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Odessa Jenkins Gives Tackle Football The Spotlight It Deserves

Helmets for tackle football / JWS
Helmets for tackle football / JWS

Odessa Jenkins is the CEO of the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), a professional women’s tackle football league with over 20 teams and 1,000 women and coaches in 17 states. She spoke with Just Women’s Sports about the future of tackle football and why 2021 is shaping up to be a critical year for the WNFC.

You have an extensive background in both business and sports. Obviously, we believe that women’s sports are one of the most exciting opportunities in the space. What convinced you that the WNFC could succeed as both a business and a sports league? 

I worked at a startup for several years, and in 2014 I also came to be the owner of my first women’s tackle football team. It was in a different league, and I was really excited about becoming an owner. So as I took on that ownership, I was also learning the basics of building a business from the ground up in my startup work. I learned to ask questions like, Is there a viable market for this thing? What is the value proposition? Who is the consumer that will be consuming it and growing it? How will it look 50 years from now? How is it going to make money? All of these things that I think a lot of people never consider in women’s tackle football, to be honest with you.

Women have been playing the sport for 75 years, yet there’s never been a corporation formed for women’s tackle football, which I couldn’t believe. There were charities and other kinds of businesses, but never a corporation. So I started to look at women’s tackle football like a startup. What’s my value prop? What are our lines of revenue? And that’s when I started to think about how to create the WNFC.

So why do I think it could be valuable? It’s not me, it’s the market that’s telling me that it could be valuable. There’s been $600 million invested in alternatives to the NFL over the last seven years. We have the WFNC called an alternative to the NFL, which is a compliment. And the fact that nobody knew anything about this sport outside of lingerie football, to me was a business opportunity.

So that’s what kind of got me thinking, it’s been around for 70 years, it’s not going away, there’s enough players, there’s enough coaches to spin up a new league every single year. That means that the product itself is viable. Now how we make a viable business around it is the problem that I’m solving with the WNFC.

What do you think makes the WNFC different and how are you positioning the league to be the league for womens’ football?

There’s a couple of things you have to do to be at the pinnacle of the sport. One thing we’re doing is that we aren’t taking from our team in a way that leaves them in a financially desperate situation. So for example, we’re the only league that doesn’t require a team to pay us annually. We actually have profit sharing with all of our teams.

That was the first thing we did in the WNFC. Instead of having the teams pay us, we actually paid them. A part of our five-year plan is to actually invest back into the teams and grow them to be profitable businesses.

The other thing is our branding and our marketing. We’re the only women’s tackle football league, which is crazy, that has had a chief marketing officer and a chief branding officer. Our team is structured like any other executive team would be. And so our branding, our content, is always fresh. It’s always new.

I think the other thing that makes us unique is because we’ve done those other things, we’re attractive to sponsors. So we were the first football league of our kind to solicit a global sponsorship from a major brand with Adidas. We were the league that made brands pay attention to women’s tackle football. That’s how we’ve been different is that we have actually developed revenue lines.

I think the other thing that makes us significantly different is what we’re doing with apparel. We’ve created a viable line of business with our fan shop. It’s going to be a six-figure business in 2021. That kind of volume has never really been done, frankly, because an apparel line coming out of football has never been built. So doing those kinds of things differentiates us. And I think the team that’s running the league differentiates us as well. It’s a big group of people who are doing it because they want to see women’s tackle football become a professional sport.

I was looking at your site earlier and saw the uniforms — they are really fresh, and the colors are awesome. I also saw a bit about a new TV channel, WNFC TV. Can you talk about that? 

What I’m trying to do as a woman of color, and frankly as a startup founder, is to try to find other high growth businesses that are like mine and connect them to the WNFC. So we connected with this amazing company called Vyre Network, and they are a TV and live streaming network that is based in 116 countries. They are basically creating their own Hulu, with mid-level content. And so this group, Vyre Network, is now going to globally distribute all WNFC games. So we will be the first league ever to have every single one of our games globally distributed.

Everyone always asks, “Where do I find a game?” Even with the more established leagues, right. Where do I go to watch the WNBA? Now you’ll have an answer to that question for the WNFC in 2021.

You’ll go to Vyre Network. You will be able to watch our game on a mobile app. It’s free. There’s no barrier to entry, no sign in. You download it on Android or iOS. You download the application, you go to our channel, and you can start watching our games anywhere in the world. It’ll be on a website, it’ll be on Roku TV, Apple TV, and it’s coming to smart TVs in the summer. So it’s a great partnership. It’s another revenue generating opportunity for the league as we continue to grow.

