The Robinson Knights and Alonso Ravens reside just 15 miles apart from each other in the same county in Florida, but last week, the two teams traveled to the Pacific Northwest to compete in front of a national audience, showcasing a sport that continues to grow throughout the country.

With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country, and the reason so many girls are now playing this fast-paced version of America’s most popular sport is simple — a 37-word piece of legislation known as Title IX.

Behind an impressive outing from sophomore quarterback Haidyn Spano, the Knights beat the Ravens 12-6 in the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic, which took place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and was broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube. The sport has been gaining popularity in recent years, particularly since Nike and the NFL partnered in 2021 to donate $5 million in product to grow the sport in high schools across the U.S.

In the late 1990s, schools from Broward and Orange Counties in Florida were looking for girls sports to add to achieve Title IX compliance, according to Jeremy Hernandez, the Director of Flag Football for the Florida High School Athletic Association.

“When the interest started coming to the FHSAA of counties wanting to add girls flag football, it was solely for Title IX compliance, to help out with those numbers,” Hernandez said.

With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country. (Northwest Florida Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Flag football was an attractive option at these schools for a variety of reasons.

For starters, it’s relatively inexpensive to add in terms of equipment and facilities, especially for schools that already sponsor tackle football. Additionally, flag football’s substantial roster size gives schools a larger drop in the bucket of equitable participation opportunities, and football is huge in Florida.

While the traditional tackle version of the sport has long been deemed a male domain — though the gender barriers are breaking down more each day in that respect — Hernandez posits the popularity of girls flag football in the state is a reflection of a previously stifled desire to play the sport they know so well.

“With Florida being a football state as it is, this is a version for them to be able to go out there and showcase their skills that they can throw and catch and run just as good as the boys,” Hernandez said.

While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. In 2002-03, the very first academic year the sport was sanctioned by the state, 103 schools participated, which was more than twice as many that were required for a first-year offering. The fact that so many schools were able to successfully field teams right away likely speaks to the success of the sport at the club level in the years leading up to its varsity launch.

While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. (Clayton Freeman/Florida Times-Union via USA TODAY NETWORK)

A big contributor to the sport’s general popularity in the state, and now all around the world, has been the International Women’s Flag Football Association. Founded in 1995 by Diane Beruldsen, the IWFFA hosts its annual tournament in Key West, with as many as 49 teams from around the world, including a girls and juniors division. Beruldsen, who first began playing flag football in New York in the ‘70s, spent many of the IWFFA’s early years traveling throughout Florida and eventually beyond, starting new teams and launching leagues.

“In the early years with flag football, we had to create our own,” Beruldsen said. “I hit the road across the United States. In those days, I was teaching women how to play flag football. And today I teach women how to officiate, start leagues, develop leagues and how to coach.”

In 2020, the sport experienced another significant step forward. With financial and operational backing from the NFL, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics announced it was adding women’s flag football as a varsity sport at the college level. Of the 15 member schools currently fielding teams, five of them are Florida institutions. The only other state with multiple NAIA teams is Kansas with three.

Even though Nike and the NFL have given the sport an incredible boost in the last couple of years, Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level, which explains why programs like Alonso and Robinson have reached such an elite level.

Alonso has been to the state championship game four times, claiming two titles in Class 2A, while Robinson has won seven out of the last eight state championships in 1A. Between the two teams on the field last Friday, six players were first or second team all-state selections, and with head coaches who have been running their programs for 15-plus seasons, these powerhouse schools show no signs of slowing down.

Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level. (Pensacola News Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK)

That doesn’t mean, however, their competition won’t be catching up to them.

The Newsome Wolves, for one, have been causing fits for Alonso for the past couple of years, knocking the Ravens out of the state championship tournament in both 2021 and 2022.

But it was clear at Friday’s marquee event that everyone from Alonso and Robinson believes that a rising tide lifts all boats when it comes to pushing their sport forward.

The more competition, the better.

In his postgame response to how he felt about Friday’s game, Robinson coach Josh Saunders expressed this one-for-all mindset.

“I hope it showed everybody everywhere that you can play flag football like this in every state and get the excitement level that these kids have for it,” he said.

A replay of the Nike Kickoff Classic will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Two high school flag football teams, both from the same county in Florida, flew across the country to go head-to-head at the first-of-its-kind Nike Kickoff Classic on Friday, celebrating the return of football season across the country.

Playing at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., in the biggest spotlight of their young careers, the Robinson Knights defeated the Alonso Ravens 12-6 in a tightly contested game between the longtime rivals.

Co-hosted by the NFL alongside Nike, the game built upon last year’s groundbreaking commitment from the two powerhouse companies of $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics across the country.

After two days of special events and programming, the teams found themselves on familiar territory, facing each other within the lines of the football field. Opting to defer after winning the coin toss, Alonso found itself on its heels against a surprisingly jitter-less drive led by Robinson quarterback Haidyn Spano. The first sophomore to earn the starting quarterback role for the Knights since 2007, Spano’s youth had both her and head coach Josh Saunders on edge coming into the game.

But on just her seventh pass for her sixth completion of the game, Spano connected with two-time first team all-state wide receiver Katejion Robinson, as she cut across the center of the field and watched her turn on the jets to cover the remaining 20 yards and find the end zone, giving the Knights a 6-0 lead.

After Alonso head coach Matt Hernandez watched his squad’s first drive come up short, despite several solid gains on short passes to senior running back Sadie Bodie, Spano proved further why she’s the one taking the snaps for Robinson. Perfectly placed passes to Bella Rodriguez and again to Robinson for big gains positioned the Knights with first-and-goal, but they turned the ball over on downs after a touchdown-saving deflection from Alonso junior linebacker Sophie Duong.

The last big play of the half came from Alonso QB Mieke Rowe with 26 seconds left. The reigning state leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and total TDs, Rowe took the snap from midfield on first-and-15, rolled to her left and cut back center to avoid a tenacious rush from Alonso’s Julia Guillermo. She released a pinpoint pass in stride away from her body that sped through a defender’s arms for a completion to junior WR Carina Annunziata.

Unfortunately for Alonso, Spano played as big on defense as she did on offense and knocked down a pass to the end zone to end the half, protecting Robinson’s 6-0 lead.

Alonso started the second half with its best drive of the game, finally getting the ball into the hands of senior WR Eryn Klaus, the 2022 team MVP. After a long run up the center to put her team in the red zone, Klaus expertly sealed off her defender to notch Rowe’s first passing touchdown of the season, putting the Ravens on the board and tying the game at 6-all.

In the end, the consistent connection between Spano and Robinson proved to be the difference. With her length and speed, Robinson was unstoppable, cutting under when being backed and going deep when fronted.

But it was her senior teammate, Adriana Williams, who scored the decisive touchdown. On third-and-goal at the 1, Williams took a surprise short snap and laid out into the air, diving across the goal line and crossing the plane just before her flag was pulled.

After an impressive full-extension interception by Makenna Sturgis gave Alonso one final possession with about two and half minutes left in the game, a series of incompletions led to Rowe throwing an interception of her own.

As Spano took a knee and watched the final seconds tick off, the team erupted into celebration, and the sophomore QB and her coach shared a moment of mutual elation — the kind that only comes from having brilliantly risen to the occasion.

