Girls on the Gridiron
On a rare warm Saturday in May, referee whistles and crowd noise pierce the otherwise calm air at Lussier Stadium at Madison La Follette High School. With just under four minutes to go until halftime, the Madison Blaze, in its inaugural season and first home game, leads the Iowa Crush 28-0.
Third and seven. Iowa has the ball. The Blaze defense stops the Crush for a 7-yard loss.
“Punt return!” yells a Blaze coach to his players. “Ready!”
Iowa’s punt goes out of bounds at the 42-yard-line, where the local team takes over. The game announcer bellows, “Another Madison Blaaaaze …” and the crowd fires back, “First down!”
The atmosphere is festive, but on the Blaze sidelines, it’s all business.
Women are sporting the black-and-orange uniforms on the field, but other than that, the game differs only slightly from men’s football. Quarters are 15 minutes long with a halftime, but the ball is smaller and there is no blocking below the waist.
“We just play our hearts out!” says Pam Close, 49, one of the team’s four female owners and the oldest player on the team. “We didn’t grow up playing football like guys do,” she adds. “Here, 50% of new players are learning the game for the first time, and some have never even watched football on TV!”
While the game is noticeably slower, “we hit just as hard,” Close says. Size-wise, there’s little comparison. The Blaze players’ average height is about 5 feet, 5 inches.
A tough start
Madison has fielded a women’s football team for the past seven years, but ownership and name changes have challenged the sport’s viability. The team was first known as the Wisconsin Wolves and then the Madison Cougars before Close, Tiffany Loomis, Nicole Funk, and Kim Sherman decided last year to take ownership, change the name one last time, and secure a franchise that would be around for years to come.
“We recognized that we wanted the team and the business to run differently,” Close said. “It hurt us every time we changed names. We want to create a solid foundation so that even if owners leave, the team will survive. We’re just the keepers right now.”
The Madison Blaze is a member of the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), a 501(C)(6) nonprofit out of Texas with eight divisions around the country. It was founded to support the sport of women’s tackle football.
The Madison franchise is run entirely by volunteers who dedicate their time outside of their full-time careers to advance a women’s contact sport. The sport also provides mentoring. “We want our players to stay involved even after their playing days are over,” said Loomis. “There’s coaching, management, marketing, accounting, administration, many aspects. Right now, when women quit football, they just leave. We want them as advocates. My intent isn’t to own the team forever, but I want to set it up so that whoever takes my spot is successful.”
It costs $2,500 to put a game on, and with only four home games on the schedule, ticket sales are crucial to the bottom line. When possible, the team also reserves a portion of the gate proceeds for a local charity. “It’s important to be tied into the community,” Loomis says. “It takes a cut off what we could make but makes the girls feel so good about what they’re doing.” This game’s beneficiary is the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
Currently, all the team’s coaches are men, including head coach Norm Killion, who drives up from Racine, but the owners envision an all-female coaching staff one day.
Close aspires to be a coach, while Loomis sees team management as her forte.
Both are Iowa natives and seven-year veterans of the game. Close, known to her fans as “P.C.,” is an accounting software consultant by day who grew up at a time when women weren’t allowed to play contact sports.
“This opportunity allows us to be aggressive and physical,” she says of the game. “What keeps you there is the team unity. It doesn’t mean you have to be the best player, because everyone has to play as a team. But here’s a sport where women who may never have considered a sport before can use their size as an athlete and step into a spot where they can become a star.”
Loomis, 34, is an interim club director at the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, and just earned a degree in sports management.
“I was the first girl in my hometown to play football on the boys’ team in school,” she said. “I wanted to play my freshman year, but by then, the guys had all grown 6 inches and gained 100 pounds and I couldn’t physically keep up with them. Now knowing what I can do on the field, I should have kept playing. It’s not how strong and fast you are, it’s how you use the technique you’ve been taught. We tackle people twice our size all the time. [Pam and I] were the two leading tacklers on our team last year. You learn to hit low.”
A league of their own
The Blaze, which functions as an LLC, has a budget this year of just under $39,000, including a $6,000 expense for the team’s new uniforms. “We had some money upfront,” Close said of the four owners. “I paid for T-shirts. We all paid some expenses. What we make goes back in,” though she admits most of their contributions have been in elbow grease and in blood, sweat, and tears.
But there are real expenses. For the 2013 season, the IWFL charged $4,350 to be part of the league. By paying early and in full, the Blaze took advantage of an early-bird discount, which reduced the team’s fee to just $2,750. The team also must supply its own referees for home dates, have locker rooms for visiting teams, and keep an ambulance and certified trainers on site during games.
Players pay $20 to register with the league, a $600 player fee each season, and they must also provide their own pads and helmets. “Helmets have to be reconditioned and recertified every two years,” Close explains. “We don’t want that liability.”
They also don’t want participation to be a financial burden, and so they have set up fundraisers to help players offset costs. “We want this to be open to anybody regardless of income,” she said. But until more revenue is generated, the team and players will continue to pay the bulk of their expenses. “Some teams have money and pay their players, but here, you pay to play, and you also pay for travel. We play for the love of the game.”
Finding sponsorship support is always the challenge. “It’s hard for us to go around to some of the big businesses in town and ask them to sponsor us when we’re changing our name every two years,” Close admitted. “We need to show that we’re fiscally responsible.”
The four co-owners now pay upfront for everything. “We are trying to prove that we’re in this for the long haul. We don’t do anything on credit. If we really need something, it comes out of our pockets, and hopefully at the end of the year we’ll get reimbursed. And if we don’t have the money to spend, we don’t spend it,” she said.
Loomis plays wide receiver and outside linebacker, while Close plays middle linebacker and tight end. “I was fullback last year,” she laughs. “They’re giving the old lady’s legs a break.”
Third quarter. Second and eight. The Blaze has the ball on its own 34-yard line. Running back Jessica Lundgren blasts down the field for a 57-yard gain. The crowd cheers. “She just makes it look so easy!” remarks one Blaze player to another on the sideline.
The clock ticks down and the Blaze come out on top, 41-0, as fans and players file out of the bleachers, satisfied.
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