And I saw that you guys had the 2021 schedule up on the site too. I mean, pending what happens with the pandemic, is that pretty much set?

Yeah, it is. Our schedule is set right now. What’s crazy is that we’ve been talking to a couple of expansion teams, so our schedule is set and done. But we might have some surprise announcements coming here very shortly where we grow a little bit.

Our championship game is going to be the weekend of August 6th and 7th. It’s going to be hosted in Dallas, Texas, at the University of North Texas, Apogee Stadium. So it’s a 60,000 person stadium, and it’ll be a big deal for us.

Our season doesn’t start until May. So we’re going to try to stay away from the pandemic as much as we can. But barring everything being shut down in May, this is going to be the most exciting year in this sport that we’ve ever had.

I wanted to chat a little bit about you specifically and more about your background. I know you referenced working at startups and how that experience shaped your perspective. I know that you also spend time in the NFL as a Bill Walsh coaching intern. I’m curious as to how that experience shaped your perspective?

I was in the NFL for eight weeks doing an internship, mostly with the Falcons, and a week with the Dallas Cowboys and their rookie camp. I don’t know that anything was more impactful for me than truly seeing the lack of parity in the athletic experience of professional female football players compared to professional male football players.

I also learned a lot from a business perspective, frankly, walking into and getting behind the scenes of the Dallas Cowboys. Even for a week, you get a clear understanding of why they have one of the most impressive and valuable brands in all of the world. It is attention to detail, always sticking to the brand, the level of professionalism, always sticking to the plan, the way they buy into their people, keeping their culture internal, but letting it be started externally. So all of those things I learned.

But when I got to the Atlanta Falcons, Sam Rapoport was critical and has always been an ally for me, and Scott Pioli, who’s a mentor of mine, was the assistant general manager there at the time. And him and coach Dan Quinn really opened the entire organization to me. Katie Sowers had been there before me. And so that organization was very open to the idea that a baller is a baller, a coach is a coach, and it didn’t matter if you were one of the men. So they really gave me an open eye to the entire operations team. And what I really saw there was that you can’t have that level of success without a significant level of investment. And that’s why when I was with the Falcons, I determined then and there that I was going to create the WNFC, because that was the missing piece in women’s football.

Obviously the pandemic has been a big hurdle in your time as a CEO. Have there been any other big hurdles that you’ve had to get over? And if so, how have you worked to overcome them?

I think the biggest hurdles dealing with women’s tackle football right now are the pipeline, because girl’s football isn’t developed. We have to develop women’s football from the top down and not from youth to professionals. So that’s always a challenge. In developing this thing, we also have to work to develop a pipeline to help girls. It’s more challenging than it is for other sports, because Title IX doesn’t include girls playing football in college.

I think the other big challenge is fundraising. We’ve done a good job of fundraising but I think that a lot of sponsors just don’t know we exist, so we need awareness. Once they figure out we exist, they’re like, “Yeah, let’s do business.” But I think that lack of awareness, and, frankly, the fact that most people think of half naked girls when you say women’s football, is a barrier for us. And so we’ve tried to respectfully market against that and market for what we’re about.

I am curious, in terms of that pipeline that you’re talking about, how does it work right now? Where do a lot of the players come from? I’m sure a lot of them grew up playing the sport, but I am also assuming that some of them transitioned from other sports. Is that true?

Yeah. And so that’s what’s crazy. And that’s where I think the value of women’s football is even more clearly stated. Even though there is no college level, there is no high school level, there is no junior level, there are still thousands of women every year finding football. So it should tell everybody something that women continue to play it, they continue to find it. It’s generally women who played other sports and didn’t realize, “Oh my God, I could play football.” So, college athletes, basketball players, cross fitters, runners, any woman who loves the game and is an athlete. So most of our recruiting it’s done on social and at events, at practices, in our local communities. But frankly, thousands of women every year are discovering that they can play football for the first time through us, through our league, because there’s nothing else introducing them to the idea of playing the game.

Athletes are athletes, but when a football player finds football, it is the most beautiful thing ever, because frankly for a woman, not only is she finding her purpose in her sport, she is embarking upon something that she never imagined doing. You don’t know how good or how amazing or how electric you are as a football player until you play football. And that takes 22 people to be on the field at the same time, 11 on 11. That’s what also makes this sport extremely special.

Was there anything else that you wanted to bring up that I didn’t mention at all?

The only other thing I wanted to talk about is a partnership that we haven’t announced yet, but it’s coming. I want to give a shout out to She Plays CEO Ashley Hart. We’ve been talking about partnering to make the first fantasy football for women. So I want everybody to look out for that, because that is also something that will, I think, change the industry.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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