If you’re looking for the some of biggest football fans in town don’t head to a sports bar, Paul Brown Stadium or your local high school field. Venture out on a chilly winter night to the IMEC training center in Lockland where a handful of women are stretching and sweating their way through football agility drills.

They aren’t part of a new fitness routine. These women are in pre-season conditioning to play for the Cincinnati Sizzle, the women’s football team that takes the field for its 13th season April 30 against the West Virginia Wildfire.

The Sizzle, who play an seven-game season from April to June, are entering their second year in the U.S. Woman’s Football League, which has about a dozen teams from places such as Buffalo, Erie, Memphis and Paoli, Ind.

The Sizzle, owned by former Bengals’ running back Ickey Woods, has about 20 players, half veterans and half rookies. The team is in transition, as some of the older players are retiring and the team is attempting to recruit new players. 

“The biggest challenge is making people aware of the team,” says Michelle Terrell, general manager and one of the team’s veterans. “We don’t get much publicity, which is surprising since the team’s been around 13 years and is owned by Ickey.” 

While Title IX and other factors have generally raised the awareness of women’s sports, women’s tackle football still struggles to find a following.

“When I tell somebody I coach a woman’s football team they say: ‘There’s a woman’s football team?’” says Charles Pankey, defensive coordinator. “Or they say: ‘Is it touch? or flag football?’ When I tell them it’s tackle, they have a hard time believing it. Or they say: ‘Is it that lingerie league?’ No. They have a lot more gear on.”

Woods gave up head coaching duties a few years ago. He says he devotes most of his time to the Jovante Woods Foundation, which battles asthma in the name of his son who died of the disease in 2010.

The Sizzle play their home games at local high school fields and attendance is usually limited family and friends of the players. Without a corporate sponsor, the Sizzle players buy their own equipment and uniforms and pay $200 to play. The team relies on game receipts, fundraisers and support from Woods to stay afloat.

J.A. Carter, a sociology professor at Miami University-Hamilton, played for the Sizzle in 2010 and 2011 while writing her dissertation on gender in sports.

“The biggest thing I learned is that these women are dedicated,” she says. “They really love the game of football. It’s extremely important to them. They love playing. They love being together as a team and they keep pushing forward so it doesn’t matter what kind of adversity the team faces. “

For example, Shannon Helseth, a compliance analyst for a pharmaceutical company who lives in Monfort Heights, has played since the team began and now is head coach. She’s center on the offensive line and sometimes fills in on defense. She says she planned to retire from playing after suffering a knee injury but suited up again last year when the team was short on players.

“I’ve always loved playing,” she says. “I used to play with my older brother and his friends when I was growing up in Indiana. [Playing football] was frowned upon. My high school coach strongly advised I not even try out for the team, but I’ve wanted to play my whole life.”

Tamar Fennell, 31, of College Hill is one of the Sizzle’s secret weapons. A former soccer and basketball player, who was a sprinter at Ohio University, she’s a running back and defensive back for the Sizzle.

“She’s so fast, they can’t catch her,” Terrell says of Fennell’s 4.8 second time in the 40-yard dash.

Fennell played football for six years for woman’s lingerie league teams in Cleveland, Las Vegas, Canada and Australia, before returning to Cincinnati a year ago.

“To me football is the ultimate sport,” says Fennell. “It’s not just running, or catching the ball. It’s really a battle between you and the opponent to see who can impose their will on the other side. Football is a stage where I can test my competitiveness to the max. It’s a physical and a mental game, but it’s the strategy I love.”

Carter estimates there may be as many as 100 women’s teams spread across several women’s leagues in the United States. As part of her research, Carter found references to women playing tackle football in some form or other as far back as 1896, with interest ebbing and flowing over the years.

“There were leagues and evidence of women’s college football teams into the 1930s,” she says. “In the 1970s you might have heard of the Toledo Troopers,” a woman’s team that was undefeated through most of the decade.

“What seems to be true is when we move into more socially conservative time periods overall we start becoming less accepting of women or anybody stepping outside of the preconceptions of what we have of gender,” she says.

“Another thing I learned that people would find surprising is that a lot of the women who play do so because this is their only opportunity to go out and hit someone,” she says. “They love to hit. That’s kind of the opposite of what people think about women. It’s not what women are supposed to do or want to do.”

After 13 years, Helseth says she’s come to think of the team as her second family.

“I love the team aspect and playing the game and being part of something I’ve wanted to be a part of forever,” she says.

Recently, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills hired the league’s first female full-time coach and a girl’s youth tackle football league was formed a couple years ago in Utah after video of a 12-year-old girl running rings around boys in a youth league game went viral.

“I think it’s fantastic,” says Helseth, who couldn’t play on an organized team growing up. “We have the ability. We just haven’t been given the chance to show what we can do.”