Leather & Laces 

When football alone doesn't fill the stands, the Fusion turns on the charm.

The Cleveland Fusion is outraged. The Columbus Comets have been saying all kinds of horrible things about them on their website. No one is sure exactly what the Comets were saying, but all agree it was truly horrible of them to say it.

"If they have something to say, they should say it on the field," says Lisa Heinl, a schoolteacher-running back with a wide torso and shoulders that protrude like tennis balls. "This trash-talking is totally unnecessary."

"It just makes us more pumped," says Marie Spencer, a media consultant-defensive back who'd heard that the Comets said "something about smashing our faces in." She tosses her hair. "It's not right."

They're gathered on the field at the Browns' headquarters in Berea, the last practice before the season opener at Columbus. There's a dull pallor to the night; the air smells like chalk, and the amber lights cast a dim shadow on the players below. By 8 p.m., the main lights switch off, and the emergency bulbs begin to flicker like a swarm of fireflies. No one blinks. They're fortunate to get the field at all.

By a few minutes before nine, first-year head coach Mike Treb gathers the girls for some final inspiration. He stands with a clipboard in his hands, the fluorescent light gleaming off his bald head. He clears his throat.

"Are we going to let Columbus say those things about us?" he belts out.

"No!" the players shout in unison, rising to their feet and joining hands.

"Fusion!" they cry, breaking the huddle.

There is much hugging.

The Comets, it later turns out, have not been talking trash. Their website is littered only with pep-rally messages -- "Maria's mom's the best" and "Get ready to battle" and "Go team!" No barbs. No threats. No matter. In the National Women's Football Association, perception can be more important than truth.

Kelly Antal is a petite 31-year-old with short, spiky hair and a penchant for high heels. She talks and dresses in the precise, efficient manner of one who crunches numbers for a living, which she does: An account manager by trade, she is also the owner of the Fusion.

"I don't look at it as anything spectacular," says the single mother of an eight-year-old daughter. "It's just a business I have."

Growing up in Brooklyn, Antal had no more than a passing interest in football; her passion lay with ice skating, in which she competed for 12 years. She learned quickly the importance of presentation: The way a costume fit, the color of a dress, the music selection could all influence a judge's decision. "It was all about image," she says. "You were constantly trying to find the right one." You could say that she learned the rules of marketing when she was 11 years old.

With the marketing of women's football, however, there is no specific template to follow. Launched in 2000, the National Women's Football Association has blossomed from two teams in its inaugural season to 37 this year. But unlike the Women's National Basketball Association, which relies on the support of the NBA, the NWFA has no brother organization to lean on. The National Football League, in fact, goes out of its way to distance itself; in 2002, it sued the NWFA for copyright infringement (the NFL didn't like the fact that the women's league referred to its championship game as the "SupHer Bowl" or that its original name, the National Women's Football League, sounded a lot like "NFL").

With an average attendance of only 1,000 and players who pay upwards of $350 to participate, the league isn't in much of a position to boast of its growth. And in 2001, there appeared to be little incentive for anyone to assume a business interest.

But something about the rough-and-tumble sport appealed to Antal; ads broadcast on the radio made it sound like fun. When she called the national office for information about playing locally, she learned that Cleveland had neither an owner nor a general manager. The league was planning to run the team from its Nashville headquarters, but it needed a local GM. Antal volunteered, but almost immediately found the position too limiting: Since the league was fronting the money, it called the shots. So Antal bought the team herself. (She declines to discuss what she paid, though others on the team put the number at around $35,000.)

That was in November 2001. By April 2002, the Fusion was to play its first game. There was no time for dillydallying, no time or money to sink into demographic research.

"If we targeted any group, it was families and women," says Antal. They based projections largely on the attendance rates of the Rockers, Cleveland's WNBA team, whose core audience was mostly female. They figured that they'd be recruiting from the same base of fans. The slogan that resulted: "Real Women, Real Football," a reflection of the team's varied roster of wives and mothers, teachers and cops. It was heartwarming, touching, safe. And crowds responded: Fusion games at Bedford Stadium averaged more fans -- nearly 2,000 -- than any other team in the division. Going 5-3 didn't hurt either.

Last season, the Fusion continued its dominance, rolling over opponents on the way to a 6-2 record and advancing to the division finals for the second straight year. Recognizable faces made selling the team easier: Starting quarterback Mary Deitrick was one of the golden girls. A standout softball player at Mentor High School and Cleveland State, Deitrick had always loved football. Around the time she joined the Fusion, the Beachwood school district made her Ohio's first-ever female coach of a boys' football team. In both years with the Fusion, she made the All-NWFA team.

