Green Bay Chill aiming to change league perceptions

Gilbert Brown already knows what you’re thinking in regards to his line of work. He has heard the jokes about coaching in a women’s football league that values sex appeal, scantily clad players and entertainment as much as the final score.

His response? Just give the league a chance. It might change your opinion.

“I always tell somebody to go in there with an open mind,” Brown told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “Once you go in and see a game, it’ll change the perception of the game. When you go in there and sit down, you’re thinking, ‘OK, these girls are half-naked.’ But when you get out there and see the game and watch them play and see how they hit and see how they get after it, that is very intriguing.”

Brown, a former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle, is in his second season as head coach of the Green Bay Chill — an unusual role for a man once so feared his playing nickname was “The Gravedigger.” His position is worlds away from the one he occupied at Lambeau Field, even as he leads a team that literally competes in the shadows of his former employer. The Chill play at the Resch Center, located just one mile from Lambeau.

“It’s a lot of work,” Brown said. “I think it makes you a better coach because some of the girls don’t know a lick of football and some do. You’ve really got to put your coaching hat on for this.”

The Green Bay Chill are part of the Legends Football League, a full-contact 7-on-7 indoor football venture. Unlike other indoor leagues, the uniforms are drastically different. Players wear ice hockey-style helmets, shoulder pads, elbow pads and knee pads, but the rest of the uniform consists of a sports bra and volleyball-style shorts.

 Given the risqué outfits, which resemble little of the NFL style, players recognize it is easy for casual observers to dismiss the team and the league.

“People’s reactions that you play is exactly like you think it would be,” said Chill quarterback Anne Erler, a Green Bay native. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I know that league.’ You say, ‘Oh did you ever watch it?’ Our girls keep phone clips and YouTube clips of our big hits on the phone for that reason in general if you do have to defend something.”

Added Chill wide receiver Anna Heasman: “I do spend a little bit of time sort of trying to justify the league and justify it to myself to say we’re not horrible people. We’re all dedicated athletes and we’re all mothers and wives and we all have professions. We work bloody hard. On the whole, everyone is pretty embracing of it and they think it’s pretty exciting.”

Heasman, an Australia native with a rugby and track background, lives in Milwaukee and is one of 15 players on the team. Players hold full-time jobs during the week — Heasman, for example, performs medical ultrasounds at a local hospital — so they practice either in Milwaukee or the Green Bay area on weekends.

Practices generally last four hours on Saturday and four more hours on Sunday, which makes for a serious time commitment without compensation. Brown, who previously coached the La Crosse Spartans of the Indoor Football League, said his Chill team’s playbook consisted of roughly 50 plays.

And while the league has had its share of critics — it has been called sexist and distasteful, among other descriptors — players insist there is a small shift that is taking place. The Legends Football League was founded in 2009 by Mitch Mortaza and was originally called the Lingerie Football League. Fans may recall its “Lingerie Bowl” being featured as a Pay-Per-View halftime special during the Super Bowl. Before the 2013 season, however, the league underwent a rebranding of sorts by changing the name of the league.

“The term lingerie instills a lot of negative connotations with a lot of people,” Heasman said. “A lot of fans were turned off. Particularly females. I guess the aim is to really clean up the image and the rebranding, so they obviously removed the lingerie word and replaced it with legends. They did modify the uniform. They got rid of the garter and some of the frills and lace to be a bit more basic. It’s more like an athletic uniform. It’s similar to what I wore when I competed in track.”

Once the games begin, players say it is just as physical as anything fans will see on any other football field. Erler noted she had suffered “a couple concussions” and was experiencing muscle and tendon damage in her quad and calf from Green Bay’s second game of the 2013 season against the Minnesota Valkyrie. Green Bay defeated Minnesota 40-8 and is 1-1 this season. The Chill play two more regular season games in June and August.

Hard hits certainly help to keep fans intrigued, but Erler and Heasman can’t deny what pushes folks through the turnstiles right now is the league’s sex appeal. Athleticism is an important part of making the team, but so is being trim and pleasing to the cameras.

Erler is hoping fans will realize the league has more to offer down the road.

“At this point, everything has to have an entertainment aspect or people aren’t going to show up,” Erler said. “We have to think of it like that.

“In the first couple years the league was out there, it wasn’t purely entertainment. That’s why they were bringing in fans is because of what they wore. The last really two years and what we’re transitioning into is going to be to get our fans to come there for the game, which has been happening this year more and more. That rebranding is going to do nothing but I think help that.”

At the very least, the league appears to be on solid footing as it attempts to rebrand. In addition to the 12 teams that compete in the United States league, there are four Canadian teams and four Australian teams. Heasman indicated a future goal is to create a sort of World Cup that includes even more countries.

For now, the Chill will continue to build up their fan base. Fans may show up for the players’ looks, but Brown hopes they’ll stay for the quality product on the field.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” Brown said. “And I encourage you, before you sit down and judge, you need to go watch a game.”

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