EVERETT — For two decades, Nicole Pelham devoted her free time to Japanese cartoons.
The Bothell day care owner taught classes at local libraries on how to draw manga, a comic illustration style that originated in Japan. She also owned and operated an anime and manga convention.
Four years ago, Pelham set her sights on a new venture: women’s tackle football.
In 2018, she bought the Seattle Spartans, formerly the Everett Reign. At the time Pelham was only a player. Now as the team’s owner, she wants to grow the sport’s prominence and make the Spartans a household name.
“I hate that no one knows who we are,” Pelham said. “When you talk to people and they don’t even know women’s tackle football exists, that was my problem.”
The Spartans are one of 64 minor league teams included in the Women’s Football Alliance. Home field is Mariner High School in Everett, but most road games are played in Oregon because the Spartans are the only Washington team in its league.
Pelham, 42, drips with enthusiasm for the sport. She believes her business experience and successful past ventures prepared her for team ownership.
The self-described “Jill of all skill” has operated the Pelham family-owned Kids Corner Childcare Center in Bothell since 2001. That’s her day job.
In 2000, Pelham and her younger sister, Danielle Pelham, began self-publishing and selling their original manga under the name NDP Comics. Danielle Pelham drew the art and Nicole Pelham wrote the stories.
The Pelham sisters also taught drawing classes and created a how-to-guide titled “So You Want To Be A Manga Artist.” The two went on to found Aki Con, a convention for anime and manga enthusiasts in the Seattle area.
The Pelhams ran the convention annually from 2008 to 2017. Attendance averaged around 3,000, Pelham said. After nine years, the sisters called it quits. They sold the con’s name and assets.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to really love what you’re doing, especially something like that,” Pelham said. “And when that enthusiasm or love starts to fade, you need to give it to somebody else.”
Pelham said she doesn’t know if Aki Con is still held.
Moving forward, Pelham wanted to take things slow. Her resolve lasted about a year and a half. News broke that Billy Russo was looking to sell the Everett Reign, the women’s football team he founded in 2012. Pelham, a team member since 2014, couldn’t let the opportunity pass up.
“My family was like ‘Did you get bored?’ And I mean, I did get bored, but this feels like a once in a lifetime-type thing,” Pelham said. “I really want a shot at trying this.”
As owner, one of the first things Pelham did was change the team’s name to broaden advertising appeal. She switched the city affiliation to the Emerald City because “you say the name Seattle and that takes over everything, pretty much says Washington State.” There is another women’s football team called Seattle Majestics, but they play in a different league and are based in Kent.
Pelham picked the name Spartans because of the film “300.” She liked the teamwork the ancient Greek warriors portrayed in the movie, calling it emblematic of the type of team culture she wants to build.
Another change Pelham implemented was to remove team fees. Previously, players were charged about $600 per season to cover travel expenses and other costs. Today that fee is zero. Pelham wants to take money out of the equation for team members so “players can focus on playing.”
“I was watching all my teammates scraping by with fundraisers, begging people for money. This is crazy,” Pelham said. “This is a business. There’s no way that women should have to pay.”
Pelham aims to build a profitable business able to pay players and cover all expenses, but she needs more sponsors to achieve that goal. Ideally, Pelham would have 10 to 20 advertisers per season. Currently the Spartans average two to five. But the team owner isn’t discouraged.
“I’ve told myself to just be patient, and to just keep pushing, like I did with the anime convention, and things are going to hit where they’re supposed to hit,” Pelham said.
The team has enough fan support from ticket and merchandise sales to get by. Single game tickets sell for $12 pre-sale, and $15 at the gate. Pelham estimates about 175 to 250 people attend each Spartans’ home game.
“Honestly, if we weren’t doing that, I’d be in a lot of trouble,” Pelham said. Her dream is to hit a game attendance of 300 to 600.
Aside from money, another team hurdle has been securing a practice space. Pelham said youth sports typically get priority on fields when it comes to scheduling. So adult, non-recreation teams like the Spartans compete with other sports for practice times. Sometimes, said Pelham, the team gets kicked off the field at last-minute.
“I was really shocked,” Pelham said. “We’re the lowest rung on the totem pole when it comes to everything.”
It’s a challenge, but Pelham is a “problem solver.” She’ll take the team to a nearby park or lead an at-home practice over Zoom if necessary.
Player recruitment is another constant battle. The team roster for the 11 on 11 sport in Pelham’s time has fluctuated from as high as 37 players to as low as 14. A lot of women, Pelham said, are pressured by friends and family not to play the full contact sport. Injuries are commonplace.
“There is no other sport like it. I did basketball. I did taekwondo, and football hurts,” Pelham said. “A lot of people cannot handle what it takes to do football mentally.”
Phaedra Keaton is one of the “bad-ass women” on Pelham’s team. The 38-year-old roofer from Seattle has played for the Spartans since 2019. When she was younger, Keaton said her mom discouraged her from playing the sport, saying things like “girls don’t play football.”
But Keaton can’t get enough of the game. She enjoys the team camaraderie. Playing football is how she keeps in shape and it’s a great stress reliever.
“Honestly, I like to hit,” Keaton said. “Football is how I get my anger out.”
The Seattle Spartans are hosting a team tryout at Kasch Park in Everett on Saturday, Oct. 8, from 1 to 3 p.m. Pelham encourages anyone interested to give it a shot.
“The amount of freedom you get with sports is pretty amazing,” Pelham said. “So if you’ve ever thought about tackle football, it’s definitely something to come try.”
Pelham played games last season, but is considering hanging up her helmet. Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe not.
“Everything hurts. I barely can move, and I still love it,” she said.