“We had a conversation in the hotel lobby, and I just told her the next three years are going to be awesome for us. And there’s going to be some struggle,” Robinson coach Josh Saunders said about Spano. “We saw the awesome, which was the fourth down play for the touchdown, and then we saw the youth on the interception at the end of the game where you’ve got to take care of the ball.

“We’re going to work through all that, but man, we’re very, very excited.”

Regardless of the final score, both teams successfully showcased what the game of girls flag football is all about and why it continues to catch on throughout the country.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Highlights of girls and women making stunning plays in flag football have been going viral in increasing numbers in recent years, and that’s because the sport is spreading like wildfire across the country, partly due to the recent initiative between Nike and the NFL that committed $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics. State athletic associations can now apply for a one-time donation of up to $100,000 in product to go toward launching or supporting girls flag football.

In the latest augmentation of the initiative, Nike and the NFL have invited two of the top high school girls flag football teams in the country to square off this Friday as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic celebrating the return of football season across the country. In the grandest spotlight the sport has yet been given, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. (PT) in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Beyond the flashy dollar signs and viral game clips, the participation numbers of girls in the sport reveal that real growth is happening where it matters. When the NFL and Nike first announced their initiative to grow girls flag football, six states sponsored the sport (Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York).

Since that announcement, one academic year has passed, and two more states have officially added the sport — Arkansas and Alabama — with California set to launch its program in 2023. In 2010, there were 6,235 girls playing high school flag football. By 2018, the latest data set available, that number had grown to 11,209 and that was three years before the boost from Nike and the NFL.

One person who has noticed the recent flame of popularity for the sport is Diane Beruldsen, founder of the International Women’s Flag Football Association (IWFFA), who has been playing and growing the sport of women’s flag football since the 1970s.

“I have to say, with the NFL’s advertisements, their excitement, they really have increased the number of flag football players for girls and women,” Berulsden said. “The last three years, I’d say, flag football has really bloomed.”

Just like all other sports, women have been playing football since its inception. They may have been off in the margins, away from mainstream attention and approval, but they were there. Women’s tackle football leagues have existed in the U.S. since the 1960s, as recently documented in “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League,” and continue today with not one but two elite leagues (the Women’s Football Alliance and the Women’s National Football Conference) pushing the game forward.

According to Diane Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

It’s no different with flag football, which women have been playing since soon after its inception in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“In the early years, we had to fight for field space,” Berdulsen said. “It would be the men first, then the boys, then the girls, then the women last.”

According to Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, more leagues formed across the U.S. Beruldson herself spearheaded leagues in Brooklyn (1985), New York (1990) and Key West (1991). By 2001, the annual tournament she hosted in Key West included 49 teams and had added divisions for girls and juniors between the ages of 8 and 15.

It’s no surprise that when Florida became the first state to sanction girls flag football as a varsity sport in 2002, there were 103 schools and 3,855 participants across the state. Today, 320 schools in the state have teams.

Nevada had similar success when one of the state’s school districts launched a girls flag football program in 2014 after a student survey aimed at increasing girls participation in athletics revealed flag football received the highest interest amongst prospective new sports. Thirty-seven schools in the state now sponsor the sport for girls.

In Georgia and Alabama, financial support from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons has been instrumental in launching their programs through grant money that schools can apply for and use for a variety of needs such as game officials and coach stipends. Georgia had 191 teams participate in just its second year of sanctioning the sport last season, and Alabama has 44 schools registered for its pilot program this year.

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity.

For one, it’s a relatively low-cost sport in terms of equipment and facilities for athletic departments to add, especially for those that already sponsor tackle football. It also taps into the massive popularity of American tackle football. Its familiarity makes it attractive to new players, parents, and athletics supporters.

Lastly, its roster sizes are large enough to significantly increase the numbers of girls participating in sports for a given school, district and state.

“According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are one million fewer female high school athletes participating in sports than their male counterparts. This discrepancy is largely due to football,” Nike said via email. “As one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., flag football provides girls with another opportunity to play and compete in sport and has the power to make a difference during a crucial period in their athletic development.”

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Given that the noted disparity in high school athletics participation numbers is hardly a recent finding, it’s logical to wonder why now? Or more accurately, why not until now?

The obvious answer is that gendered social norms have always deemed tackle football a strictly male sphere. The women who played the game in the early decades went boldly against the grain, and many girls and women playing tackle football today still face significant backlash.

If individual families and communities haven’t been encouraging girls and women to pursue football in grand numbers, it’s no surprise that large organizations haven’t done so either, which reveals a fourth attribute that makes flag football so appealing — it’s not tackle football.

With increasing awareness and concern over concussions in athletics, especially in football, and persistent reluctance to see traditional tackle football as a girls game, flag is a very alluring version to promote.

Within flag football, there are many different variations. The main demarcation is how many players are on the field at a time. Beruldson believes the 8-on-8 variation played and taught by the IWFFA has the most to offer athletes. Whereas in 5-on-5 and 7-on-7, there is no blocking allowed, the 8-on-8 version includes blocking and most closely resembles the 11-on-11 tackle version of the game, making it a sport that requires and values a wide variety of body shapes and athleticism.

The existing national tackle football leagues for women — the WFA and WNFC — are thrilled with the explosion of flag football at the youth and high school levels. From their perspective, flag football is a direct gateway to the tackle version of the game.

“As flag develops, girls want to put on helmets. It’s just some girls are tackle football players,” said Odessa Jenkins, founder and CEO of the WNFC. “I don’t care what you do, how many flags you let her pull, she wants to tackle. She wants to get physical.”

Women’s football leaders across the board are also thrilled by the fact that flag football is now a sponsored varsity sport at 15 colleges in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Once again, the NFL was integral to this development, partnering with the NAIA to create the infrastructure and operations required to add the sport and serving as the presenting sponsor of the NAIA Football National Championships.

The recent rise of girls flag football across the country may give the impression that the sport was pulled out of thin air, but women have been playing and growing the game on their own for decades. What we’re seeing now is the incredible growth that’s possible when power players like Nike and the NFL come together to promote the natural athleticism and desire to play.

“What drives us is the possibility of inspiring more girls and women to see themselves in sport,” Nike said via email. “This grant demonstrates Nike’s continued commitment to inspire girls to continue to keep playing.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

When organizations like the NFL and Nike throw their weight behind girls’ sports, some amazing things come to fruition.

One such example is taking place this Friday when two high school girls’ flag football teams will face off as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic to celebrate the return of football season around the country. Highlighting one of the fastest-growing sports for girls on the grandest stage yet proffered, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. local time in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Interestingly, the schools are both located in Hillsborough County, Fla., and have regularly met face-to-face on the gridiron since the sport first took off in the area in the mid-2000s. So, why bring two teams from the very same county across the U.S. for this marquee matchup? Well, although they are only 15 miles apart, the girls’ flag football teams at Alonso and Robinson are two of the top five teams in the state of Florida, which has been the epicenter of the sport since it was first sanctioned in 2002, long before it caught on in other states.

In 2016, the Florida High School Athletic Association even expanded the sport into two classifications because so many schools had added teams. Alonso is a 2A school, while Robinson is 1A, meaning the schools no longer go head-to-head for the state championship. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still view each other as rivals.