But at the end of last season, Deitrick tore her rotator cuff and announced that she wouldn't return for the 2004 season. In all, eight starters from last year begged off, citing injury and time constraints. "It just got to be too much," says Kelly Mason, a former player who's getting married in June.

Adds Deitrick: "It's tough for women. We don't grow up playing the sport, so we're not as trained or in shape as men who have been playing it their whole life. After two years, it can really take a toll on the body."

Another off-season shake-up also hit the Fusion hard: The Rockers folded. The team whose model they'd followed in targeting their fans had proved unsuccessful in basketball. After two years during which her team didn't approach profitability, Antal decided it was time for major changes. "Each year, it's a struggle to convince new people to watch," she says. "Until we're part of the NFL, we're never going to reach everyone we want." No longer would they be targeting just women. According to team statistics, guys made up 45 percent of their attendance. If football will forever be the province of men, the Fusion would give men more of what they want.

Tino Roncone knows what he wants. Well-dressed in slightly faded jeans, tight button-down shirt, and spiked hair, he's a fashionable, hip guy. Just ask him.

"I'm a pretty with-it person," says the Fusion's marketing director. "I dress well, I have a nice car, know what I like. I have good taste. This," he says with confidence, "is the next big thing."

It's men like Roncone himself that the new Fusion hopes to attract. Early ads for this season seemed more suited to Maxim than to the sports page. Postcards and posters, distributed at local bars and sporting events, feature defensive backs Peru Barber and Marie Spencer wearing sports bras, lace-up spandex pants, and not much else. Their images beckon with come-hither expressions.

"This is what men want to see when they look at women," Antal says. "These are not the type of pictures you'd put up in your kids' bedrooms. They're meant to attract attention at bars and where people gather."

And they are doing that. Fusion posters plastered at Panini's in Cleveland are so popular, they need to be replaced every week. Barber was stopped by a guy at an Elyria gas station who asked whether she wasn't the girl he saw in all the football ads. His flirtation led nowhere, but he's been a fixture at Fusion games ever since.

Indeed, says NWFA owner Catherine Masters, "As far as marketing strategies go, Cleveland is far ahead of everyone else."

Eight hours before the season opener in Columbus, members of the Fusion have gathered to catch the team bus at the Super Kmart parking lot in North Olmsted. Coach Treb wanted them there early, the better to run through drills before hitting the road. They seem to have forgotten, however, that parking lots filled with cars and football players filled with carbohydrates do not go well together. Neither do flying balls and windshields. Practice is suspended.

When the team arrives at the suburban Columbus high school, about three hours and one bus breakdown later, rain is coming down in torrents. The girls are ushered to the locker room, while the coaches are shepherded to an adjoining room. That's where game plans will be shored up, where crucial decisions will be made. Where they will pass the time with trivia.

"Did you know there are more people killed by donkeys than by airplane crashes each year?" Coach Treb asks his assistants, 10 men sprawled lazily on benches.

They gamely volley back.

"Did you know that the eardrum of a baby is the same size as an adult's?"

"Did you know Nixon and Clinton are the only two Presidents whose names spell out the word 'criminal'?"

Mike Treb is a jovial 43-year-old with a smooth, unlined visage and a contagious laugh that can trigger a crinkle in the starchiest face. A sales manager for a packaging facility in Solon, he read about the Fusion opening on a website for Ohio coaches. The former defensive back for Lake Catholic High School had spent the past 10 years coaching youth leagues and his three boys. He figured that volunteering with the Fusion would be a good match.

"This is a level I'm used to coaching," Treb says. "Most of these women did not have a lot of football-playing experience. I'm good at teaching the fundamentals."

Working with women, though, is a little different from working with youth-leaguers.

"You tell a guy to run a two-hole, and they go, 'OK, Coach.' These girls want detail. They're so hungry to understand. Instead of just running the two-hole, they ask, 'Why should we run? Wouldn't it be better to do it this way?'"

There are other issues new to Coach Treb this year.

A few hours before the game, quarterback Meredith Racy pokes her head into the coach's lair. Her jersey falls past her knees; the arm holes are big enough for small animals to nest in.

"Coach," she says, "I feel like an asshole."

Staci Kaliner, the team's personnel director, grabs a pair of scissors and snips off the bottom of the jersey. Crisis averted.

The game itself, on the other hand, is a thorough disaster. At times, it's hard to tell the 11 players on the field from, say, a collection of frolicking nuns. The defense seems scared to touch the Comets; there is almost no hitting. The offense looks no better, registering not a single point.

