Pigskin and lace

An inside look at tryouts for the Lingerie Football League, which taps the zealous athleticism and sex appeal of unpaid players

The silhouettes of two women-both have one foot arched with the toes on the ground, a knee askance and hips thrust to the side-flank the logo of the latest sports entertainment venture to come to Canada.

The Lingerie Football League (LFL) puts its assets where you can't possibly miss them. The longhaired sentinels pose on the official LFL football, a junior-sized pigskin also adorned with the signature of league commissioner Mitchell Mortaza. He concedes the ploy to present and dress athletes provocatively is "a gimmick" and wards off criticism the LFL is sexist, demeaning exploitation by saying critics haven't tuned in to watch.

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Details such as the sexualized imagery on the game ball keep me skeptical, even cynical, about the LFL, a doggedly determined sports entertainment venture with 12 active teams in the U.S., not counting five that folded or were suspended after a brief existence. Now with four Canadian teams, the league is spurred on by bullish ambition to expand around the globe and stage a World Bowl in Brazil in 2014.

Committed to this feat, Mortaza, the league's founder, chairman, spokesman and owner of all its teams, is expected in Vancouver next week for a four-day combine to assess and select a roster for the B.C. Angels, the Canadian expansion team that trains in the East Side neighbourhood of Renfrew-Collingwood and will play a short season at the Abbotsford Entertainment Centre beginning Aug. 25 against the Regina Rage.

I want to be on that starting line-up. You read right. I made the cut through two open try-outs and train twice a week with the Angels. Skeptical, cynical but also deeply curious and competitive, I went to the first try-out in late March at an indoor turf field in Richmond, on assignment for a first-person account of showing up and stripping down (although I wouldn't take off my sweatshirt and long pants) for a controversial, reportedly lucrative enterprise that profits off the athleticism and sex appeal of its players. The uncompensated women accept the game's near-nudity because of their competitive drive and love of football. The Angels, most who acknowledge the absurdity of the uniforms, may receive a portion of ticket sales.

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With only a few minutes before halftime in a flag football tournament semi-final June 2 against the Misfits, the Chargers had the ball at their own 45 and looked to break a 14-point stalemate. Quarterback Mary Anne Hanson dropped back and found Ashley Petrie who ran for a first down. Then, under pressure from a blitzing Misfit, Hanson again threw to the sideline, this time to Aleese Garcia. She leapt to make the catch, staying in bounds by the mere width of the flag around her waist. She darted inside past two defenders, then back out before using a screen to run the ball toward the centre of the end zone for a touchdown. On defense after the half, Garcia picked off the ball and carried it 70 yards for another six points. The Chargers won 42-14. They play in the season finale championship game Saturday at Winona Park in Marpole.

Unlike me, a lapsed jock with an athletic history that includes Team B.C. soccer and medals from provincial swim meets, a core group of Angels hopefuls have played football most of their adult life.

Six Chargers, including Hanson, 36, Petrie, 26, and Garcia, 33, and another Vancouverite on a different flag team, are trying out for the Angels. The offense will be built around Hanson's rocket-launcher of an arm, an advantage that sets the Angels apart from teams with novice, untested QBs. A flag football coach whose team amalgamated with the Chargers, Kevin Snell set team records as a junior football player for the Okanagan Sun and is coaching the Angels along with Kevin Estee. Players say they trust and respect both coaches.

The Chargers travelled to nationals in Ontario last November for the first time, but the LFL brings a bigger stage and greater exposure. "It's the next level up from where we can compete now," said Petrie, who runs the 40-yard-dash in 5.60 seconds and plays near non-stop offense and defense for the Chargers.

Garcia, a lean and muscled all-round athlete with a streak of pink in her black hair, was on track to play for the Seattle Mist of the LFL in the U.S. but held back when she learned the league was establishing a team closer to home.

Petrie answers, "No," to friends who ask if the LFL degrades women and athletes. "It is a choice we're making, a sacrifice. You can really see why they need to find ways to draw in a crowd. Then once you draw in a crowd, you have to keep that crowd."

Numerous women in the B.C. Touch Football league, which includes the Chargers, say they won't play in the LFL because of the lingerie. Others, including club rugby players, say they'd expect to be better paid.

Jeanette Jackson, a mother and entrepreneur as well as an Angel hopeful, says it's the LFL that loses potential stars because of the dress code. "In a couple of instances, for sure. We're talking top athletes, amazing football players: quick, agile, know the sport_ Although you never know, they may be afraid to hit."

Stevi Schnoor isn't deterred by contact. She played for the Canadian women's national rugby team at the 2009 Nations Cup and wants to play middle linebacker in the LFL. "You get to see the field and read the quarterback and as much as I'm going to love the physicality of hitting people-from that position you definitely get to line people up-I like the thinking game of sports, too. That strategic part of football I like as well as smashing people."

Schnoor, blonde and pretty, is one of the biggest and strongest recruits.

