Women’s Football in the USA
Women’s Football in the UK has made great strides in the last eighteen months. Increasing numbers of teams in the competitive leagues in both the contact and flag formats, and an excellent showing in the Women’s World Championships in Canada are testament to the progress being made. I took the opportunity to catch up with one of the leading lights in US women’s football to get a view on how things operate across the pond, to see where the British Women’s game could be headed.
Dana Sparling is the former VP of Operations and current CFO and Gameday Manager for the New York Sharks, one of the leading US teams. Dana has a rich Football heritage and is ideally placed to enrich our understanding of the state of the game stateside, here’s what she had to say.
How long have you been involved with Football, what triggered your interest, did you play, if so, what position and who for.
“I grew up playing football with the boys on the grass fields of grade school and the streets of our neighborhood. My grandfather, Raymond C. Sparling, was a split end for the USC Trojans and a member of the 1931 National Championship team, putting the first score on the board for the Trojans in the Rose Bowl that year. My love for the game developed during my childhood, attending USC football games with my family on Saturdays in the Fall for many years.
I have been formally involved, in women's football, since January of 2001, after discovering that women were playing TACKLE football from a news segment on TV. I will never forget that moment. My mother had passed away from cancer just a year before and my life had turned upside down. Still grieving her loss, I found a new focus and passion that day and have been involved ever since. I started my adult journey in women's football as a receiver for the New York Sharks after trying out and making the team in early 2001. I played until 2005 after which I transitioned into the organization’s management team.
How many competitive teams are there in the States, that play in the leagues, are there two main leagues? What are they called? Is the format full contact eleven a side?
“There are approximately 95 competitive, traditionally played, over age 18, women's tackle football teams in the United States as of this writing. The teams are spread across four different leagues, the majority of which are presently in the WFA (Women's Football Alliance). The other recognized leagues are the IWFL (Independent Women's Football League), the USWFL (United States Women's Football League), and an 8 on 8 league called the Icon Women's Football Association (in Texas only). There are a smattering of additional teams that exist, but they are not formally aligned with any of the widely recognized leagues mentioned above.
For factual purposes only, I will acknowledge the "existence" of the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League), but will not go so far as to call it "traditional" football due to the fact that this league leads with the overt objectification of women. I, and most other women involved in tackle football, find the existence of this league highly offensive”.
When did you get involved with the NY Sharks, how many years has the team been in existence?
“The New York Sharks were originally the very successful Long Island Sharks flag football team. One day in the fall of 1999, the Minnesota Vixen called and challenged the team to dawn the tackle pads and play a full contact football game. With just two months to prepare, the Sharks hosted the Vixen at Mitchell Field on Long Island on Saturday, December 11th. The Vixen were favored to win the game, but to the delight of the 300 fans in attendance on that frigidly cold day, the Sharks shocked Minnesota, defeating them 12-6. The rest is “Herstory.”
In addition to serving on the management team for the Sharks, in September of 2015, I accepted the position of Chief Operations Officer at the Women's Gridiron Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes women’s football, produces football events, and serves as a resource for all aspects of women's football for adult women as well as young girls. We work for the international women’s football community, not just ours here in the United States.
I just recently accepted a position as a VP on the Executive Council of the IWFL - the league where my football career began back in 2001. I have served as either Director or Co-Director of 7 IWFL Championship Weekends since 2003. Most recently, I served as the All-Star Director at the 2017 Championship Weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Clearly, I cannot get enough of women's football! I am very proud to be involved in this sport with such amazing, strong, passionate women with whom I share a common goal.”
When does the season run, does it have a play-off structure and championship game? Who are the current Champions? Did I see you went to an All-Star game?
The season for most women's tackle football leagues in the U.S. runs from April through July, including playoffs and championship games in each league. The 2017 Champions for each 11 on 11 league are as follows:
IWFL - Utah Falconz
WFA - Division 1 - Dallas Elite; Division 2 - St. Louis Slam; Division 3 - Arkansas Wildcats
USWFL - Washington Prodigy
Are the leagues, Pro, Semi-Pro or amateur?
“Overall, most teams operate as Semi-Pro football teams”.
Following on from the Women's World Championship, will US teams recruit from other countries?
“I am aware of that occurring, yes, but not on a large scale”.
How do you see Women's Football progressing in the US and globally? What are your plans for the Sharks?
“I see women's football continuing to grow globally as well as in the United States. In the US, this growth is most notable in girls under 18 years of age. A larger percentage of the next generation of adult female players will have something previous generations did not have: football experience. This fact holds exciting prospects for what is to come in the sport. In the same vein, the current / previous generation of retired and soon-to-retire female players are now landing jobs in coaching. officiating and football operations. The future certainly looks bright for young girls and women who desire to not only play at a high level, but also to find careers in the sport that they love so dearly.
I am also witnessing a great deal of networking and outreach between adult players in different countries - facilitated by internationally attended events such as the Women's World Football Games that have been held for four years in a row now and was the brainchild of Samantha Rapoport, now the NFL's Director of Football Development. Sam has been a fearless leader to many of us in the sport. We are grateful to her for the doors that she has opened for so many of us to walk through. Sam’s own professional “first’s” have also given many women the courage and inspiration to walk through their own unique doors in the sport as well.
For the 2018 season, I plan to continue in my current roles with the New York Sharks as they hold a very special place in my heart! My NY Sharks are 'Home" to me”. After all these years, I’m certain that I bleed black and blue (our team colors). Lol!”
Clearly the Women’s game in the US is in a very healthy state, and with driven individuals like Dana involved is likely to go from strength to strength. The UK authorities would do well to reach out for counsel and guidance as the sport continues to grow at a pace over here.