How a professional women’s football league broke barriers

Half a million people tapped into CBS last month to watch the 2021 National Women’s Football League Championship game. The league said the game was its most watched final checked in.

While there is still a long way to go between the number of NWSL viewers and the fame and financial support enjoyed by professional men’s sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA, professional women’s athletics has come a long way. .

In a new book called “Hail Mary: the rise and fall of the National Women’s Football League, sports journalists Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo tell the stories of America’s first professional female football players

“The women who played in the NWFL were amazing,” D’Arcangelo told “Marketplace.” “They did it just for the love of the sport.”

When the NWFL’s first official season began in 1974, it was the only professional women’s sports league in the United States.

“Some teams that had owners would be paid $ 25 per game,” D’Arcangelo said. “Other teams that were started by women and run by women themselves and had to raise their own money through car washes, making bumper stickers and things of that nature, barely had enough money to move from game to game. “

The seeds of the NWFL were planted in 1967, when an entrepreneur by the name of Sid Friedman started a professional women’s football team called the Cleveland Daredevils.

“The idea behind it was to create something like the Harlem Globetrotters, where they would troop to different towns in the Rust Belt region and face men’s teams, ”D’Arcangelo said. “From there he realized that women could really play and play well. “

Eventually, professional teams created by entrepreneurs like Friedman and independent teams created by women combined to form the National Women’s Football League.

When it first launched, the league had a half-dozen teams scattered across the country, from the Rust Belt to Texas and California, with a diverse group of players from different backgrounds.

“Just think of this melting pot of women who had only one goal: to have the opportunity to play football, and they took it,” D’Arcangelo said.

Brenda Cook, Brant Hopkins and Baby Murf of the Houston Herricanes, then a member of the National Women’s Football League. (January 1979, Safety Valve, published monthly by Houston Natural Gas Corp. Original photo provided by Brenda Cook)

After media attention over the novelty of women playing professional football wore off, the NWFL withdrew. That was in 1988. “But you also have to remember that those sports departments in those newspapers at the time were run by men,” D’Arcangelo said. “They judged what was worth covering, and women’s football was not one of them.”

Despite this, D’Arcangelo said, the legacy of the women who played in the NWFL lives on in today’s professional women’s leagues.

“The WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League and other leagues that are trying to establish themselves – I see the roots of that in the NWFL,” she said. “They did it first. They drastically broke that barrier… and it deserved to be remembered and recognized. “

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