They end up losing 19-2.

"Was there anything redeeming about the game?" Coach Treb is asked afterward.

"Yeah, Columbus," he mutters, then stalks off.

Antal, clad in dark Capris and a black crocheted sweater-poncho, has spent the game pacing the sideline, her manicured nails pressing into her palm. At the finish, she looks at the scoreboard, then raises her eyebrows sky-high and sighs. She looks physically pained.

"Try to be nice," she says to her players before they meet with the Comets. "I can't," she grumbles under her breath.

Kaliner translates for the reporter: "We're not used to losing."

By 11 o'clock, the Fusion is lost on Gender Road.

In the front of the bus, the driver curses quietly to himself. "I could have sworn we were supposed to make a left turn here," he mumbles. After a few more wrong turns and a lot more cursing, he determines that he wasn't exactly wrong -- he was supposed to make a left turn -- just not for another few miles. He slowly caterpillars the bus around the Gender Point Shopping Centre, just a few miles away from the stadium.

The players are turning corners too. The beer stashed beneath their seats hours earlier has been retrieved, and they've gone from a little bit drunk to very much drunk. When someone asks for a brew, four sets of hands reach for bottles; when Peru Barber requests water or Gatorade, it takes a few minutes to find some.

The most boisterous cluster together in the middle rows. Their tank tops match their bruises; their reddened faces look as if they've overdone it with the blusher.

A deck of cards comes out as the drunkenness escalates. No one remembers the rules of the game; maybe there never were any. Gradually, a few girls decide that they are more into each other than they are the cards. For the past hour, they've been sidling closer together; now their fingers are intertwined, like the lacing on a Wilson. The cuddling leads to kissing, kissing to groping. The two or three couples, paired off in the middle seats, are gracious enough to pull blankets over themselves.

As sex scenes go, it is all rather PG-rated. But it's also enough to make others squirm. At the back of the bus, veterans huddle together in shock. They hadn't seen this side of the Fusion before.

"There's something sexy and attractive about girls that can take a hit," says Dave Vance, a 31-year-old executive from Columbus. At the game, he sits with his feet jammed into the seat in front of him; he cups his left hand over his eyes to block out the sun. This is his first women's football game, and he's into it.

"I don't know," says his friend, Mike Talierco, a slick, wiry guy with olive skin and a Brooks Brothers sense of fashion. "I like women to be more delicate."

Both say that the lure of football brought them here, not the promise of sweating beauties. "This is a football game -- you can't even tell that the players out there are women," says Vance. "When you're watching the game, you're not thinking of the players in a sexual way. You're thinking about the competition."

"Yeah," adds Talierco, "and honestly, some of them you might think were men anyway."

"I don't care how you market it, the only way you could make this game sexy is to hire professional cheerleaders," says Kenny Cross, an inebriated Clevelander who was coerced into attendance by a friend.

Marie Spencer may rightly object to this. One of the poster children for the Fusion's new ad campaign, she spent weeks pumping iron to prepare for the photo shoot. A former standout goalie for the Notre Dame College soccer team, the blue-eyed, redheaded 26-year-old is in her second season with the Fusion. She says it was the game's glamour that brought her here.

"We're all really sexy," she says with a smile, her curly locks crinkling like foil when she scrunches them. "So it was a big honor that they chose me. I think it's a good idea to portray athletes -- especially football players -- as sexy. So often you forget that."

Spencer carries around extra postcards in her car "just in case," and she's been known to give out autographs upon request. "People have come up to me in the most random of places," she says. "People at church will come up to me and say they saw a picture with me on it."

But not everybody is happy with the sexual overtones.

"This is not a very good strategy," Lisa Heinl says. "It doesn't reflect the overall personality of the team. Not all of us look like that. It's not a true indication of all the people on the team."

At 36, Heinl is one of the oldest players. She knows that her legs don't turn over as quickly as they once did, and her bones take twice as long to heal.

"Whatever aches or pains I experience now are totally worth it," says the math teacher from Mayfield High School. Yet Heinl, a single woman who spends her time shuttling to practices, tending to her ailing mother, and studying for grad-school exams, didn't know when she signed on for a third season that she'd be taking on the added responsibility of house mother.

At the first practice after the Columbus game, she arrives stony-eyed.

"In all the years, this kind of stuff has never happened before," she scolds her teammates. "I'm embarrassed. We spent too long building up the team's image for it all to be ruined by one bus ride." The players apologize; they run laps for penance. Supposedly, all is forgiven. But tension still seeps through the group like a current.

