“I’ve taken more than one hit from a 270-pound boy,” claims Bea Zak. “Still kept goin’. I’m ready.”

Zak, who’s 23 and works in a machine shop, has been playing football for years, mostly with men.

“It’s hard to find a lot of women that can catch a football, let alone throw one,” she says. “So it’s always hard to get a game going with my girlfriends. Harder to find a woman who’ll take the hit as well as dish one out.”

But they’re out there. This Sunday Zak will try out for a spot on the Chicago Force, the city’s only women’s tackle football team that plays in a national league. The Force just completed its first season this June in the Independent Women’s Football League, playing before hundreds of fans on the grounds of the De La Salle Institute, at 35th and Wabash, and finishing 8-0.

“We’re looking to fill about 23 spots,” says Force general manager Debra Walker. “About 140 girls expressed an interest in trying out. We had to cut it off at 60. It’s all the coaches can handle.”

Those who don’t make the cut will have to wait for the next tryouts, or until another women’s team comes to Chicago. That isn’t necessarily a distant prospect.

“I have 30 or 40 e-mails from potential players in Chicago,” says Debby Lening, vice president of media and marketing for the National Women’s Football Association. “We could fill a heck of a team there.” The NWFA, formed in August 2000, has evolved considerably. “We have 37 teams right now,” says Lening. “Things are busy. We’ve got media, TV, players, owners calling. We’re expanding by at least two teams, Louisville and Cincinnati. Maybe more.”

Lening says the NWFA is eager to expand to Chicago but hasn’t found a prospective owner committed (that is, rich) enough to buy a local franchise. According to Lening, NWFA initial franchise fees range from $30,000 to $50,000. (Lisa Cole, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Force, says it costs about $1,500 to start an IWFL team.) With that kind of money the NWFA can afford to employ a full-time staff and produce media kits with all the trappings: press clips, a highlights video, glossy trading cards. It must be working. A Tonight Show crew is expected at tryouts for the league’s new Louisville franchise. And the NWFA recently struck a deal with a nascent television channel, the Football Network, which hopes to reach 20 to 30 million homes within the year, according to network spokesman Marty Appel.

“We expect to cover the NWFA championship game and run weekly highlights,” Appel says. “It’s possible that we’ll do some regular-season games too. We’re basically going to be a network for people who love all things football, and there’s a pretty good number of women in the football audience.”

In fact, 43 percent of the NFL’s fans are female, according to a 1999 ESPN Chilton poll. But if one considers the WNBA as a benchmark, getting decent television ratings will be difficult for women’s football. The WNBA fan base is approximately 75 percent female, and its ABC telecasts averaged only a 0.8 rating this season. (Last June’s NBA finals, the lowest rated in 27 years, drew a 6.5 on the same network.) And the league is, of course, underwritten by the NBA. The NFL has steered clear of women’s football so far.

The NWFA treats the IWFL like an annoying little sister. “They’re a league that doesn’t have a full-time staff,” says Lening. “Very disorganized, cancels games. They’ll play a team from

Houston against a team from Washington State.” There is no team in Houston, and the Tacoma franchise didn’t travel east of Boise last season. “I think they even have a team in Hawaii.” They don’t. “No one can afford to go there. We’ve got four full-time, in-house staff, and we’re the only league that has that.”

Lisa Cole says, “Successfully leading and managing a growing league of 27-plus teams and 1,200-plus athletes requires many full-timers with extensive management experience.” In addition to running the Force, Cole serves as the IWFL’s executive director of marketing. She points out her league’s advantages. “The IWFL is a nonprofit organization that exists solely for the success of the sport of women’s tackle football,” she says. “The IWFL is known as a resource provider, not a resource drainer, for the football franchises.”

But–so far–the IWFL hasn’t made it to television. “It’s a priority of mine for the 2004 season,” says Cole. “Teams have begun negotiations at the local level and I am actively assessing options at the national level.”

Bea Zak doesn’t care what league she plays for. “I love the game in its entirety,” she says. “Even the action on the sidelines is great. Coaches scoffing and pounding the turf when something doesn’t go quite right, or getting drenched in Gatorade. Keeping the team together, focused, for the big win. It’s all just great.”

Tryouts for the Force will be held Sunday, November 9, from 3 to 7 PM, at Falk Park in Schaumburg, and the team expects to hold a second round in mid-December.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Karen Mitchell, Susan E. Young.