For the Ravens, head coach Matt Hernandez has led the team to the state championship game four times since taking over the program 15 years ago, winning the title in both 2018 and 2019. Josh Saunders, his counterpart at Robinson who’s been with the Knights for 16 seasons, has taken his team to the state championship eight years in a row, winning seven titles and the last six in a row in 1A.

Merely based on rankings and state titles, Alonso enters the game as the presumptive underdog, and perhaps that’s the mindset the Ravens’ three senior captains are instilling in their teammates as they prepare for the biggest game of their teenage lives.

One of those captains, Alonso quarterback Mieke Rowe, led the state in passing yards (5,091), passing touchdowns (91) and total TDs (98) as a junior last season. Eryn Klaus, a co-captain and one of Rowe’s top targets, has been a starting wide receiver on the varsity team for four years, earning first team all-state honors as both a sophomore and junior.

But perhaps the most exciting Ravens player to watch is sophomore wide receiver Makenna Sturgis, who led the state in yards per catch (18.8) a year ago as a freshman and was second in the state in total receiving yards (1,333), receiving touchdowns (25) and total touchdowns (29).

Whereas Alonso has a seasoned and accomplished quarterback in Rowe, Robinson sophomore Haidyn Spano will be the one taking snaps and running the offense for the Knights. It’s the first time since 2015 that the Knights’ starting quarterback has not been a senior and the first time since 2007 that a sophomore has earned that key role for the squad.

Luckily, Spano will have wide receiver Katejion Robinson, a two-time first team all-state wide receiver who led the state in total scoring last year. Leading the defensive efforts for the Knights is senior captain Julia Guillermo, a first team all-state rusher who notched an impressive 98 tackles and 39 sacks last season.

For those new to flag football, the sport resembles the traditional version of America’s most popular sport in most aspects, except, of course, that no tackles are allowed. Instead, a player is considered down where her feet are when one of the two flags from her belt has been pulled free by a defender.

At the high-school level, teams play 7-on-7, with a center, quarterback and five eligible receivers on offense. The field is 40 yards wide and 80 yards long between end zones, with yard lines marked at the 40-yard midfield line and at each 20-yard line. The quarterback can run, hand off or pass the ball, and the team has four downs to progress to the next 20-yard marker.

Touchdowns are worth six points, and the scoring team then chooses whether to attempt a one-point, two-point or three-point conversion. As there are no linemen or blocking, a defensive line of scrimmage is separated from the offensive line by a 5- or 7-yard neutral zone that cannot be entered until the ball is snapped. There are no helmets or pads, but mouthpieces are required.

When you extract traditional tackling from American football, the game is distilled down to one of extreme speed, agility and accuracy, which girls have been displaying on football fields across the country in ever-increasing numbers as flag football spreads like wildfire.

For the Ravens and Knights, Friday’s game is two things at once: the next of many games against a longtime rival and an unprecedented opportunity to showcase an empowering arena for girls in football to the entire country.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

In recent years, the tagline “Football is Female” has accompanied stories about women breaking barriers into men’s American football, namely the NFL. Katie Sowers, Sarah Fuller, Sarah Thomas and others have garnered national media attention for reaching unprecedented levels of success in men’s football. At SuperBowl LVI last year, the NFL made a concerted effort to demonstrate its inclusion of women when legend Billie Jean King performed the coin toss alongside players from the high school girls’ Flag League of Champions and girls youth football players from two local teams in SoCal to honor the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

What has been largely missing from efforts to showcase women and girls in football, however, are the more than 1,600 elite-level athletes in the U.S. actively playing women’s tackle football and dreaming of a women’s pro league.

Over the past several weeks, national champions have been crowned, league MVPs have been named, and the 45-player U.S. women’s national tackle football team made it to the title game of the IFAF World Championships in Finland, where they’ll look to defend their gold medal against Great Britain this Sunday.

Team USA’s starting quarterback Brittany Bushman, who has gone 29-of-48 for 338 yards through the first two games of the tournament, has experienced both the highs and the lows of her sport.

The 36-year-old from Portsmouth, N.H. grew up playing Pop Warner with the boys and then football, basketball and baseball through high school. Her playing time became more limited on the football field once she reached varsity, which she attributes to a combination of the competition outgrowing her in physical size and sensitive egos on the coaching staff. Despite the struggles, Bushman says she was “completely devastated” when her senior season ended, believing she would never have another opportunity to play her favorite sport.

It wasn’t until she was playing Division III basketball at Emmanuel College that she found out organized women’s tackle football existed. A player noticed her skill as she casually threw the football on the sidelines of her younger brother’s game and recruited her to try out.

“I said, ‘Wait what? Women’s football?’ And I was hooked,” Bushman says now.

Today in the U.S., there are two main tackle football leagues for women — the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) and the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC). They are the latest iterations of leagues that have been evolving since the 1960s, when the National Women’s Football League was first formed.

When WFA Commissioner Lisa King started the WFA in 2009, she modeled it after the semi-pro soccer teams she played on. After her parents denied her pleas to play PeeWee football as a kid, King resigned herself to the soccer pitch until she graduated college and eventually found out about a women’s football team based in Los Angeles. The three-hour commute twice a week didn’t stop King, and she’s been committed to growing the game for women ever since.

“The league that we were playing in was extremely expensive. There weren’t a whole lot of teams, so the travel was very expensive. It was quite a financial burden, which is why I don’t think a lot of the younger players were playing at the time,” King says. “I just kind of had a vision of duplicating what women’s soccer had done and doing it in the women’s football space.”

After 14 years as the leader of the WFA, King’s vision for the future of women’s football has greatly surpassed simply reducing costs for players.

“There’s a huge following for [women’s] UFC. Contact sports for women is not something people are shying away from,” King says. “The sky’s the limit. [Football] is America’s sport. It’s the most popular sport. I think it’s going to be bigger than all the major sports, in my opinion. I think eventually bigger than women’s basketball, eventually bigger than women’s soccer.”

Her confident assessment of her sport’s growth potential comes with important context. She’s extremely pragmatic about the time it takes to develop a thriving professional league and the specific challenges facing women’s tackle football.

“Our biggest challenge is we do not have high school. We don’t have youth, we don’t have college, so we really have to develop the sport ourselves,” King says. “It takes developing the players, developing the markets. It’s not instant. We’ve been doing this for 14 years. As we continue to grow, the level of competition gets better, the more fans we get, the more attention we get. In my opinion, that’s the key to success. It’s not something that’s going to be instant.”

Not everyone in the game shares King’s patient and pragmatic mindset. Most notably, Odessa Jenkins split from the WFA in 2018 to start the WNFC with a more aggressive financial model and timeline.

“I joined a startup in 2015 and really started to understand how businesses are built, valued, structured,” Jenkins says. “I thought if a startup tech firm could be built that way, a women’s football league could be built that way, too.”

The South Central L.A. native grew up playing a slew of sports on the blacktops of her neighborhood with large groups of kids, but football was her favorite early on.

“It was one of the few sports where I could just get out there and be fast. How small I was didn’t really matter. It was just how tough I was that mattered,” Jenkins says. “I immediately realized that there was a place for everybody in football. Our chubby cousins, our girl cousins, our boy cousins, our tall cousins, everyone had a spot. So, I loved the sport. I loved it.”

