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New League Tries its Hand at Women's Pro Football

April 22, 2001|TERESA M. WALKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An executive chef quit her job to join the league. A full-time firefighter organized her own team. A couple spent their retirement money to buy a franchise.

All made sacrifices for the same dream--a piece of the new National Women's Football League.

"We are sold that this is going to fly," said Tammy Hall, who with her police officer husband, Ken, spent $35,000 of their retirement nest egg to buy the Chattanooga Locomotion franchise.

"Ninety-five percent of the people we talked to are real excited. The other 5 percent think we're crazy. After they watch us practice, then they get excited," she said.

The 10-team league, which begins play Saturday, is the third of its kind to start in the last year, with hopes of tapping into the growing market for women's sports.

There are pro leagues for women's basketball, soccer and hockey--all with growing fan bases. Women's football, however, remains a novelty. The Women's Professional Football League and the Independent Women's Football League have been slow to catch on, with the WPFL running out of money midway through its first season.

The women behind the NWFL think they have the best chance at not just surviving, but thriving.

"We're going to market it and run it like a business," said founder Catherine Masters, a former tennis promoter. "We realize it's something you build. It's not going to be an overnight success."

Only the coaches and staff are assured of pay, and only if anything is left after bills are paid, she said. Players paid $35 for the right to try out, and those making the team had to put down a $250 deposit for a uniform.

"In everyone's contract, they make a percentage of profits at the end of the season as long as every bill is paid, the coaches are paid, the staff paid," Connecticut Crush owner and captain Melanie DePamphilis said. "Then we split evenly."

Nashville Dream captain Ahndi Coffey, 36, says she's content just for the chance to play real football, which will resemble the NFL, not the XFL.

"We never got the opportunity other than flag football," said the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Coffey, who didn't have the opportunity to play football while growing up in Kentucky.

"I tried to sneak onto the junior high team, but (my parents) wouldn't sign the permission slip for me."

Coffey settled for playing basketball, softball and rugby until Masters started the Dream last year. Coffey quit her job as a chef for bank executives to become vice president of the NWFL, the team's starting middle linebacker and general manager.

Masters built the league mostly with her money and franchise fees paid by folks like the Halls.

Her experience includes working as an equipment representative on the Virginia Slims tennis tour and producing instructional golf and tennis TV shows in the 1980s.

She has spent the past few years in the music industry, but longed for a return to sports. She worked with the Women's Professional Football League as a consultant, but left when her suggestions--such as keeping teams closer together to save on travel expenses--were ignored.

That is why she grouped NWFL into two divisions--the Philadelphia Liberty Belles, Baltimore Burn, D.C. Divas, Mass Mutiny and Connecticut Crush in the North; and the Nashville Dream, Alabama Renegades, Chattanooga Locomotion, Pensacola Power and Tennessee Venom in the South.

The longest trip for a team will probably be Memorial Day weekend when the Dream visits Pensacola Power.

Teams will play at high schools or fields designed for semipro leagues, places that can hold between 2,000 and 5,000 fans.

The eight-game season ends June 23 so playoffs are over before the men begin fall practice. The WPFL, which played its championship in late January, now plans to start its second season in July instead of the fall.

DePamphilis, a 24-year-old Hartford, Conn., firefighter, played for the WPFL's New York Sharks last fall, driving a couple hours just to practice and play.

She grew tired of being promised top equipment, paychecks and cleats, only to end up with no money and buying her own shoes.

When the WPFL canceled the final three games of the regular season because of money problems, DePamphilis defected to Masters' league.

She now owns a 45-member team, with another 22 women on the practice squad. Each has her own personally fitted equipment.

"Connecticut has such a good fan base for women's sports it made it pretty easy," said DePamphilis, noting the University of Connecticut women's basketball team helps keep fans interested in women's sports.

Hall's only exposure to football was watching her husband coach a semipro team or her two sons play. When she heard about tryouts, she was intrigued not to play on a team but to own one.

She and her husband raided all their retirement fund and bought the team. Ken Hall, general manager and head coach, will devote all his time to the team once he takes a leaves from the Chattanooga Police Department, where he has worked for 18 years.

"This may be the catalyst that it takes to bring women's football into the forefront," he said, "not only at the professional level but at the peewee and high school level."

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