Women’s football attracts growing following in Portland
September 20, 2019
Portland is known for its hip food scene, proximity to nature and historical port, but one of the city’s greatest hidden gems is a national-championship caliber professional sports team with an empowering story and a fan base that’s growing larger every year.
The Maine Mayhem is a professional women’s football team that plays in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), a national league with three divisions and 59 teams. The WFA plays full-contact football and uses a similar set of rules as the NCAA. Coming up on their fifth season in the league and stocked with a roster full of veteran players, the Mayhem is poised for a breakout year.
Following the collapse of two former women’s football organizations in Portland, the Maine Freeze and the Maine Rebels, a group of players decided to get together in 2016 and form their own franchise. They chose to run the Mayhem on a board-run rather than sole proprietary model, allowing players more control over the team’s off-field affairs and allowing the Mayhem to register as a 501c(3) nonprofit.
The team started strong in its inaugural season, winning its first game and eventually taking home an Affiliate Bowl Championship. The Affiliate Bowl is held for small-market teams or teams in their first season in the WFA.
Alicia Jeffords is one of the founding members of the Mayhem. A WFA All-American last year, Jeffords plays defensive end and fullback for the team and has played football competitively for 14 years. She is also a mother of three and works as a school nutrition assistant.
Not all players came to the team with prior experience, and because few players have had football experience before joining the Mayhem, the team’s roster is far from uniform.
“[We have players who are] literally every age, every shape and size and [from all] walks of life. It is so diverse; it is totally wild,” said Jeffords. “Last year, we had an 18-year-old high school player and we had a 56-year-old who has been playing football for a long time … and everything in between.”
The Mayhem is a professional sports team, but it does not make enough revenue through ticket sales and sponsorships to cover all of its expenses, which include booking indoor practice spaces in the winter and arranging travel for away games.
“Our players … have dues that they pay [to be a part of the team,]” said Jeffords. “[However,] they’re able to fundraise the entire amount so they don’t have to pay out of pocket, and most of them do that. We do a couple of comedy club fundraisers, silent auctions and fairs [each year]. It’s a lot of fun, and a lot of players raise all their fees that way.”
The Mayhem started its fall recruiting campaign after hosting their first of four rounds of tryouts this fall. Once the new recruits are added to the returning roster of about 30 players, preseason training sessions will begin before official practices start up after the new year.
One challenge the Mayhem faces is that very few players have any football experience before they try out for the team. However, Jeffords simply views that as part of the process.
“We target those female athletes that want to compete at a very competitive [level],” said Jeffords. “For the most part, people—[including] myself—have had no prior experience before stepping on that field during tryouts …. We teach them everything they need to know. [We] make them football players.”
“You just go right to the bare bones every year,” added Head Coach Bryant Oja. “You start from scratch, and you start building [them] up … .It’s just tremendous to see an athlete [who has never played football before] get out on the practice field over the course of those three months and then [start] playing games.”
Playing for the Mayhem is a serious commitment. In the past, the Mayhem has practiced once a week for three hours, but this year the team will add a second three-hour practice on Wednesdays. The team’s spring schedule consists of four away games, requiring travel around the northeast, and four home games hosted at Memorial Stadium in Portland. Postseason play involves similar travel, and in past years championship weekend has been hosted in Golden, Colorado and Atlanta, Georgia.
Unsurprisingly, the Mayhem has faced serious challenges as it seeks to establish themselves. Jeffords said that it has been near impossible to get any media coverage, even from hyperlocal sources.
“[The struggle is] literally just getting our name out there. I need more press …. It’s so hard to even get our scores published in the paper,” said Jeffords. “[Local papers] cover everything else. They cover high school and college sports and everything but us.”
“It’s awesome that its kind of getting off the ground and people are starting to know who we are, but there is still a great population that doesn’t know we exist,” continued Jeffords. “And if women don’t know we even exist, how can they have the opportunity to play?”
When team members introduce themselves as football players, they often receive puzzled looks in return.
“The question is always, ‘Is it flag football? Is it lingerie football? Is it this that or the other thing?’” said Oja. “This is full-contact football, and these athletes treat it like … their profession.”
Part of this professionalism means laying groundwork for young women interested in the sport. Recent initiatives led by the Mayhem and the growing popularity of women’s football as a whole has led to a rise in women picking up the sport at a younger age.
“[The] next generation is having more opportunities to play,” said Jeffords. “We have a developmental program where we mentor youth female football players in the area .… It inspires us more than it inspires them.”
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