Players on Madison’s full-contact, all-female, professional football team know their bodies are going to feel every tackle the morning after a game.
“I think people are surprised the first time they come because they don’t expect to see the hard hitting,” said Pam Close, one of four owners of the Madison Blaze, who has also been a football player for eight years.
“There are some strong women out there,” she said. “I always have the bruises to prove it.”
This is the first season for the team, which is a combination of previous women’s football teams in and around Madison that over the years have started and fizzled out. But this is the first time the all-women team is also all-women owned, and leaders say they’re operating differently to avoid problems that have ended teams in the past.
“I think the big difference (this year) is taking the approach of it being a business,” Close said of the Blaze management. “It’s a struggle trying to get people to understand we’re here to stay and this is a legitimate sport.”
The Blaze is part of the Independent Women’s Football League, which consists of 32 teams nationwide, including in-state rival the Wisconsin Warriors based in Milwaukee. The league, founded in 2000, follows most NCAA rules, with a few adjustments for safety. The league uses a smaller ball, which makes for a better passing game and ball handling, Close said. Also, there’s no blocking below the waist.
Laurie Frederick is one of the original founders and the chief executive officer for the Independent Women’s Football League.
“All of us were players in the beginning,” Frederick said of the Austin, Texas-based league that started with three teams. “It’s a dynamic time,” she said, citing how the league has quickly grown from three teams to 12, then 18 and now 32. “It’s amazing to see where it’s come.”
However the most striking similarity between men’s and women’s football may be the hitting.
“It’s a little bit more fun being able to tackle people,” Frederick said of why the league decided on full contact. “It is truly a fun thing to do.”
Fun, but not easy.
Nicole Funck, 40, of Madison, who’s a Blaze owner and player, said she’s still not used to hitting people.
But during a game, “it basically becomes self defense,” said Funck, who plays wide receiver, punt returner and cornerback. “(You think) I’m going to hit her before she hits me, otherwise it’s going to hurt worse.”
Katie Mier, 25, of Madison, said the full contact makes it different from any other sport she’s played.
“My first real game was really fast-paced and a lot of hitting,” said Mier, who’s in her second year , playing tight end, defensive end and, occasionally, kicker. But, “once you get hit the first time, you get up and you’re a little bit angry and then you start getting a little more into it.”
The Blaze has about 32 women on its active roster, ranging in age from 22 to 49. It’s technically a limited liability company, but Close said it functions more as a non-profit, as any revenue either goes back into the team to cover uniforms, equipment and travel expenses, or is donated to organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“What little we make, we still want to give a percentage of that away,” Close said. “(The Blaze is) all about promoting women and sports and being a part of the community.”
But participation is not cheap. Each player pays $600 a year in fees, has to buy their own equipment and cover some travel expenses.
For the team, each game costs about $2,500, which includes the field rental, referees, lights and the required on-site athletic trainer, security and ambulance.
On game day, owners say it can be a struggle to draw a crowd.
“It’s been slow in getting recognized as a legit sport or even entertainment factor,” Close said.
Michelle Daniels of Madison was one of the more than 250 people at a Saturday night game earlier this month.
“I like the fact it’s a bunch of women getting out there playing,” said Daniels, who knows some of the players and previously attended women’s football games.
“It’s a little slower pace than on TV .. but I like supporting them,” she said. “Bless their hearts, I couldn’t do it.”
Women have to try out to be on the Blaze, but Close said at this point the owners haven’t turned anyone away.
However, some women realize “they’re not physically fit for the demands of what the sport takes,” she said. Plus, “it’s a huge time commitment.”
The women practice twice a week, watch game film and play Saturday games from roughly May through June — not including playoffs.
On off days, “the ladies are expected to be doing their own workouts to keep themselves in shape,” Close said. “They’re also expected to study their plays.”
Frederick said that while the number of women’s football teams has grown quickly, having a huge league is not the goal.
“We’re less focused on a large number of teams than the quality of the experience for the women and the fans,” she said.
“Fifteen years from now, we might be sitting here with the same number of teams, but bigger crowds.”
From fans to officials and coaches, everyone comments on the amount of passion from female football players, Frederick said.
“The women, they don’t leave anything out there on the field,” she said. “They really are out there playing for the love of the game. It makes for a very exciting game.”