"I knew before I went that they weren't just going to take skinny, good-looking girls. I knew it was going to be a competitive league. I have a more athletic build and I'm not 130 pounds, but I didn't have the expectation that it was going to be just for looks. I knew that my athleticism was going to come into play." The uniforms, she says, don't faze her as long as the superfluous ribbons and lace don't get in her way.

When Stephanie Manou was told she'd made the cut after the first try-out, Mortaza said she should prepare to be a star LFL player and a recognizable face. She was already singled-out by coaches to speak to the media and at try-outs and practices often leads the warm-up. "Mitch, that was one of the first things he said to me: expect to be one of the league MVPs because you are articulate, you're easily marketed and you're good-looking."

A kineseologist and fitness model who avoids alcohol, plays doubles beach volleyball and dressed for UBC's varsity rugby team, Manou is just shy of five-foot-eight with an enviable six pack and muscle definition. At a workout recently as she practiced a defensive stance running drill, someone marvelled, "Wow, she's such an athlete."

Showing off her body puts her hard work on display.

Manou, 25, joined the B.C. Lions as a Felion because she wanted to break ranks and work for the football club as a trainer, the first woman to do so in club history, she said. It was a foot in the door but entry to the boys' club never swung open. She trained as an athletic therapist, only to realize she wanted in on the action, not a sideline view of it.

"All I wanted to do was be on that field and not just help others achieve it but I wanted to achieve it. I wanted that," she said. As a spectator, Manou would run the same patterns in her own mind, visualizing how she would have executed the play. "That was my little voice in my head, saying, 'That should be you.'"

***

The lingerie league is the only one in B.C. to offer women tackle football. The Independent Women's Football League operates two east and west conferences with more than 40 teams in the U.S. and Canada but none in Vancouver. The Western Women's Canadian Football League launched in 2011 and counts seven teams, including the Calgary Rage, Regina Riot and Saskatoon Valkyries (which is also the name of the LFL team in Minnesota) but so far, there is no team in B.C. Players wear full football equipment and the league's logo is a silhouette of a woman in a helmet and padding with both legs stretched in a leap as the football drops into her outstretched hands.

The WWCFL motto is: "Breaking stereotypes, one yard, one tackle, one touchdown at a time."

***

Using four-down American rules, the lingerie game is played indoors on a 50-yard field with shortened quarters and halves. Twenty players dress for each game and 14 travel. Because the organization often uses hockey arenas, the field is frequently hemmed in by padded boards and there are no goal posts.

The league's name speaks for itself: this is football in lingerie. Players wear stylized underwear, often decorated with lace and ribbons, deep-cut sports bras and modified hockey helmets with plastic visors that allow cameras access to every grimace, drip of sweat and, in the case of some women, fake eyelashes. Uniforms include garter belts for a bare thigh or a choker for around the neck. Crop-top jerseys cover shoulder pads but stop just below the collar, framing cleavage beneath their bulky mass. Players must accept incidental nudity, including exposed breasts and other private parts.

The league pays for uniforms and most equipment as well as travel costs for out-of-province games. Players provide their own gear such as mouthguards and cleats.

In its inaugural season last summer, the Toronto Triumph collapsed as 22 of 26 players quit the team, according to Yahoo! Sports Canada sportswriter Andrew Bucholtz, a critic of the LFL who reported leaked emails between Mortaza and disgruntled players. Players said they feared for their safety, claiming unskilled coaches were not teaching proper technique. They said Mortaza was arrogant. In turn, Mortaza questioned players' motivation, alleging they sought exposure and celebrity, which he said led to unfocused, poorly attended practices.

In the first year of the LFL, Mortaza set up two American teams, called the Dream and Euphoria, and aired the match on pay-per-view television to coincide with the Super Bowl half-time show. The year was 2003. For the past two seasons, MTV2 signed on to broadcast the LFL's Friday night games. In its 2010-11 season, games drew an average 165,000 viewers, according to Nielsen television ratings. In 2011-12, viewership rose to an average 219,000 viewers per game and 493,000 tuned in Feb. 5, flipping the channel away from the Super Bowl half time show to watch the LFL championship. Nielsen does not track per-per-view ratings. By contrast, a record-setting 111.3 million viewers watched the NFL championship this year.

Each of the four Canadian LFL teams will play two home and two away games during the regular season. Ticket prices at the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Entertainment Centre are $12 for non-alcohol sections, $44 for the first two rows at the goal line and $78 for a seat in the first two rows along the centre line.

Mortaza's marketing strategy-depravity and exploitation to critics-trades not only on the sex appeal of players, but also on their tremendous desire to compete at the highest level possible and on the largest stage available. Without athletes, the Lingerie Football League isn't a sports league.

Make no mistake, the LFL uses sex to sell football. (Hopefuls are instructed to wear "cute gym gear" to try-outs and must bring a head shot to what's essentially a casting call.) But without football-fast, smart and tough tackle football-the league has no leg on which to strap its lacy garter belt.

When my No. 15 was called at the end of the first try-out in Richmond, I fist-bumped my new teammates. "You're B.C. Angels now," said Mortaza and he pitched us on the aspiration that the LFL would eclipse the CFL in Canada. That's his ambition. The Angels want to play football.

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MHStewart

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