"I really like these girls, and I'm not, by any means, a homophobe," says defensive back Tracie Costantino, a wife and mother of two. "But I told Kelly that just because I'm straight, it does not mean that I want to see blowjobs on a bus."

Roncone pins the tension on the new recruits. "The younger players had never been in a situation like that," he says. "I guess they were blowing off steam on the way home."

Antal, tight-lipped and anxious, refuses to comment.

Coach Treb is furious.

"They went out there and lost a game, yet they were partying like they had just won the game 50-0," he says.

He hands practice off to his captains and storms inside to break down film.

The Fusion's new target audience is otherwise occupied on the day of the home opener: It's also NFL Draft Day. Young men are not exactly running to Browns Stadium to watch women's football, even with the offer of free admission for those attending the Browns' draft party there.

Outside the stadium, hot dogs and hamburgers are sizzling over charcoal. The tailgates of F-150s lie open, and men and women in Fusion T-shirts sit cross-legged, trying to keep ketchup off their jeans. A few lesbian couples toss back cold Buds and Bud Lights as the sun glints off their car mirrors. "We come prepared with both the leaded and unleaded stuff," jokes Beverly Briggs, linebacker Sandi Heath's partner. She waves a beer in the air. "To me, this is just football at its purest."

Indeed, it's a historic day -- the first time a women's football team has played in an NFL stadium -- but few will witness it. All the fans are loaded on one side of the field, Comet blue clashing with Fusion purple. Antal had hoped to draw 3,000. They're 500 short of that mark, another 70,000 shy of filling the cavernous stadium.

Out on the field, the girls wear purple pants and white jerseys. Their hair is pulled back, their bodies soft and squashy, like cream-filled donuts. They wave at friends and family in the stands. Meredith Racy hops about the field nervously. "This is our field! Our home! We have to win," she repeats to teammates.

Back in the locker room before kickoff, the coaches drill the players about the game's importance: In an eight-game season, few teams recover from an 0-2 start.

"Don't let the fact that we're playing in the Browns' stadium distract you," Coach Treb says.

Next door, they hear laughter coming from the Comets' locker room.

"You hear that?" Coach asks. "It sounds like the other team is not taking you seriously. Let's show them!"

But despite their optimism, their carefully measured cheer, and their home-field advantage, they are once again losing early, and players are dropping, one after another: first linebacker Michelle Bihari, then quarterback Katie Hank, then running back Vickey Krupka, and then linebacker Angela Van Dyne.

Antal pumps up and down the field in a dark business suit. She's trying to be optimistic, though her pinched lips and furled brow reveal otherwise.

"I think we still have a chance to win," she says, seconds before Columbus scores its second touchdown of the first quarter. And now? "Anything could happen," she says, not really believing it herself.

Coach Treb smacks his head.

"This," he says, "is the exact thing that happened in my nightmares all week. We thought, 'What's the worst-case scenario? Okay, the quarterback will be taken out.' And then what happened? The quarterback was taken out."

The Fusion has lost 27-6, but the fans that gather for the post-game mixer at the stadium's Grid Iron restaurant don't seem to care. They huddle at the entrance, ready with hugs and throwaway cameras. "Over here," linebacker Sandi Heath's parents say, jumping up and down. The players, freshly showered and gelled, start arriving in bunches. They look sheepish at the paparazzi-like response to their arrival. "We did lose, you know," Racy says, but they soon loosen up and join their fans for beers.

Roncone, snappy as always in his neatly pressed suit, surveys the room happily.

"This is how Cleveland parties," he says.

Later that night, the after-after-party at Spy Bar is more muted, not intended for the public.

Antal sits at the downstairs bar next to Roncone, her sandaled feet dangling seductively from the stool. "This is a new thing we're trying this year," she says. The party's supposed to be a private meet-and-greet with the Cleveland Browns, only the Browns have not shown up.

The girls sit at the round tables in the back, dressed formally in black pants and skirts. They sip their beers and compare their bruises and talk about their dinners. Anything to avoid discussing the actual game. In the back room, a DJ starts blasting OutKast's "I Like the Way You Move," inspiring a few players to break out their own rickety moves. They bend knees and shake hips and lip-synch along. Tonight, nobody's holding hands; nobody's stealing a kiss. Even the beer is restrained: It's served in tall, wide-necked glasses instead of bottles.

At the upstairs bar, a group of fashionably dressed young men are nursing their ales, paying little mind to the commotion. "What do you know about the Fusion?" they are asked.

One of them looks up from his draft.

"Isn't that some type of Asian food?" he asks.



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