Meet the New Female Face of Pro Football
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is a bold, expensive experiment in women's pro sports.
By Joshua Eferighe
Foot-plant, cut right, miss. Juke left, accelerate, miss. Just when you think you have her, you don’t. A former track standout turned pro flag football and rugby player, Santia Deck has made a name for herself by leaving defenders standing in cement, going viral with lightning moves and chiseled abs.
In the past, Deck, 28, might have been a sideshow. But thanks to her inexplicably fast feet, social media savvy and timing, Deck is writing a different chapter, signing with the Los Angeles Fames of the Women’s Football League Association (WFLA) for the first multimillion-dollar contract in women’s football history.
“I remember I was just screaming. My friend thought somebody had died or something,” Deck tells me of the life-changing phone call. She’s been fighting a cold while training for the season, but as she recounts the moment, you can see the excitement pulse through her body. “Even to this day, it’s so much happening so fast and I have just been kind of thrown into all this stuff,” she continues. Her phone has been ringing nonstop with congratulations as she trains. The league was going to have its first scrimmage in May but the exhibition season was delayed due to COVID-19.
Though the WFLA won’t begin play until 2021, Deck’s signing marks a watershed moment for women’s pro football. The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) has been around since 2009 and signed a television deal with Eleven Sports/FTF (For the Fans) Network for the 2020 season. But WFA players have to pay upward of $2,000 a season to play. Similarly, the Legends Football League (LFL) — relaunched this year as the Extreme Football League — doesn’t pay its players or even provide health insurance.
That’s why Deck’s signing — even by an untested league and with the exact amount not disclosed — made so many heads turn. “This was a momentous moment in history,” says Shelley Zalis, founder of The Female Quotient, a company pushing gender equality in the workplace.
We’re getting paid enough to be financially free.
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, and raised in Houston with three brothers, football was always a part of Deck’s life. Her brothers all played running back, with two earning college scholarship offers, and her sister was a talented gymnast. Deck went to Texas A&M Kingsville on a track scholarship and became a certified fitness instructor after she graduated in 2014.
To keep her competitive side going, she joined the American Flag Football League in 2015 and became its all-time leading rusher. She also spotted an opportunity with her football skills and workout routines to build a social media following. Thus “The Queen of Abs” was born, with viral clips of her breaking ankles spurring her to 440,000 Instagram followers. Once she got shoutouts from the likes of Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and invites to play football with rapper Quavo, she knew she was on to something.
She wanted more, so she tried the LFL but quit after an injury-riddled half-season that nearly sapped her love of the game. She wasn’t fond of the coaches, but the fans were the final straw. The league had started as the Lingerie Football League before being rebranded as Legends Football League, and the skimpy uniforms attracted horny men who would regularly ask the players to reveal themselves, Deck says. She moved to rugby before getting injured again. But Lupe Rose, who co-founded the WFLA and owns the Los Angeles Fames, was scouting her.
Rose got Deck’s attention by telling her she wanted to close the pay gap and empower women. “We’re not getting paid pennies,” Deck says. “We’re getting paid enough to be financially free. We’re playing in stadiums. We’re not playing at high schools or at some random park in the middle of nowhere.”
The league will launch a May-to-August season next year — taking advantage of the men’s football offseason. Commissioner Brandon Shelby says 10 franchises have owners and are recruiting players, but the league has 32 team names and logos copyrighted — so it plans to expand quickly. In fact, the league is offering 22 of the franchises for sale on its website, starting at $500,000 a pop. Would-be owners are asked to fill out an online form that asks, among other things, how much they’re willing to pay and if they’ve been convicted of a felony. Among the franchise owners is rapper Ja Rule.
“Anytime you’re creating an avenue or a lane that’s never been done before, it’s definitely a part of rolling the dice,” Shelby says. “We understand that this process is not going to happen overnight, and we want to slowly be able to build and reach those goals with realistic expectations over the first few seasons of the league.”
The league’s parent company is the SHE Beverage Company, a California-based maker of healthy beverages, beer and hard lemonade that plans to go public this year on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Rose is the company’s CEO. Part of the goal of the league appears to be marketing the beverages, which will be sold in every stadium. Shelby says the backing of SHE Beverage will allow the league to put in the capital to build a top-notch product, rather than the model of other leagues having to wait for the revenue to build.
Deck is the league’s headline star, and her social media following is part of the appeal to the league’s executives, who have extensive marketing backgrounds. The details of her contract remain confidential.
“They are trying to take somebody who already has a recognizable brand and leverage that to bring both Santia’s brand and the WFLA together in a positive way,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University. “But what her contract actually means, in the absence of many more details, I really wouldn’t know what to make of it.”
As the gender pay gap in sports continues to be a hot topic — from the U.S. women’s national soccer team to the new collective bargaining agreement for the WNBA — the WFLA is investing big to put itself at the center of the conversation. Now the question for Deck is: Can she take the ball and run with it?
Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Deck made the U.S. national rugby team, but she was only considering a tryout before she got injured. Also, her WFLA team is the Los Angeles Fames, not Flames, and this year’s exhibition has been scrapped due to COVID-19.