Owner-head coach: Lester Robinson
Employees: 1, with 25 team members and three volunteer coaches
First game: March 31 at the Utah Jynx.
First home game: April 27 vs. the Phoenix Phantomz
When she was 7, Sarah Boxley started a petition in her Virginia hometown to create a girls tackle football team.
The petition died, but Boxley’s love of the game didn’t. This year, she finally has an outlet to play tackle football — the Colorado Sting, an official member of the Independent Women’s Football League. The league, founded in 2000, has 32 active teams in the United States and Canada.
“I’ve played flag football for five or six years, and I play softball,” said Boxley, a wide receiver for the Sting. “But I kept researching women’s tackle football. I really have always wanted to play. There was never a local team, then I found this.”
Boxley, who says she is passionate about all aspects of the game, drives from Denver to the Springs to play and practice with the team.
Played with NCAA rules and on the level of collegiate football, the Sting hopes to create a stir in the Springs this season. In their second year, the team has moved to a for-profit status and is working to get its name in front of the public, attracting both sponsors and advertisers to financially back the women’s tackle football operation.
“This is no different than men’s tackle football,” says head coach Lester Robinson, who also owns the team. “We do all the same drills; it’s the same rules. And these girls can hit and take a hit.”
But the difficult part of running a league isn’t the action on the field, he says. It’s creating the business and marketing plan needed to make any company successful. Robinson, who has years of coaching experience at the high school and middle school levels, said he was working to gain statewide recognition for the team.
“It’s not the football; these girls love to play,” he said. “But the challenge is getting the word out — on a limited budget — about who we are and what we’re doing, and getting people at the games. We need sponsors and we can provide advertising opportunities.”
So, the team is marketing the business the old-fashioned way — meeting people, signing autographs and introducing the team at locations around Colorado Springs. One Saturday night, they were at the Yukon Bar and Grill, auctioning off a football, T-shirts and other team memorabilia.
The crowd at the bar seemed enthusiastic — the football auctioned for nearly $60.
But it can be difficult to find permanent sponsors, and the business side of running a team is expensive. Many of the games are out of town — the first game of the season is March 31 in Utah. Getting there, renting cars and paying for hotel rooms, can cost $4,000 a trip. The team supplies everything a player needs except a football helmet. The women on the team must buy their own. Women also pay $200 to join.
“We’d love to have a bus, so we could travel together,” says Don Allen, one of the two team delegates required by the IWFL. “We need other training equipment too, but that’s our biggest need — a bus.”
Business concerns aside, the women aren’t daunted by grueling training that can go on four or five days a week during the season. They end up bruised and sore, but they say there’ s no place else they’d rather be.
“I love the hitting,” said Larissa Van Skike, in her second year playing as a fullback for the team. “I was always athletic. And someone asked me to come along to the Sting and try out. I didn’t know much about the rules, but I’ve learned so much.”
Van Skike won the most improved player award last year, and says the challenge about football is that there’s always something new to learn.
“I was a fan, never a player,” she says. “I started and I’m building up from the bottom. It’s so cool to watch football now and know more about why the players are where they are, that everyone has a job to do.”
But not everybody has the stamina for hours-long practices and drills required to be a successful football team, Robinson said.
“These ladies, they’re committed. Committed and dedicated,” he said. “We’ve had some Derby Dames (the Springs’ roller derby team) come try out, and sometimes they quit halfway through a practice. It’s tough.”
But while everyone acknowledges that it takes some natural athletic skills, the women on the team say lack of experience — or even knowledge about football rules — shouldn’t stop someone who’s interested in playing on the team.
“I’d tell anyone who’s interested to come,” Van Skike said. “It’s the most fun thing a woman can do.”
And Boxley said that anyone over the age of 18 who wanted to play — should play.
“Go for it,” she said. “Don’t be scared. It’s a unique opportunity to play football, so you shouldn’t let apprehension get in the way. Don’t let not knowing the rules hold you back. It’s a risk worth taking.”
Women receive support from co-workers and family, but are still waiting for community and business support, Robinson said.
He’s hoping that changes as the team becomes more successful. Women’s tackle football has been around for about a decade, and his new team took some major losses last year.
“The first game, I think we lost 72-nothing,” he said. “I thought the team would be demoralized, but they held in there, and they all were excited, and ready to practice and play more. “
And Robinson has set lofty new business goals for the new season.
“We’re going to increase attendance and increase support,” he said. “And, we’ll be the first third-tier team in the IWFL to go undefeated. That’s our goal. Once that happens, I think the business side will really take off.”