Women's football league CEO believes sports will help 'conquer societal issues'

Women's National Football League CEO Odessa Jenkins is helping the world reimagine professional tackle football.
Women's National Football Conference CEO Odessa Jenkins is helping the world reimagine professional tackle football. (Photo by Amari Hollis)

Founded in 2019, the Women's National Football Conference (WNFC) is a Dallas-based organization that promises to bring professional women's tackle football to a worldwide audience. Similar to the NFL, the skilled 11-on-11, full-padded American tackle football league boasts 20 teams comprised of more than 1,000 women and coaches spanning 17 states.

They’ve also earned the endorsement of the one the leading producers of athletic wear and team merchandise. A recipient of the Adidas + iFundWomen grant, the WNFC were one of 15 women-led organizations awarded an endowment in May to begin the seeding efforts and help break down the barriers of funding for women entrepreneurs nationwide. Riddell, the leading manufacturer in sports equipment, has also signed on as a sponsor.

Yahoo Sports spoke with Odessa Jenkins, the league’s CEO and head coach of the Texas Elite Spartans about her vision for long-term success. Jenkins is using her influence to uplift Black women in sports. An openly queer Black woman, Jenkins was candid about the criticism the league has faced thus far and how that fuels her to prove skeptics wrong.

Yahoo Sports: You’ve achieved great short-term success with the WNFC, what are your long-term goals moving forward and is expansion a part of those endeavors?

Odessa Jenkins: We developed a five-year plan two years ago. Even with the pandemic, we’re still on track to achieving our goals. Our primary focus is to ensure that athletes and our teams are staffed with the most qualified people. A lot of people don’t understand how many decision-makers are involved in women’s football. Part of those decisions involve selecting the right teams to play in this league and whether that means grabbing an existing or creating a new franchise. We want to make sure we have the best athletes. If the product isn’t right, it doesn’t matter what follows. Everyone participating in the league has a full-time job doing something else, but we believe in this endeavor and you can see that within the actions of all our players, coaches and executives.

YS: This is a venture that arguably comes with criticism. What are some of the challenges and successes you’ve had as an openly gay woman being the face of a sport predominantly played by men?

Jenkins: It’s simple. Part of the way sports remains supremely unique is because of its ability to conquer societal issues. We’re in a pivotal moment with race and social justice right now. As an openly gay Black women in the “sport of heroes,” I think about this often. Regardless of color and sexual preference, as long as the product is entertaining and tells the story, then I feel like we’ve done our job. Athletes have the influence to empower anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation. As for trolls, I welcome them. In fact, I hope we get more because it legitimizes us as an organization.

Yahoo Sports: In your opinion, what do you believe are some of the issues that plague the Black queer community specifically and how do you plan on using your platform to help bring awareness to that?

Jenkins: In order to help bring us all together and ensure sports is equitable, you have to have a presence of leadership that's diverse. If you don’t have Black, queer or female leaders, it’s hard to have empathy and compassion for something not made personal to you. When approaching a brand align with us, I aim to present myself as authentically as possible. There is strength in representation. What fans look like today won’t be the same way they appear decades from now. Sixty-five percent of the league are made up of Black, Indigenous and people of color, and openly queer women make up 55% of the WNFC. ... Sports are supposed to stay unique. We shouldn’t be called a gay women’s league like the NBA is a straight man’s league.

YS: With COVID affecting the sports world, how does the league plan on transitioning back into a rhythm as you gear up for a new season?

Jenkins: We’ll follow CDC guidelines for sure and we will coordinate with local governments, school districts and communities as we’ve always done. Our league commissioner Kandice Mitchell has ties to professional orgs who are keeping in tune with recommendations. We make our revenue on people coming to games, I hope we can have fans when the season kicks off next year. We’re also super focused on partnerships. We want to energize and get more brands to align with us. We’re following the most risk-averse measures with the goal of coming back stronger.