How The NFL Is Growing Its Female Fan Base

Since its inception in 1920, the NFL has been a man's game. Just look at any sitcom; the scenario is always the same: A working knowledge of the game seems necessary for that legendary "man card." These same shows portray women as having (at best) a marginal relationship with the biggest sport in America. Not only are they excluded from the football festivities, but these fictional portrayals show women who are bitter about their husbands' obsession with the game. And, I think I speak for female football fans everywhere when I say, "Well, that's a bunch of bullsh*t."
Indeed, even qualifying the term "football fan" with "female" feels unnecessary. And, while we can't speak to the condescending comments your guy friends make, we can say that the NFL is making major strides to incorporate women — situational comedy be damned.
Over the past few years, the NFL has surpassed both the NBA and the MLB in female regular-season viewers. And, in 2012, more women — a cool 43 million of ‘em — watched the Super Bowl. Which is more than both the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards combined. It seems not even the greatest J Lawr GIF moment can get a tried-and-true fan away from her team on the field. Indeed, in 2012 the NFL trailed only college sports in female fans, counting women as 44% of their fan base. Among women ages 18 to 49, Sunday Night Football won out over Dancing With The Stars, Glee, and Grey’s Anatomy. And, as you can imagine, that number is only growing.
But, what makes women such a key demographic to the League? And, what measures is the organization taking to not only get women into the game, but keep them lifelong fans? For female football fans everywhere, here's a closer look at why women have become invaluable to the most macho sport in town.
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Photo: Doug Murray/Icon SMI/Corbis.
Keepers Of Tradition (& Tiny Future Football Fans)
Sure, we're enthusiastic fans, and we're a lot of fun. But, what's so special about women as football fans in particular? We're keepers of family tradition. In a way, gathering the family together for football Sunday is a ritual not unlike going to church. It's no wonder, then, that the NFL has started selling "Homegating" products, perfect for gathering friends and family for the game.

But, since children are viewing the game, there's also a growing concern within the NFL that women — even if they aren't mothers — are sometimes put off by how violent football can be. Recently, the number of players who've suffered concussions and other injuries on the field has been scrutinized — sparked in part because of a lawsuit by a Detroit Lions running back. But, The New York Times' Katie Baker suggests that this kind of thinking only plays up the exhausted stereotype of a woman's relationship to the game: "The crude archetypes of female fandom — the clueless girlfriend who asks if LeBron scored the touchdown, or the mom who waits for a pivotal moment to express her wish that they wouldn’t spit tobacco like that — manage to endure because everyone has watched a game with one of those types. But, to assume that most women would take one look at the league’s violence and sexual mayhem and slowly walk away betrays a misunderstanding of football’s place in our culture, and also of women." To suggest that women are squeamish at the sight — and sound — of a hard tackle on the field is like saying that women still stand on their chairs squealing at the sight of a mouse. This feels especially true of mothers, who become accustomed to the blood-and-guts facts of life as soon as they bring a child into the world. When it comes to football, the female fans say bring. It. On.

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Photo: Courtesy of NFL.
Value To Advertisers
Let's get one thing straight: Women aren't watching the games simply because a husband, boyfriend, father, or brother have it turned on. Women are entirely invested in the sport on their own accord.

Women are invaluable to advertisers, which in turn makes them important to the NFL. Why? Apparently, we’re the decision makers in most households. Meghann Malone, a marketing manager for PR firm IMRE, explains that these decisions extend beyond the brand of Greek yogurt in the fridge. Things like cars, stocks, and electronics are ultimately left up to the woman. Malone elaborates, “A female consumer is a consumer for life. They’re the ones more likely to become brand loyalists.” And, while the NFL is a brand all its own, it's also got 32 miniature brands beneath it — 32 teams, that is.

So, when the League is advertising to women, they're not using generic models or stock photography: They're honing in on the exact kind of woman the female fans want to be. And, if Condi in her Browns jersey is any indication, football is a sport chosen by smart, successful women.
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Photo: Courtesy of NFL Shop.
Pink Jerseys
When female fans first saw a line of NFL gear for women, they saw a lot of the same thing: Pink. And, we had to ask ourselves, what was the point of a jersey that didn't reflect our team's colors? Then came an array of things that were kind of clothing, but more like thongs with a Dallas Cowboys' logo.

Thankfully, the days of Pepto Bismol are over. Now, as Ira Boudway notes, the emphasis is on replica jerseys that offer a slimmer cut for women, as well as branded clothing that you can wear out in public. Plus, the NFL is presenting women's clothing in a more thoughtful way. Take, for example, its teaming up with Vogue for Fashion Week and the capsule collection of designer helmets from the CFDA.

Perhaps as a result of this more thoughtful approach, NFL merchandise sold to women jumped significantly over the last year, according to Fanatics, the world's largest online retailer of officially licensed products. In the most recent ad campaign (pictured above) there isn't a spot of pink to be seen.
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Photo: David Bernal/Corbis.
The Future Of The NFL
Sure, women are valuable to the League as die-hard fans, but women are also staking their claim in the game itself. If you haven't heard of Sarah Thomas yet, you're about to become very familiar: She's likely going to be the first female referee in the NFL next season. Thomas didn't start her career as a ref to make any statements about gender: "I know a lot of females are maybe inspired that there's a gender barrier about to be broken. But, I never set out to shatter the glass ceiling," she told CBS News. Except, that's exactly what she's about to do. She's been an official for 17 years, and now she's training with the NFL to become the first lady to take the field — ever.

Plus, Lauren Silberman tried out for a kicker position in 2013, and Ariko Iso was a full-time athletic trainer for the Steelers for nearly 10 years.

It's clear that the NFL is taking its female fans seriously. And, with the increased presence of women in sports-management roles, the place for ladies in football is no longer relegated to the sideline cheerleading squad.