Women’s tackle football is growing in popularity in the US yet receives less than 1% airtime. The Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) is running interference to get the sport the recognition it deserves, as Co-Founder Odessa Jenkins reveals.
Women and girls need to stand up for each other and invest in themselves if they want the world to become more equitable and overcome stereotypes.
In expressing this view, Odessa Jenkins believes it’s the only way to bring women’s sport to the fore instead of allowing it to linger on the sidelines. “If we as women and girls in the sport want to see more investment and more people watching and taking an interest in it, then we have to start taking an interest in it,” she says. “It’s not fair, but life is not fair.”
Jenkins doesn’t just take an interest but is actively involved in promoting it. She is Co-Founder of the ground-breaking Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) in the US and Head Coach of the Texas Elite Women’s Football team. The goal is to get women’s tackle football noticed and empower women and girls to take up the sport.
As with women’s football in the UK, the WNFC is struggling to get matches televised. American football, including college games, dominates the airways, while women’s tackle football may only get half a per cent of airtime across the country.
“It’s crazy because the WNFC and what we’re doing has gotten more national and international press recently,” Jenkins argues. “But in terms of television, ESPN3, and a handful of other sports networks have only carried the women’s game on their mobile app. We have been talked about on shows and featured in stories, but we haven’t had a complete game broadcasted on a major TV network.
“The long-term plan is for the WNFC to have its own TV network. To be a viable business in sport, you need to own and have a home for your content that consumers can go to directly.”
In the meantime, games are viewed via the Vyre Network mobile app globally on Android and Apple phones.
WNFC winning sponsorship
Building an organisation that builds teams, makes money, and fairly pays players is essential to WNFC’s approach to getting the sport taken seriously.
In the past, the sport had neither been supported, promoted, or appropriately branded. Now it has sponsorship from Adidas and other major sports retailers and a proper league set-up. There’s also a charity called ‘Got Her Back’ in which players act as allies and mentors to young girls playing American football.
“WNFC’s work with Got Her Back and our sponsors have helped revolutionise how people look at women’s tackle football,” Jenkins believes. “We have also made admission to the sport selective, which has increased the level of play and quality of competition.
“When everyone’s willing to perform and elevate the game in the same way, you get a standard of brand, competition, and content that can’t be replicated.”
The sponsorship from Adidas, which involves a multi-year partnership, represents the first time any of the top three sports brands has shown an interest in women’s tackle football.
Investment equals inclusion
Jenkins points out that this sits with the company’s commitment to diversity. “Adidas is leading the way in terms of inclusion,” she explains. “Sustainability and inclusion are weaved into everything they do. It’s not just making commercials with people of colour. They are actively investing dollars in improving representation. Everything from gender-neutral stores to working with us to ensure that women and girls are part of the future of football. They had these thoughts before it was cool; now it’s sexy.”
Jenkins also makes the valid argument that investing in women’s sport to make it more inclusive attracts more fans, creates more jobs and opportunities for women, and, ultimately, creates more wealth. Something that has not gone unnoticed by the sponsors.
“What the executives and sponsors have seen by working with us is that investing in a new market is going to wield significant returns,” says Jenkins. “All the brands that have engaged with us have seen more women, people of colour, and fans, who weren’t previously brand advocates, become devotees for life because they invested in their tribe.”
Because it was crucial to have people who fully understood the business, the WNFC executive team is all-female, although this wasn’t the intention. The executives have all played football and spent their lives in sport; some have also had senior positions in Fortune 50 companies.
Men also have an important role to play as allies of the women’s game, especially in grabbing a share of a $500 bn dollar sports market, 99.4% of which goes to male sports. Jenkins stresses that male allies should not see advancing women’s sports as competition or eroding men’s sport. Instead, they should view the advancement of women as an advancement of themselves. This endorsement is crucial for women’s sport to be successful and recognised.
Challenging social norms
Achieving lasting change will require overcoming the gender stereotypes that are the norm and which start in school. “The social norms are that men are strong, aggressive and women are agile and sleek and need to be protected,” Jenkins states. “Sports are a part of our culture that says it’s okay to limit women and girls while promoting men and boys.
“There’s this concept that women are weaker and slower than men, therefore can’t create a fast and dynamic product.”
Overcoming these biased attitudes requires talking to parents and coaches to encourage young girls interested in sports. Jenkins argues that people often limit girls by telling them that certain sports are not for females.
“The more you support a girl, the better our world is,” she says. “What I’d say to the girls is just to keep being your natural selves, do what you want to do, and keep going forward.”