When obtaining a college scholarship became an important priority, and her middle school football coach told her how unlikely that would be in the sport of football, Jenkins begrudgingly quit to focus on academics and basketball, the sport that eventually took her through university. It wasn’t until her late twenties that Jenkins found out 11v11 women’s tackle football existed and had been around for more than half a century. Her reaction at the time was similar to Bushman’s — equal parts shock and elation.

“I felt robbed of my life. I was like, ‘What? We’ve been doing this for 60 years? Are you kidding me?’” Jenkins recalls.

Part of what propelled Jenkins to branch off from the WFA and start the WNFC was the underlying disappointment she felt in 2017. She had won the WFA Championship while coaching and playing on the Dallas Elite, and she had won a World Championship with Team USA. Having been selected for the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the Atlanta Falcons that year, Jenkins had a front-row seat to what her counterpart on the men’s side was experiencing.

“I was supposed to be at the highest place that a woman could be in football at that time, and I’m sitting in the locker room with Devonta Freeman who was about to sign the biggest running back contract in the history of football at $48.9 million. I’m the best running back in [women’s] football at the time. I was at my championship game a week before he signed that contract, and I couldn’t even get a hoodie for free,” Jenkins says.

So, she set about carving a faster path toward a legitimate professional league for women. She developed a five-year business plan for her new league and approached 25 teams with her proposal. Twenty of the teams were impressed enough to follow her lead, including a few from the WFA, and the first season of the WNFC kicked off in 2019.

The timing worked well for Bushman, Jenkins’ friend and former teammate, who had just returned to the sport after a five-year hiatus following an ACL tear that she didn’t have insurance to fix.

Soon after she was named the 2012 WFA MVP after a stellar season with the Dallas Diamonds and selected to Team USA’s roster for the 2013 World Championships, Bushman suffered the injury. Arguably the best player in the game that year couldn’t afford the medical treatment necessary to get her back on the field.

After finally obtaining the surgery, Bushman focused the next few years on establishing herself in her career as a full-time high school science teacher and coach, which came with insurance and economic stability. In 2018, she was ready to return to the game.

Her full-circle moment came earlier this summer when the Texas Elite Spartans star quarterback stepped onto the Dallas Cowboys’ practice field at the Ford Center at The Star to play for the 2022 WNFC Championship after being named league MVP earlier that day. As a kid who grew up cheering for the Cowboys, Bushman still fondly recalls that day.

“I had to say to myself in my head, ‘Do not get emotional right now,’ because I could feel the tears,” Bushman says. “We used to play on dirt patches. We came out in mismatched uniforms and helmets when I first started. And then to walk into that? It was a really emotional moment.”

She’s not the only one who is pleased with the progress of the WNFC.

“We’re technically in year three of football, four of existence, and we’ve hit every single milestone that we said we would hit,” Jenkins says.

With sponsorships from adidas, Riddell and Dick’s Sporting Goods, a streaming deal with Vyre, and a fast-growing following on social media, the WNFC is planning to launch its first round of seed funding later this year. Jenkins plans to be very selective with the teams they bring in to maximize revenue potential and the quality of the product on the field. She’s also passionate about leaning into the identities of WNFC athletes and not repeating the mistakes she watched WNBA marketers make early on, when many of them ostracized the bulk of their players and fans.

“We are also a league that embraces who our players are. Sixty-five percent of them are BIPOC, and a great majority of them identify as LGBTQ+. We don’t run away from that,” she says. “If your walk-in is with a suit, walk in with a suit. If your walk-in is in a dress, walk in in a dress. If your pronouns are them and they, we’ll use them.”

“A smaller league with more impact,” is how Jenkins describes the WNFC’s 17-team league in comparison to the WFA, which has 61 teams playing across four divisions.

From the WFA’s perspective, the multi-division model allows them to do it all: develop the game from the grassroots level and also market and showcase the elite level to bring in revenue. And they’ve got a track record to support their case. WFA sponsors include Wilson, Zenith, Secret and the NFL Academy, among others. This year, they signed deals with the new Women’s Sports Network and with Fat Head, which allows WFA players to earn income off their name, image and likeness.

In early July, the WFA Pro Championship game between the Boston Renegades and Minnesota Vixen aired on ESPN2 (after 10 years of streaming on ESPN3). It garnered higher viewership than the lead-in international soccer match and topped the channel’s Sunday afternoon average viewership in July for three of the past four years. Those numbers lead King to believe that their patience and hard work is starting to pay off.

“Now that we’re getting some funding and we’re getting that platform, to me, it’s almost like downhill now. I feel like we’ve climbed, climbed, climbed, and now we’re kind of at that peak,” King says. “Whereas five years ago, I would reach out to some companies and I wouldn’t get anything returned, or maybe I’d get a form email returned. Now we’re getting meetings within a week or so. There’s so much interest in the movement with women’s sports. It can’t be any better timing than right now.”

Cynthia “Red” Bryant played in that title game as a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vixen. Though she and her team lost the final to the Renegades, 32-12, for the second year in row, she’s still proud of what they accomplished.

One of the original players from the inaugural 1999 season that restarted organized women’s tackle football in the U.S. after the NWFL folded in the late 80s, Bryant has been playing the sport in Minnesota for 24 seasons. A star basketball player growing up, Bryant took an unexpected detour when she became pregnant with her son at 19. When the WNBA launched and she had no DI pathway to garner a tryout, she had no reason not to accept the invite she did get to try out for the original Vixen football team in 1999. Once she experienced the gridiron, she fell in love with a completely new athletic challenge. Whereas basketball always felt easy, football made her work and grind and break through mental barriers she’d never had to before.

By the time her granddaughter was born many seasons into her career, Bryant realized basketball had never been her destiny.

“It was meant for me to be a pioneer and leave a legacy behind in football and do something bigger for girls,” she says.

“If it’s something that you love to do, that should be enough for you. That’s what carries me. That’s what I think carries the majority of these women playing — it’s the joy of it. To get sponsorships? To get people to buy into it? Of course, that would be great, but we haven’t grinded this long just for that. We grinded this long because our hearts are in it, and we love to play the sport.”

While Bryant plans to give it one more run before retiring next year, neither the WFA nor WNFC has plans to stop storming toward their goal of becoming thriving pro football leagues. As anyone who follows women’s pro sports knows, football is hardly the first sport to have dueling leagues.

“If somebody thinks they can do it differently, I wish them success. If they have found something that’s working, then that’s going to be best for women’s football, then good for them and good for women’s football,” King says about the WNFC. “We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing, and it does take a lot of time. I think people think that there’s gonna be instant stardom, instant money, instant revenue. If only we just did this, if only we just did that. And at the end of the day, it really takes growth.”

Neither league leader is overly concerned or distracted by the philosophical differences or existence of the opposing league.

“I think that it is clear whether the WFA exists or not, the WNFC is going to reach its goals. There is no doubt about it,” Jenkins says.

“The only thing I have to say about that is that they’re both amazing leagues and they’ve got two amazing people running them,” Bryant says. “I just hope that we can find a way to convert both of them together and try to get one good product to push for.”

This week, top players from both leagues are competing side by side at the World Championships as teammates on the national team under head coach Callie Brownson, the chief of staff and assistant wide receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns.

With Bushman leading the offense as QB1 and star running back D’Ajah Scott putting up 141 rushing yards and four touchdowns through the first two rounds, the Americans are highly favored to defeat Great Britain for the gold medal.

