New underwear league under debate

MIAMI Fri Sep 4, 2009 12:17pm EDT

1 of 8. Miami Caliente's Safety Sarah Kimball waits for a play to begin during practice for the Lingerie Football League in Davie, Florida, August 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Innerarity

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MIAMI (Reuters) - It does not require a great deal of imagination to work out the marketing strategy of the Lingerie Football League, which opened its debut season on Friday.

The underwear-clad female players are hoping, however -- probably in vain -- to be taken seriously.

The LFL, born out of the commercial success of the "Lingerie Bowl', a half-time show of women in scanty outfits broadcast during the half-time break in the NFL's Super Bowl, has ten teams competing in seven-a-side full-contact American football, with players dressed in sports bras and the tiniest of shorts.

The branding is blatant -- the teams have names such as the San Diego Seduction, Dallas Desire and Los Angeles Temptation -- and their websites and promotional material are more akin to those for NFL cheerleaders than genuine professional sports.

The league's founder Mitch Mortaza has described the venture as "Disneyland for football fans" but those taking part say they are serious about the sport and about winning.

"I think it is eye candy for one but it is also football and it is real," says Kaley Tuning, wide-receiver with the Miami Caliente who open the season on Friday at the Chicago Bliss.

"There were try outs for the team and if you couldn't play you didn't make the cut," she said.

"I've seen people say it is a joke and it is degrading and it makes me mad. We are real athletes, for them to not take us seriously, well I say wait till you see us play," she added.

GUCCI HANDBAG

Watching the Caliente practice, at a sports facility in the suburbs of Miami under the charge of former college football quarterback Bob Hewko, the strange clash of glamour girls and sport is quickly evident.

The training is taken seriously and the players work hard and look intense in the huddle but a Gucci handbag takes its place alongside the helmets on the sideline and one player, who like many is also a model, worries that she has picked up scratches ahead of photo shoot in a few days' time.

Hewko concedes that looks played a major part in the selection of the squad but, like everyone involved in the venture, says fans will see real football.

"I was surprised at the level -- the level of talent. They can run, they can catch and we have a quarterback that can throw the football 60 yards," he said.

It is unlikely to be the throwing prowess of the players that brings in the punters to the indoor arenas, however.

"For the first game, it is going to be people wanting to have a good time, wanting to see beautiful women playing football and getting down and dirty," said Miami's defensive captain Taira Turley, who is also a professional make-up artist.

Thousands of women play organized games of American Football across the United States in amateur teams wearing conventional uniforms, and receiving little major commercial interest.

Miami Fury has been a member of the Independent Women's Football League for all of its ten-year existence and the team's co-owner Gayla Harrington said she was initially uneasy about the formation of the Lingerie team largely due to the attire.

'PERNICIOUS OBJECTIFICATION'

However, with the Caliente recruiting two of her players, she said the team had become more of a sports project than she initially imagined.

"It is more athletic, a little more serious than I originally thought," she said, adding that she would support the team in their home games but was unsure whether the LFL would help her to generate backing for her own team.

"It could be a positive or a negative. It could be that people still don't take (women's football) seriously but then again it might help," she said.

Feminist writer Courtney Martin has no doubts over whether the LFL will help women.

"This is objectification at its most pernicious -- give women an opportunity to participate in a sport that they haven't had the chance to do for pay and publicly previously, but only let them do it if they are stereotypically pretty and willing to do it in their underwear," she wrote on website feministing.com.

So why not simply play the game in conventional dress?

"But then half the people wouldn't watch," said Tuning.

"Sure, some people aren't going to watch because they think it is degrading or they don't want to watch it with their kids.

"But then there is going to be a group of people who watch it because of (the attire) and they might say: 'Wow -- this is real, athletic and they know what they are doing."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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