The Denver Bandits, named in a nod to Colorado's Wild West past, are riding into town this weekend for the inaugural home game of the state's first professional female football team. Part of the Women's National Football Conference, which is working to develop women's football on a national level the way the Women's National Basketball Association has for that sport, the Bandits are one of only fourteen top-tier professional female teams around the country.
"There's been women's football in Colorado, just not at this level," explains John Lutz, co-owner of the Bandits, along with Marcell Simpson and Rene Valentine. "The teams that have been winning the semi-pro championships and things over the last five years started this league with the goal of making it into something like the WNBA."
While other female football leagues do exist, the players on those teams have to pay to join and cover all travel and equipment costs themselves. Because the WNFC operates on private donations, sponsorships, and revenue from branding and marketing, those costs are covered for the athletes. The league wants to make football more accessible to women who want to play...and people who want to watch them.
To create the Denver Bandits, "we basically took players from the Colorado Freeze, which was a semi-pro team, and the Mile High Blaze, which also is a semi-pro team," Lutz says. "So the Bandits are made up of Freeze players [and] Blaze players, as well as people who haven't ever played before."
How did the team find the latter? "We do a lot of recruiting. We get out there and go to softball tournaments, bars, we go to the rec leagues and hand out business cards, tell them to look us up on Facebook and see when we're having tryouts," says Lutz. "The goal is for them to be paid players within the next three years. Right now we have about 38 players on our active roster, but we would like to be right around that sixty mark in the future. Denver is definitely a young enough city where there's plenty of exposure and people looking to play, so we just have to recruit a little better to get to that point."
While the majority of the Bandits never had the chance to play tackle football before joining the team, their coaches know the game. Head coach and co-owner Simpson played football at Colorado State University before moving on to semi-pro football, then coached the Colorado Freeze with Lutz. Many of the league's coaches played college and semi-pro football and began coaching through youth leagues. This gives them the expertise to help women new to the sport become football stars.
"For the most part, other than a couple of them playing flag football, they've never played football in any capacity," Lutz reveals. "A lot of them are athletes from college and high school, a lot of soccer players and softball players, basketball players, but no football players — except one of our ladies, Becca Barrios, played high school football."
But Bandits like Alyssa McGuinness have learned that skills honed while playing other sports can translate to the football field. "Being athletic helps," she says. "The footwork and the contact I've had in other sports definitely helps. I'm having a blast. It definitely brings out my competitive nature, so when I get out on the field with girls who are like me, it's just so much fun."
Fun, but also work. "We practice three days a week, we have film studies another day a week, and then when games start, it's a five-day-a-week thing," explains Lutz. "The ladies on their own also go out in groups and work on stuff on their own. It takes up so much of your life, it wouldn't be right to take up that much time and then have a player get in for one play. You're not getting paid the way NFL players are getting paid. They don't get paid at all, except we cover their travel."
Last weekend the Bandits traveled to Omaha, where they played their first game against the Nebraska Nite Hawks on April 6. Though the Bandits lost 33-13, "it was a very close game, and we were in it the whole time," Lutz says. "It was a learning game for sure."
And the team is making an impact in other ways, too. "I think just in the short time we've been doing this, the empowerment that we've been able to give to younger girls who want to come watch or are trying to play for their high school teams or whatever has been really cool to see," says player Shannon Beatty. "They're excited, they want to come watch, they want to talk to us, some of them even want autographs. So I think it gives them something to look up to and aspire to. I think it's unique playing with all women because we all come from different walks of life. The fact that we can come together and everyone is super competitive but also very supportive and tough is really cool."
Adds McGuinness: "I think sometimes girls are seen as feminine, and that's a role we've been placed in for generations and generations, but having a contact sport that's been male-dominated definitely breaks down those barriers for us and gives us more options."
One promising development is the support of well-known athletic-wear companies.
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"Adidas is a sponsor of ours, they gave us a huge deal. They hooked us up with a set of jerseys, and then everything that we purchase from them is 50 percent off," says Lutz. "That's rare for female teams unless they're college teams, and even then the college pays for everything, so it's not really a sponsorship. This is the first big non-college deal for a female team. We also have Riddell, the helmet company, as a big sponsor for us as well. They give us a huge discount on new helmets. A lot of companies do a discount for us, but Adidas is definitely the biggest, and Riddell is big as well."
Though some NFL rules have been slightly modified for the WNFC, for the most part the games follow the same format as the men's.
"It's annoying that there's so many men's leagues," Lutz say. "There's the NFL, there's semi-pro teams all over, there's the AAF, which gets all this national recognition and tons of sponsorship deals, so they're actually making money with it. And it's frustrating that there's the WNBA, and all these other professional women's sports, but there isn't football because it's looked at as a man's sport, as too physical. It's just not right. It's important to break that barrier and show that women can play football. Once this starts taking off, and I fully believe the WNFC will just blow up in a similar way to the WNBA, then we'll start seeing girls in elementary and middle schools start playing football."
But right now, you can see grown women playing football at the Denver Bandits' first home game against the Utah Falcons this Saturday, April 13, starting at 6 p.m. at Aurora Public Schools Stadium at Hinkley High School. Tickets are available at the door or for a discount on Groupon. Find out more about the Bandits on the team's Facebook page.