The veteran Bushman, keenly aware of the “young bucks” rising in the game, is enjoying every minute of her resurgence and success on the field. As girls’ flag football becomes an even more popular sport throughout the country, the average age of players in both leagues is going down, while years of prior experience in the game is going up. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) even added women’s flag football as a competitive collegiate sport for its member institutions last year.

Looking back on her Texas Elite Spartans’ championship-winning weekend in Dallas at the end of June, Bushman recalls one of her favorite memories — aside from her first step onto the field years ago. The Girls Ball event brought together youth football and current WNFC players for a night of celebrating girls who love football.

“I know so many times when I was that age, I felt so alone. I’d be the only one going to my locker room,” Bushman says. “If I knew that there was a whole league of women who are playing this game at a high level, I just can’t even imagine what that support would feel like.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

It’s rare for social activists to reach legendary status during their own lifetime, but that’s exactly the case for Billie Jean King in her ongoing quest for women’s sports equality.

In a recent conversation with Just Women’s Sports, the tennis icon revealed just how early in life she became passionate about the inequalities she witnessed in the world.

“I knew at 12 years old tennis was my platform for change. I was sitting at the Los Angeles Tennis Club thinking about my sport and I noticed everyone who played wore white clothes, played with white balls, and everyone who played was white,” recalls the now 78-year-old Southern California native.

“I asked myself, ‘Where is everyone else?’ From that day forward, I committed my life to fighting for equality for all.”

The intersection of sport and social change is where King has resided ever since that day at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Luckily, her athletic prowess on the tennis court led to a level of athletic dominance that gave her a national and even global platform for what she had to say.

At Wimbledon in 1966, the then 23-year-old won the first of her 12 career Grand Slam titles, the last coming at Wimbledon once again in 1975. Her tennis awards, accolades and Hall of Fame inductions are impossible to summarize succinctly, but it’s her off-court accomplishments that her 12-year-old self would be most proud of.

When the existing structures didn’t aptly respond to her calls for equal prize money among men and women, she started the Women’s Tennis Association in 1970 along with eight fellow players, now known as the “Original 9,” and became its first president. A few years later, she started the Women’s Sports Foundation. The organization, dedicated to enhancing girls’ access to all sports and defending the nascent Title IX legislation, broadened her influence well beyond tennis.

King won 12 Grand Slam titles during her career, giving her the necessary platform to effect change. (Central Press/Getty Images)

Looking back almost 60 years after her first Grand Slam title at how far the sports world has come, King has no intention of taking her foot off the gas pedal.

“It’s not enough, and there is much more to do. Women’s sports have come a long way, but we are still very much in our infancy, especially when you compare us to men’s professional sports,” she says. “The best example is the NBA has been around more than 75 years, and the WNBA has been operating for just over 25 years. You cannot compare the two as it just isn’t apples to apples. We arrived in the marketplace later and we need a chance to show what we can do.”

Though she still believes that tennis is “the leader in women’s sports today,” she knows progress across the sports spectrum is essential, serving as a mentor for women’s teams and athletes throughout the U.S. With a front-row seat to the ebbs and flows of that progress, King has a unique perspective to demarcate key advances over the decades.

“The success of women athletes at the [1996] Atlanta Games spoke loud and clear about the future of women’s sports in this country and beyond. But women’s professional sports are just now starting to gain traction,” she says. “The NWSL is a bright star right now. I was at the Angel City FC home opener, and it was a special moment in history. The salaries are up in the WNBA. More than 40 percent of all professional athletes are women, yet we still only receive 4 percent of the media coverage.

“When that needle starts to move forward, women’s sports will really grow. The bottom line is we need everyone to invest in and champion women’s sports.”

At 78 years old, King is ever-present at sporting events around the globe. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Always one to let her actions speak louder than words, King’s own investment firm, BJK Enterprises, has now invested in the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, Angel City FC of the NWSL, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and Just Women’s Sports. But pushing for successful women’s pro leagues and equal pay with male counterparts is not where her agenda ends.

She always has her eye on the next crucial battlefronts in the pursuit of sports equality for all.

“Looking ahead to the next 50 years of Title IX, we must increase compliance with the law and find a workable solution for name, image and likeness laws,” she says. “Most importantly, we need to give attention to those who have thus far been left behind: defining inclusive opportunities for transgender athletes, athletes with disabilities, and girls and women of color.”

A quick scroll through King’s social media posts reveals her relentless drive to both honor the progress we’ve made and call for action on the work yet to be done. In the past few decades, other female athletes have reached legendary status in their own right, but they have all — knowingly or not — stood on the shoulders of Billie Jean King.

Editor’s Note: This story is a part of the Just Women’s Sports inaugural Legends Collection. Check out our stories on the other legends, Sheryl Swoopes and Brandi Chastain.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

During the 2021 Women’s College World Series, Odicci Alexander (pronounced “odyssey”) exploded onto the national stage when she led unranked James Madison University to the semifinals. The Dukes upset top-seeded Oklahoma in Game 1 before the eventual champion Sooners brought their Cinderella run to an end.

In that remarkable postseason campaign that capped her college career, Alexander threw 94 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings and finished with an 8-3 record, earning wins over four top-10 teams and a spot on the WCWS All-Tournament team. She pitched every single inning for her team at the WCWS until the fifth inning of their final game. She was named D1 Softball’s Woman of the Year and Softball America NCAA Pitcher of the Year, and she was nominated for the Best Female College Athlete ESPY Award.

The performance was as impressive as the list of stats and awards suggests, but the significant part of Alexander’s story is what she helped reveal about the market that exists for women’s sports and its athletes.

In 2021, the WCWS averaged 1.2 million viewers and outperformed the men’s tournament by 60 percent. Each time Alexander took the mound in the Oklahoma City heat that June, she gained thousands of new followers on social media. People couldn’t get enough of her. As one of a small group of Black players in the sport, especially on the mound, the timing of her success on the big stage was powerful — the summer after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police ignited a movement of racial reckoning in the U.S.

“I always felt like I was the only Black girl around most of the time at tournaments,” she recalled on Sweat the Details about her experience growing up in the sport. “It really opened my eyes at the World Series when I was the only Black girl pitching on that platform.”

But it was more than the color of Alexander’s skin or the black and white numbers on the scoresheet that drew fans in. It was her poise, her passion and her heart of the ultimate underdog — all of which were distilled into one of the most spectacular plays ever seen at home plate, when she charged a bunt, scooped it mid-stride and laid out into the air, tagging the base runner out by inches to maintain the Dukes’ 2-1 lead over Oklahoma State and earn her team a spot in the semifinals.

Alexander’s superhuman feats on the diamond are balanced by a down-to-earth humility off of it.

“You can be the best athlete, but being a good person makes you an even better athlete. People overlook that part of sports,” she told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “At the end of the day, in any sport you play, it doesn’t define who you are as a person. I try to instill that in these younger girls: Be true to you, be who you are, be the best person.”

The NCAA’s new NIL legislation allowing student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness while in college didn’t go into effect until several weeks after Alexander threw her last pitch. However, as soon as Alexander walked off that field on June 7 to a standing ovation from a crowd of 12,000-plus, most of whom were Sooners fans, her college career officially ended, and she could sign any deals she pleased.

