100 in hand and says, “I’m sorry, I just heard about the WIFL. Can I try out?” Do you really think the WIFL will say to her, “Sorry, you didn’t pre-register. Be gone!” Think about it.
Moreover, the WIFL is soliciting pre-registrations – get this – before the dates of the tryouts have been announced. Why would I pre-register for a tryout when I don’t know when it’s going to take place and if I’ll even be in town that weekend? Would you buy concert tickets without knowing the date of the show? Who would buy tickets for an event when you don’t know when the event will be?
Julie Oleson and Amber Wilson were former LFL players that joined the WIFL and were featured in the league’s infomercial in July. Not long after that, however, both Oleson and Wilson departed the WIFL. The league has ostensibly cut ties with both players, although they still feature Wilson’s tryout promo on the league’s website (a promo for a tryout that was, naturally, postponed). While Oleson was relatively silent about her departure, Wilson was very outspoken about her reasons for leaving the WIFL. “In good conscience, I cannot advocate potential players pay a try out fee for an unknown try out date and location, let alone commit their livelihood to a league that has nothing to show but a crummy website, mock helmets, T Shirts that capitalize off former LFL players, and fake endorsements,” Wilson wrote. “I apologize for not doing further research before supporting [the WIFL]. However, I hope this honest information serves as some sort of rectification for any green light I gave.”
I guess Wilson eventually saw through the scam, too. The members of the WIFL, including Ragus and Vargas, blasted Wilson as a disgruntled prima donna, but her comments, obviously, have the ring of truth.
By the way, Vargas – a prospective player who has taken on the unofficial role as the WIFL’s chief apologist – claimed that all these postponements in the WIFL tryouts were actually a good thing, because it would give prospective players more time to get in shape. Uh huh.
The Stars of the WIFL
One last thing for this post. I want to make it clear that it’s not my intention to disparage any women’s football players. I have the utmost respect for these athletes, and while I’m trying to expose the scam that is the WIFL, I don’t want to belittle any of the female athletes who are just trying to play the sport they love.
I do make a bit of an exception for Cara Vargas, however, for a couple reasons. First, she’s taken on a role as the WIFL’s National Spokeswoman and, as mentioned, has become the chief defender of the WIFL. As far as I’m concerned, her position as the league’s National Spokeswoman (a role Kylie Fehnel once held and has since abandoned) makes her front office staff. Since she has claimed that she’s looking to be the face of the WIFL, that makes her fair game for criticism as far as the WIFL’s actual operations go.
What’s just as interesting to me about Vargas is that she’s always talking about her varied experiences, having claimed (among other things) to have a background in boxing, martial arts, wrestling, weightlifting, stunts, acting, personal training, and the military. Despite her diverse background, Vargas declared that, “Football has become a passion of mine.”
And yet…she’s never actually played in a football game. Glossed over in her athletic background is the fact that she tried out for the LFL’s Baltimore franchise, left before playing a game, and has never suited up for a football game…ever. All of which is fine…except that the league is nicknaming her “Beast” and saying that she holds the potential to become one of the brand names of women’s football. Amid the sales of t-shirts with her personal slogan, “Fit Bodies Hit Bodies,” and the promotion of her role in Second World 3: Nightfall, is it too much to ask that she play a football game first?
(By the way, the WIFL’s non-stop hawking of overpriced, low-quality, Cafepress merchandise is beyond annoying. They’re selling team t-shirts with a player’s name, number, and personal slogan on them…before they’ve even played a game for that team. They were selling Cara Vargas Baltimore Blitz shirts, and then announced that the Blitz wouldn’t be playing in 2014 and Vargas would be playing for Washington instead. In other words, she might never suit up for Baltimore. Vargas’ response? The Baltimore Vargas shirts would become “sort of collector’s items.” Seriously. Because there are collectors out there stashing away misprint shirts from a league that hasn’t played a season, a team that doesn’t exist, and a player who’s never played a game. Seems reasonable.) [Note: In retrospect, this is a fairly harsh assessment of Vargas’ role with the WIFL. For more, read here.]
This excessive WIFL hype isn’t limited to Vargas. I was actually able to interact briefly on Twitter with Tia Knipper, a quarterback who wants to play in the WIFL in 2014, and I found her to be a very personable, nice individual. However, she’s been nicknamed “Rockstar” by the WIFL and was openly touted as one of the best female athletes in the United States when she joined the league. Yet Knipper, called “quite possibly the face of the league,” has a football career that spans three games in the LFL. Three games. In the LFL.
It’s this kind of irrational exuberance that I think is a hallmark of an overhyped scam. I’ll give you one last example. The most recent WIFL “signing” was Jeannette McCoy, who joined the Orlando Power. She apparently has a long history in the LFL and appears to be a talented player. But in the release announcing her signing, she is introduced as the starting quarterback of the Orlando Power.
Again, I’m not saying she’s not a skilled football player. But the Power haven’t even held tryouts yet…much less a training camp. She may very well turn out to be the best quarterback Orlando can find, but who crowns a player as their starting quarterback before tryouts have even started?
As you can see, the WIFL is gaining quite a reputation for its wild claims. But I haven’t even talked about their most outrageous one yet. Tell you what…I’ll save that for tomorrow. I’ve said enough for today.
[For the next installment in my series investigating the WIFL, read here.]