For decades the National Football League has survived all sorts of gimmicky competitors, from an XFL star named He Hate Me to a Canadian Football League franchise in Las Vegas. Until now, however, it hasn't competed against a league in which women wear skimpy uniforms and pads that expose their cleavage. While playing in the NFL takes a rare combination of strength, speed, and coordination, in the Lingerie Football League, says its founder, Mitchell Mortaza, "You have to be athletic, confident, and beautiful."
Not necessarily in that order. The 10 teams in the LFL play a four-gameregular season, from August to February, that concludes with the Lingerie Bowl, aired on Pay-per-view during half-time of the Super Bowl. With players clad in youth-league-size shoulder pads, lightweight helmets, and knee pads, lingerie football is no pillow fight. LFL games are seven-on-seven contests waged on a 50-yard field. No punts or field goals are allowed, and contracts stipulate that players must cope with the possibility of "accidental" nudity. It's a risk many are willing to take. Says Veronica Moor, quarterback of the Orlando Fantasy: "I'd wear a tutu if it meant I got to play football."
Playing a sport in uniforms resembling underwear takes some getting used to. So does tackling. Brittany Tegeler, a 23-year-old former University of Connecticut soccer star, has already suffered a shoulder injury and concussion in her first season with the Baltimore Charm. "The contact was the biggest transition from soccer," says Tegeler. Yet during the starting lineup announcement for a recent game, she appeared healed. Beneath dimmed lights and artificial smoke, Tegeler dropped to the turf and performed a move known as "the reverse worm" while thousands of fans cheered.
Such theatrics were what Mortaza, 37, had in mind when he began the Lingerie Bowl in 2004. While attending the previous year's Super Bowl in San Diego, he had an epiphany. As fans deserted the stands before Shania Twain's half-time performance, he thought some people might prefer a raunchier option. He quit his day job at an Internet services provider and used his savings to launch the Lingerie Bowl. Although he recruited model Angie Everhart to play and Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Eric Dickerson to coach, most of the publicity came from outraged women's groups. Mortaza leveraged all that negative buzz into viewership, and millions paid $19.95 to watch the Lingerie Bowl on Pay-per-view. He decided to make it an annual event.
There have been snags along the way. Before the game's 2004 debut, its main sponsor, Dodge, pulled out and was replaced at the last minute by PartyPoker.com. The 2009 Lingerie Bowl was canceled because of a conflict with the owner of the event's venue over clothing—too much of it. "We ran into conflicts with the Lingerie Football League wanting more areas of our resort restricted to 'clothing-required' than we could accommodate," explains Angye Fox, a spokeswoman for Land O'Lakes (Fla.)-based Caliente Club & Resorts, a nudist outfit.
The clothing issue remains controversial. The LFL "is a setback to both sports and society," says Michael A. Messner, professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California. Says Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport: "What they're doing is selling sex."
Mortaza believes that may be the only way for women's professional sports to survive—and, somewhat disturbingly, recent history backs him up. Despite the rising popularity of the sport, the Women's United Soccer Assn. disbanded in 2003. The Women's National Basketball Assn., while heavily subsidized by the National Basketball Assn., has seen several franchises fold. In recent years, prize money for the Ladies Professional Golf Assn.—which never equaled that of the men's tour—has fallen. Even professional women's beach volleyball, whose uniforms are skimpier than the LFL's, folded in 1998 before being restarted in 2001. Women's tennis has come close to rivaling the popularity of its male equivalent, but sex appeal is part of the package. Anna Kournikova, once among tennis's highest endorsement earners, never won a Women's Tennis Assn. pro singles tournament. Currently, Maria Sharapova tops the earners' list even though she hasn't won a Grand Slam since 2008. As Serena Williams said at a Wimbledon press conference in 2009: "Sex sells." Perhaps that's why the LFL is growing.
After the inaugural Lingerie Bowl, Mortaza had his second epiphany: Lingerie football was bigger than just one annual game. He envisioned a national sports league featuring serious athletes—albeit mostly naked—in major markets stretching from Los Angeles to Miami. He began recruiting coaches from semipro leagues and advertised tryouts on local radio stations. Players are paid anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars per game, depending on the number of tickets—which range from $15 to $85—sold.
In 2009, Mortaza launched the LFL with 10 teams and a television deal with MTV2, and he says the league made a profit its first year. While two teams, the New York Majesty and the Denver Dream, folded because Mortaza couldn't secure favorable stadium deals, he found replacements for the 2010 season. The new teams, the Baltimore Charm and Orlando Fantasy, squared off on a cold November evening inside Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena—and both showed signs of inexperience. On the very first play, the Charm's quarterback threw the ball into the dirt five yards in front of her intended receiver. A few snaps later, however, she delivered a touchdown strike. The Fantasy equaled the score on their opening drive, despite seeing their starting running back limp off the field after a hard tackle. In the end, the Charm pulled away and won the game 42-19.
"I thought I was one in a million being pretty and athletic," says Tiffani Hardin, a junior at the University of Central Florida and middle linebacker for the vanquished Fantasy. "The first time I played with the LFL, I got knocked on my ass. You can say what you want about the uniforms, but these women are real athletes and they're fierce." As she left the field, an announcer encouraged fans to linger and get autographs from their favorite players.
Mortaza claims that the 2010 season, which culminates on Super Bowl Sunday in Las Vegas, is going even better than expected. "We're 260 percent more profitable so far this season than at the same point last year," he says. Already, he's thinking beyond the U.S. market. The LFL has held a game in Mexico City and plans another in Tokyo. "We're really big in Australia," says Mortaza. Meanwhile, the Charm-Fantasy game earned a two-sentence write-up in The Baltimore Sun. At least it was in the sports section.