Within days of arriving back to campus in her home state of Virginia, Alexander began capitalizing on the massive following her performance generated. She hired a manager, signed a contract with the USSSA Pride pro softball team and released her own apparel merchandise. Over the summer, she picked up several endorsements, the most notable when she signed on as an Under Armour athlete that August. Today, she has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and TikTok and nearly 100,000 on Instagram, and she takes her newfound influence to heart.

“I now have a voice and I’ve impacted and inspired so many girls that look like me or who don’t look like me, or who play the same sport as me,” Alexander told Sports Illustrated. “While I’m on this huge platform, my motivation is to continue to grow the game in a positive way.”

When Title IX was passed in 1972, exactly 50 years ago this month, the underlying goal was equal opportunity. Decades later, the fruits of that groundbreaking legislation are personified in athletes like Alexander, whose scholarship would not have existed without it. But the long-term result of Title IX is blossoming into much more than equal access. The immense popularity of Alexander and her historic WCWS run demonstrate that, 50 years later, the consumer interest and marketability of women’s sports and their athletes are just beginning to unlock.

“For 20 years and more we have been trying to guilt people into watching women’s sports. But everyone in this space has to understand that sports run on hype, not guilt,” says Haley Rosen, Just Women’s Sports Founder and CEO. “To get where we want to go, we’ve got to talk about women’s sports like the 200-billion-dollar industry it’s projected to become in the next decade.

“We have to remember that sports are entertainment and lean into everything we love about them. … Women’s sports should feel exciting, dramatic, fun. When we do this, when we focus on the sports, it works.”

Since 2003, NCAA softball revenue has increased by 339.6 percent, according to Department of Education data. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the NCAA, yet there are still minimal opportunities for softball’s best athletes to earn a decent living playing professionally.

The summer Alexander graduated, National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) — which had been the main professional softball league in the U.S. since its inception in 2004, albeit with dismal salaries — announced it was suspending operations. In its place, new opportunities sprouted.

Athletes Unlimited burst onto the scene in 2020 with a fantasy-style model, where the top four players from each week become captains and draft new teams, and the player with the most individual points at the end of the five-week season is crowned as champion. This year, they added a condensed two-week version that strategically followed right on the heels of the WCWS.

Another traditional style league, Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF), is also kicking off this summer made up of the USSSA Pride and a brand-new pro team, the Smash It Sports Vipers of Rochester, N.Y. Although they are starting with a condensed, exhibition-style schedule, WPF’s goal is to grow into a sustainable pro league.

After playing in Athletes Unlimited’s second season in 2021, Alexander opted to take her skills abroad this summer to Japan’s Diamond League as a member of Toda Medics.

Playing in Japan, the USA’s biggest global rival in the sport and where women’s softball has been a mainstay pro sport for many decades, is a common trend for top players from the U.S. and an experience Alexander eagerly sought out. Whether her Diamond League commitment will permit her to return stateside to re-join USSSA Pride or step into the circle for Athletes Unlimited later this season remains to be seen. As one of the biggest names in the game, she’d be a highly sought-after addition for both leagues.

Jocelyn Alo, Alexander’s friend and WCWS rival, recently announced she’s joining the WPF for her first professional foray, giving the new league a huge boost. The two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year signed with the Vipers shortly after leading Oklahoma to its second consecutive WCWS Championship earlier this month.

Watching Alo leave the field to her own standing ovation and emotional farewell interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe a year after Alexander’s similar exit from the college scene serves as a reminder of the limited options for world-class softball athletes beyond the NCAA. But the public frenzy and massive followings that both Alo and Alexander have garnered also bolster the vision of how rich the future could be for pro softball in the U.S.

The mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” has been touted by many in the women’s sports industry, as viewership records are repeatedly broken and athletes like Alexander garner unprecedented fame and attention.

The first 50 years of Title IX were spent “building,” and in many arenas the mantra needs to be updated. What athletes like Alexander have revealed is, “If you promote it and put it on TV, they will come. They will come in droves.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

The total number of rostered players four weeks into the WNBA regular season is roughly 140, not quite the 144 spots allotted by the league due to the financial jigsaw puzzle of fielding a competitive team within the salary cap. Of those 140 current players, 23 are rookies this season.

Here at JWS, we’ll be checking in periodically on the 2022 rookie class to keep you up to date on how they’re stacking up in the competitive WNBA.

Now that most teams have clocked at least 11 regular season games, five rookies have set themselves apart as clear overachievers, demonstrating value on the court that is significantly higher than their predicted value. One is a wildly popular NCAA champion point guard, one is an undrafted free agent making her W debut at age 31, and three are first-round draft picks already exceeding high preseason expectations.

1. Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream, age 22

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 34th, currently 14th in fantasy points per game

Coming in at number one is none other than the top overall pick of the 2022 WNBA Draft. The rookie with the highest expectations earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors her very first week in the league, something no other rookie had done since Tamika Catchings in 2002. Not even heralded players like A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird achieved that mark.

Howard then became only the seventh player in WNBA history to score more than 100 points in her first five games. After averaging 20.5 points per game through her first six, her scoring cooled off in Week 3. Still, she is 11th league-wide in points per game and is leading the Dream in scoring and is top three in steals, blocks, and assists. In both win shares and player efficiency rating (PER), two stats that aim to measure the actual value a player provides when they are on the court, Howard is contending with the best in the league, currently ranking seventh and 21st, respectively.

Howard has joined elite WNBA company during her first month in the league. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

At the end of Howard’s record-breaking career at Kentucky, where she departed as the program’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, it was still unclear if she’d go No. 1 in the draft. The draft lottery-winning Mystics even traded down, willingly passing off the opportunity to draft her. Analysts questioned whether she had the motor required to maintain maximum effort up and down the court at the next level. Through the first month of the season, Howard has led Atlanta to its best start since 2017 and silenced all questions about whether she was worth the No. 1 pick.

2. Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics, age 22

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 87th, currently 61st in fantasy points per game

This is no knock against NaLyssa Smith, the No. 2 pick out of Baylor who has seamlessly transitioned to the pro level with the Fever, but her expected value was already as high as she’s revealing it to be. This is about Shakira Austin, the 6-foot-5 center out of Ole Miss who didn’t get as much mainstream attention until draft night after the Rebels lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Those who had seen Austin play knew she had a lot to offer as a dynamic defender who can protect the basket and hold her own against smaller perimeter players. And she’s been producing on both ends of the court right off the bat, averaging 8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. Most notably, she’s currently ranked second in the league in field goal percentage (60.3 percent) and twelfth in total rebound rate (16.3 percent).

Having started eight of the Mystics’ 12 games, Austin has proven herself against some of the league’s best, holding Sylvia Fowles to 13 points in just her second career game. And among her rookie peers, she has the highest PER and is second highest in win shares.

3. Rebekah Gardner, Chicago Sky, age 31

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 149th, currently 66th in fantasy points per game

When filling the final rookie-scale salary spots on their roster, coaches either go for college draftees with steep learning curves but potentially high ceilings long-term, or veteran players from the overseas market who can fill immediate on-court gaps but have likely reached their ceiling. When the latter option reveals a much higher ceiling than expected, it’s like finding a unicorn.

The WNBA’s leading unicorn for 2022 is 31-year-old Rebekah Gardner, who played at UCLA from 2008-12 and then on a variety of teams in Europe over the past decade before finally breaking into the WNBA this season with James Wade’s Chicago Sky.

