WOMEN like football.
This should not be a revelation to anyone. In fact, the NFL states that nearly half of its fans are women. For most modern families and couples, long gone are the days when the beginning of football season meant months of lonely Sundays for women everywhere while the men in their lives glued themselves in front of a television set for 12 hours of continuous football coverage.
The numbers don't lie. In 2011, Nielsen's NFL ratings increased from 3.7 to 3.9 in the 18- to 34-year-old female demographic. Ipsos Public Affairs reported that last year, the number of women participating in fantasy football doubled. And in an article posted by Slate.com, an NFL spokesperson revealed that more women watched the Super Bowl this year (43.3 million women 18 and older) than there were total viewers for the Academy Awards (39.3 million).
IN THIS promotional photo provided by NFL Communications, Tavia Hunt (married to Kansas City Chiefs Chairman & CEO Clark Hunt) and Nicoletta Ruhl (granddaughter of San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos) show off the NFL Party collection. The collection includes a wide variety of home and celebration products fit for the ultimate NFL Homegating experience. Available products include toasters, wine glasses, a cheese board and knife set, cake decorating items, coasters and more. While the NFL cashes in on marketing apparel and official products to women, female fandom goes well beyond sporting a cute wardrobe.
Perhaps one area where NFL marketing executives are salivating, however, is official apparel. With a growing female fan base, the NFL is rapidly rolling out new products geared specifically for women. In 2010, "Fit for You," a league clothing line with women in mind, was launched. Over time, the NFL revamped their women's apparel and this year introduced "It's My Team," which features 20 notable women - including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, socialite and jewelry designer Melania Trump, Olympic tennis champion Serena Williams and Dancing with the Stars' Kym Johnson - in NFL and designer apparel.
The NFL's women's apparel approach seems to be working. Fanatics, an online retailer of officially licensed products, saw a significant increase in products sold to women last year, including an 85 percent increase in December from 2010 and a 125 percent increase in January from the previous year. While this really is a successful way for the NFL to cash in on women fans, female fandom goes well beyond sporting a cute NFL wardrobe.
In fact, while conducting research for this article, I was somewhat appalled that much of the available information about women NFL fans focused on retail marketing strategies. Thanks to the NFL, now women can support their favorite teams and express their competitive spirit through their own personal style. That's all well and good, but for many women fans, myself included, supporting our teams is much more than what we wear on the outside. It goes deeper, something that has been ingrained from youth.
"I have been a die-hard Saints fan for as long as I can remember," said Deborah Walker of Keller, Texas. "My earlier memories on Sunday after church were kicking back with my pops to watch the Saints play. We watched every week, even through the 1-15 seasons."
Summer Jenkins of Jacobsburg recalls liking the Browns since grade school because most of the kids on her bus already liked them. And Rhonda Dunder of Columbus, Ohio, formerly of St. Clairsville, remembers growing up watching football with her family.
These women are real fans - fans who laugh and cry and live and die with the fate of their teams. They feel as if the success of their team rests on their pregame rituals.
"On our way to games, we tried to keep things pretty much standard," Dunder explained. "Same gas stop, same bathroom stop . . . bagel stop, same parking garage." Everything needed to be in the same order. The routine only changed, she said, when the team was not playing well and maybe a mix up would help swing the balance of the team's fortunes.
"During a game, I can get OCD like moments," Walker said. "If my team is doing well when I sit on the edge of my seat to watch the game, then I better not move from that position."
Game days aren't just another day of the week. Jenkins said she feels "nervous and excited," while Dunder said it's "the best day of the week. You literally get to escape from your real life circumstances for a few hours and get your 'game face' on." She added, "I've got ESPN and the NFL Network cranked and getting me ready for the games. I'm fixing my fantasy lineup and looking at game predictions."
And while most game days begin with a nervous energy that these women feel, most of them prefer watching the games either with other fans or alone. Several admitted to canceling appointments or avoiding social situations to watch a game. "I don't like watching games with other people," Jenkins explained. "I want to concentrate on the game."
Walker agreed. "On a game day, if a friend were to call to ask to hang out, I would say I didn't feel well or was busy. I did this so I could watch my team by myself in case I got a bit crazy." She added though that with a husband and a family now, as well as DVRs, she doesn't beg off on appointments like she used to.
Dunder, on the other hand, had a different perspective. "I definitely will skip outings and invites out on Sundays because I have to watch the Browns. Seriously, they only play 16 games in an entire year. That's only 16 chances to watch my team - nothing like the 100 times in basketball and baseball." She admitted that her friends know not to call or text her during a game. "I'm watching," she said, "Not talking to them about something other than the Browns." She added emphatically, "Unless my dog is dying, leave me alone!"
But perhaps one common tie that many women seem to have with their teams is that being a fan feels more like being a part of a big family. Perhaps Annie Wiater, a Browns fan and former Bridgeport resident, said it best when she said football and cheering for your team was about "camaraderie and community." She went on to say that she didn't grow up in Cleveland but lives close now, and she always has a great time at games. "You cheer for first downs, cry for fumbles . . . it's a community thing. We come because we love football."
The feeling of community and family runs deep. Walker said she was proud to call the Saints her team through thick and thin. "Bandwagoner isn't in my vocabulary," she added. "I never was ashamed of calling the Saints my team even when the entire nation of football fans would laugh at us. It isn't about going crazy with face paint or watching every game or decorating your house for the team - it is about professing your love regardless of popular opinion."
As for the NFL's initial attempt at developing women's apparel - a "shrink it and pink it" approach?
"Pink gear is for wimps," said Kara Lysenko of Barberton, formerly of Colerain. "Real fans wear the team colors."
Jenkins feels the pink is a huge marketing gimmick. "If you're a fan of your team, you wear the team colors. Period."
"If you have to come out and buy pink stuff, stay at home," Wiater stated. "Fans will support the team because they know it's their team." She said fans who look at apparel and think 'it's pink and it's pretty' are not there to watch football. "That's not what it's about."
Dunder loves the pink that teams wear in support of breast cancer awareness, but she thinks it only works for that designated period. "I don't know of pink as an alternate color for any NFL team, so why are you wearing it? Seriously, girls. If you like a team, wear their colors. And lose the glitter. No one looks good in glitter - except for maybe Jon Bon Jovi."
So maybe the NFL thinks they have the female fans figured out - walking fashion plates to sport team colors - but there is much more to them. They are real sports fans. They feel the elation in times of success and the heartbreak in times of defeat. Maybe women can't play in the NFL, but fervently supporting their teams can possibly fill that void.
"I remember being bummed as a little girl to find out only boys played professional football," Walker said. "I am a big fantasy football player - at one time, I juggled up to three teams. It is as close as I will get to playing."
Well, maybe not. Last month, the NFL welcomed its first female official in a preseason game in San Diego. Maybe this, coupled with more women becoming involved in reporting and other high profile jobs within NFL organizations, will lead more women to the sport . . . maybe even to the field.
Just leave the pink jersey at home.
Hershberger can be reached at email@example.com