THE LINGERIE FOOTBALL LEAGUE
After every season, veteran watchers of softball’s National Pro Fastpitch league wonder how many of the four teams will come back for the 2011 season. Eight cities have had pro softball teams which are no longer active, and rumors abound that one of the remaining four is quietly on the market, its current city/stadium support agreement apparently in difficulty.
Thus, when SPY came across newspaper stories in the Washington Post (which never devoted this much ink to the now defunct Washington Pride softball team), we were curious as to why and how this league is not only surviving but expanding.
True, the players are, as the Post noted, “buxom young women wearing little more than lingeries (tight boy shorts, fringe-cut sports bras), shoulder pads, garters and small helmets with plastic visors. But, the attraction which keeps putting 2,500 paying patrons in the seats is more than the ladies’ obvious sex appeal. Fans may see butts and cleavage – but they also see an athletic event.
Not a powder-puff league; Commissioner Mitchell Morzaga urges players to put on a show – eg, knock receivers out. Whatever, it is not what one critic called Jello wresting with shoulder pads.
In just its second year, the League has expanded to 10 teams, has a nationwide cable television broadcast partner, corporate sponsors for everything from Rofe lingerie to Cutters performance gloves, and is finalizing a contract for a reality television series next summer. The League began as a pay-per-view at last year’s Super Bowl halftime, and Morzaga quickly formed teams in New York, Miami, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle, while increasing attendance by 20 percent.
The good-looking athletes, particularly in women’s sports, do much better than the rest, Morzaga contends, noting NASCAR’s Danica Patrick, softball’s Jennie Finch, and volleyball’s Gabrielle Reece. “What we wanted was to create a league of Danica Patricks,” he said.
Although two franchises folded, Morzaga said the league ended its first season in the black, and projects doubling that income this year.
According to the Post, the League has not been covered by local papers (which also ignore softball), and has been “greeted by silence” by groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation.
From the first play of scrimmage, the Post reports, it becomes apparent the players aren’t “strippers killing time before the midnight show.” The Post’s interviews reveal women whose backgrounds are very similar to softball players – stars in college basketball, volleyball, track, lacrosse and rugby. Indeed, Baltimore Charm’s Brittany Tegeler was a captain on Connecticut’s soccer team and now plays for the women’s national rugby team.
The game is a mini-version of standard football. Each team has seven players, the field is 50 yards long and there are two halves of 17 minutes each. Nobody makes a living out of the league. Players share 20% of the gate if they win, 10% if they lose. Like softball, the payouts per player can range from a few hundred to a few thousand per game. The winner of the Lingerie Bowl gets a six-figure team bonus.
As Charm coach Rick Reeder says, “I’m looking for football players. This isn’t about women running around in almost nothing. This is about competing – about winning.” Reeder, who also coaches a men’s semi-pro football team, runs spirited practices. Charm’s quarterback, Samantha Allen, routinely throws 30-yard passes – on target. And, they blitz.
There are also off-field promotions. Running back Ida Bernstein competed on a Regis and Kelly show, which featured a 150 yard race through Central Park in 3-inch heels – with 250 women competing. Bernstein won in 19.12 seconds, and received a 2011 Jetta and $10,000.
Now, let’s square the window and look out at softball.
NPF does have sponsors, primarily equipment manufacturers to whom every organization and team in softball looks to for support – financial and material. NPF does have an arrangement for streaming videos of many games, but the camera and broadcast quality is poor. Players are paid, and similarly, there is a wide disparity between the stars and other team members, and no one plans on making a living off their NPF earnings. Softball has not yet adopted the Japanese model wherein players are company employees and paid as such.
Without the infusion of Olympic cash, USA Softball is hurting financially – well down the road from the days of taking large entourages to tournaments on the USA tab. There is still discord between ISF and ASA.
There are at least 8,000 girls playing ASA-related travel ball national tournaments, and overall perhaps a million girls playing organized softball. Yet, most of the funding for travel ball still comes from parents and coaches. SPY and others have suggested that, at minimum, every ASA commission should agree to donate $1 of every player’s membership to support national teams – but an ongoing SPY survey reveals that this is not yet a universally accepted idea. Scholarships are an incentive for college ball — but some schools are cutting softball among other sports.
Women’s majors have lost much of their audience; 23U ball never had a real audience among ASA decision-makers.
We don’t have to encourage girls to play – although there is competition for players with other sports. The task is to encourage the public to come and watch them. If the public comes, the advertisers will take note, and if the advertisers are on board, the media will follow. (or, vice versa).
As SPY and so many other observers have noted, fastpitch softball needs a better marketing plan – at every phase of the support.
Does Morzaga have all the answers? Maybe not, but his track record shows a real agility at marketing and especially at thinking outside the box.
Who does that for softball? What is the next great idea for fastpitch softball?