Gardner wasted no time in leaving her mark, currently averaging nine points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game and ranking fifth in the league in shooting percentage. Serving as the backup to last season’s Finals MVP, Kahleah Copper, Gardner brings composure and tenacity from her experience playing against many of the league’s best while abroad. Of the rookie class, Gardner is third in scoring and fourth in both win shares and PER.

4. Destanni Henderson, Indiana Fever, age 23

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 147th, currently 80th in fantasy points per game

Destanni Henderson claims the fourth-place spot on our overachievers list, not for any lack of fanfare after her stellar performance in South Carolina’s run to the NCAA championship, but because 19 other rookies were selected before her on draft night. Granted, had she not put on one of the best showcases of her college career in the national championship game, her going 20th overall would not have raised too many eyebrows. Nonetheless, Henderson has quickly proven her stock is worth more than that.

In just her second game at the pro level, she put up 19 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals and went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Henderson, mostly coming off the bench for the Fever, is averaging 7.2 points and 2.8 assists per game and has continued to hit shots from deep, currently ranked second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (51.9). Within her rookie class, Henderson is second overall in assists per game, third in PER and fifth in win shares.

5. Queen Egbo, Indiana Fever, age 21

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 100, currently 49th in fantasy points per game

It should be no surprise that Indiana has two top-five overachieving rookies — the Fever had the highest number of first-round draft selections in the history of the league with four this year. Queen Egbo, a center out of Baylor, just barely edged out teammate Emily Engstler, a forward from Louisville, for our (highly coveted) fifth-place spot.

The two bigs are neck-and-neck in practically every stat sheet. Egbo is averaging 6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, while Engstler is recording 6.8 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. Engstler also is currently second league-wide in offensive boards per game. But in almost every other statistical category, Egbo is either right by her side or slightly ahead. Even in league-wide and fantasy stat sheets, if you scan for one name, the other is lurking very close by. So, it really comes down to preseason expected value.

L-R: NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, Lexie Hull, Emily Engstler and Destanni Henderson (front) during the Fever's media day. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Engstler was the higher pick, taken fourth overall with Egbo going six picks later. Engstler’s ESPN preseason fantasy ranking was 80, and though her jump to 53rd in fantasy points per game is impressive, Egbo has the upper hand, rising from 100th to 49th. Both have quickly proven worthy of taking up two highly coveted WNBA roster spots, and we suspect they will for many years to come.


Overachieving during your rookie season is no guarantee of sure footing in the WNBA. Look no further than 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, who bounced around the league to start the year before landing with New York. But underperforming is a much harder trench to climb out of.

Two first-round draftees — Lexie Hull (IND) and Veronica Burton (DAL) — went higher than expected in the draft (much higher in Hull’s case), and are now up against inflated expectations as both have dropped in fantasy rankings from where they started. Granted, you have to get playing time in order to perform or underperform, and those were always going to be hard to come by for Hull and Burton this season. Hull is averaging seven minutes and Burton is getting 11.3 per game, but both are in the bottom 5 percent of the league in PER. If they can prove their value in practice day in and day out, their chance to establish themselves in the WNBA may come down the road.

The same will be true for Naz Hillmon (ATL), Kierstan Bell (LVA) and Nia Clouden (CON), three other first-round picks who have yet to prove whether they are here to stay. The highly anticipated WNBA expansion can’t come soon enough for many in this year’s rookie class.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Equal pay has been a decades-long battle in women’s sports, and no fight has been more prominent in the recent history of Title IX than that of the United States women’s national soccer team. One generation after the next of USWNT players inherited cycles of frustrating contract negotiations, eventually prompting five USWNT players — Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo — to file an official wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016.

Three years later, the entire USWNT roster filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer just a few months before the 2019 World Cup began in France.

“We’d been asking for a long time, and we finally got to a point where we decided to take matters into our own hands,” Kelley O’Hara told the filmmakers of “LFG,” a documentary on the lawsuit from several players’ perspectives.

O’Hara, a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, has been a member of the U.S. senior national team since 2010. A prolific scorer in high school and college, she transitioned to defense shortly into her national team career and is now a veteran pillar of the backline.

“To be honest, in the beginning of my professional career I was happy just to be able to play. To me, it wasn’t about money,” O’Hara recalled last fall on Under Armour’s Sweat the Details podcast. “It was, I get to do this as a job and get paid. It’s great that I get paid, but I’m not that concerned about the money. That was me being naïve and also young and fresh out of college.”

As her confidence grew and she endeavored to make a living as a pro athlete, O’Hara became keenly aware of the inequities between the men’s and women’s national teams, as well as the broader systemic issues that women’s professional sports. She has never been one of the first names listed in the media as leading the charge for the USWNT’s equal pay fight, but she has been a driving force behind the scenes.

That’s likely because O’Hara has always been much more interested in action than words.

“You can complain all you want about something. You can talk about it until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not willing to put in the time and the steps and the plan to say, how do we go from point A to point B, no one else is doing it for you,” she said on the UA podcast. “Don’t tell me the flood is coming or the flood is here. Start building the ark.”

O’Hara hasn’t filled her social media accounts with commentary about their fight for equality. She lets her teammates — such as Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan — be the more public voices of the group. But she has been instrumental in pushing the fight forward. It’s probably the role best-suited for O’Hara, whose fiery passion comes out in the heat of competition.

O'Hara, with 152 USWNT caps, is one of the veteran leaders on the current team. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

“People were very frustrated and very angry, and Kelley O’Hara probably would toss a table if she could,” Sauerbrunn described in LFG, recalling the point at which mediation broke down between the team and U.S. Soccer. “You always need a little crazy in your team, and she brings the crazy.”

The players’ decision to file their lawsuit right before the 2019 World Cup was intended to capitalize on the tournament’s spotlight, but it was also incredibly bold. Anything other than a World Cup championship would have been deemed a failure for the No. 1 team in the world, giving power to their critics and potentially weakening their argument against U.S. Soccer.

The USWNT’s run to the title in France held meaning far beyond soccer, and everyone following along knew it. Chants of “equal pay” broke out in the stadium after they defeated the Netherlands 2-0 in the final, and continued along the streets of their ticker-tape victory parade in New York City.

The generations of women who’ve played for the USWNT have always recognized their place in the big picture. Each group knew they were fighting for future generations more than themselves and for women’s equality beyond just soccer. The team has become a powerful emblem of progress for women, regardless of the individual names on the current roster. Countless women across the sporting landscape have looked to the USWNT for guidance, collaboration and support in their own battles for better treatment.

Julie Foudy, one of the USWNT’s most iconic leaders, has served as an advisor to the U.S. women’s national hockey team that threatened to boycott the IIHF World Championship in 2017 over fair wages and support from USA Hockey. Their strong stance garnered vocal support from the USWNT, up and down the roster, and led to a landmark new agreement with USA Hockey.

“They continuously set the market for women all over the world,” U.S. hockey player and two-time Olympic medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield has said of her soccer counterparts. “They are the epitome of trailblazers in a team-sport setting.”

When basketball coach Dawn Staley signed a ground-breaking $22.4 million contract with the University of South Carolina last year, she revealed that watching LFG motivated her to push for more than she otherwise would have because of what it represented on a higher level.

“I watched it and it gave me the strength that I needed to keep pushing through,” she told Good Morning America. “It’s our time in women’s sports and women in general. It’s our time.”

The broader symbolism the team came to represent never would have happened without the blood, sweat and tears of individual players mining for every inch of progress.

When the USWNT eventually settled their lawsuit with U.S. Soccer for $24 million in February, it was dependent on the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement that included equal pay between the men’s and women’s national teams. But it was still unclear how the USWNT, USMNT and U.S. Soccer would compromise on an equal pay structure. Negotiations for the women’s new CBA had already been well underway, with 35 sessions held prior to the settlement announcement.

As a member of her USWNT Players’ Association bargaining committee, O’Hara and four of her teammates were charged with achieving this never-before-seen level of collaboration. Despite her grave disappointment with U.S. Soccer’s lack of effort during the mediation proceedings for the lawsuit, O’Hara was back at the table with them.

“I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful, even when it bites me in the ass,” she admitted on Sweat the Details.

O'Hara with U.S. teammates Emily Sonnett and Abby Dahlkemper. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

O’Hara’s optimism appears to have served the negotiations well. The three groups made history last month when they announced historic new CBAs equalizing FIFA World Cup prize money between the two teams, something no other national soccer federation has ever done.

When she’s not at the negotiation table fighting for equality or on the field with the USWNT or her NWSL Washington Spirit team, O’Hara is building the ark to fix inequality in the media coverage of women’s sports. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which opened doors for women everywhere to participate in sports, O’Hara’s influence on the next generation is even more evident.

“I think my biggest thing with gender inequity in sports is the coverage and the visibility. If that can change, I think it could do incredible things for women’s sports. For instance, 4 percent of media coverage goes to women’s sports,” she lamented.

As the host of her own podcast, The Player’s Pod, where she gives women across sports a platform to share their stories, and as an early investor in Just Women’s Sports, O’Hara continues to be an inspiration of solution-focused energy in the face of inequality.

“There’s an issue here and we need to fix it. And we need to be part of fixing it,” she said. “If we don’t do that, no one else is going to do that.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

For the first five months of her pregnancy, two-time Olympic gold medalist Natasha Hastings was terrified to tell her sponsors that she was expecting. Yes, the opportunities available to female athletes had improved a lot in her lifetime, but having a baby was still referred to as the “kiss of death” in elite running circles.

“The truth is that every single minute of the first five months I’d been pregnant, I was terrified,” she revealed in a 2020 op-ed. “I was worried about how it would change my fitness, my body. What would it look like, feel like, when I came back? What did this mean for coming back for the Olympics? What did this mean for the rest of my track career? Would I effectively have a career at all?”

Born in 1986, Hastings is a classic product of Title IX, the 1972 legislation guaranteeing equal access regardless of gender and celebrating its 50th anniversary next month.

After exploding onto the scene at the 2003 USATF Junior Olympics, the New York native earned an athletic scholarship to the University of South Carolina, where she was the indoor and outdoor 400M national champion her junior year. Turning pro in 2007, Hastings went on to win gold medals with Team USA in the 4×400 relay at both the 2008 and 2016 Olympics.

In 2019, she was laser focused on qualifying for Tokyo. She envisioned it as her third and final Olympic games, an opportunity to bid farewell to the sport that had given her so much and that she had given everything to. And then she found out she was pregnant.

In addition to her fears about the physical impact on her body and performance, Hastings worried that people would question her commitment — that choosing to become a mom signaled to the world she was not 100 percent invested in her running career. From Hastings’ point of view, there were hardly any examples of elite runners whose careers weren’t derailed by having children, and plenty of examples of those who were affected, including her own mother.

“My mother, Joanne Hastings, was once a world-class 200-meter sprinter herself during the early to mid-Eighties,” Hastings wrote. “She was a record-setting star in college and made the 1984 Olympic team for Trinidad & Tobago. After I was conceived, however, her career as an athlete was over.”

After putting it off for as long as she could, Hastings finally picked up the phone and called Under Armour to tell her title sponsor she was having a baby. It was a huge weight off her shoulders when they responded with positive support and excitement. Looking back on the conversation later, Hastings realized that having women in leadership roles was key to the end result.

“When I was signed to Under Armour, a woman signed me. When I made the call to Under Armour to tell them I was pregnant, I made that call to a woman,” Hastings said. “It’s important for women to be telling our stories and making decisions for us. A lot of times, women are left out of the conversation because the people making the decisions don’t look like us, don’t understand us.”

Hastings trained for the Tokyo Olympics at home during the pandemic after giving birth to her son. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Hastings had well-founded reasons to worry about her sponsor’s reaction. Within a couple of weeks of her conversation with Under Armour, several Nike runners went public with complaints that the company had reduced their pay or suspended their contracts when they could not compete during and after pregnancy. Among the complainants was Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history. In a powerful piece for the New York Times, Felix detailed her frustrating negotiations with Nike over maternity protections that ultimately caused her to walk away from the table completely.

After the stories came out about what pregnant female runners were dealing with, Under Armour called Hastings again to check on her and open up a dialogue about the stress she felt before telling them.

In August 2019, Hastings gave birth to her son Liam and got back to training within weeks, as she still had her sights set on Tokyo. When the pandemic further derailed those plans, Hastings continued to train as best as she could at home. But when she eventually stepped to the line at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June 2021, Hastings did not qualify for Tokyo.

Days after her heartbreaking finish, Hastings told Self Magazine, “There are two things that I’m thinking about when I think about what I want to do going forward. Am I emotionally able to do this again, and am I physically able to do this again?”

Whether or not she decides to continue pushing her body to reach maximum speed and aim for a future final farewell on the track, Hastings knows that, regardless of becoming a mom, running doesn’t last forever.

Now a graduate assistant coach for her alma mater, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in clinical mental health as well as running her own foundation and raising her son, Hastings is one of many changing the image of professional female athletes. As more women are starting families well before their athletic careers are over, they are looking closely at their leagues, their collective bargaining agreements, their contracts and their brand endorsements and pushing for the necessary changes.

“I am definitely encouraged by seeing the number of athletes that are willing to use their voice and platform,” Hastings told Essence Magazine last year. “I think we all can agree as women and as Black women, a lot of times our experiences are minimized, or we’re being told that we’re being dramatic.”

As a result of female athletes speaking out, leagues around the country have implemented new progressive pregnancy and maternity leave policies.

In 2019, after Felix and her colleagues spoke out, Nike announced an 18-month contract protection period during and after pregnancy for sponsored athletes. The WNBA’s 2020 CBA included fully-paid maternity leave, two-bedroom apartments for players with children and a childcare stipend. The following year, the league granted access to free fertility testing for all players. The NWSL Players’ Association, in its very first iteration of a CBA this year, secured eight weeks of paid parental leave for both birth and adoption. And Athletes Unlimited last year guaranteed paid leave for pregnancy and postpartum recovery for as long as needed during the season, as well as parental leave for adoption and for any player whose partner or spouse gives birth.

Having a child was once an imposed finish line for female athletes, like Hastings’ mom Joanne. But Hastings’ generation of women, who came of age after Title IX and were raised on the promise of equal opportunity, have carried that standard into their careers as pro athletes and into motherhood, changing the sporting landscape for generations of women to come.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.