What does it mean to be a sports fan? The NFL might say that for women, it means little more than wearing the right outfit to the game. During the 2013 NFL playoffs, an article in The New York Times suggested that the recent growth in pro football’s female fan base (44 percent of NFL TV viewers are female, up from 34 percent in 2011) has a lot to do with consumerism, and more specifically, the league's efforts to market logo-ed lingerie and pink gear to women.
Given those numbers, it’s not surprising that the NFL has further stepped up its efforts to market to women this season. Rhiannon Madden, the NFL’s director of consumer products, recently explained to Bloomberg Businessweek that the organization is trying to appeal to women—but not “patronize” them—by focusing on “expanded merchandise offerings and pop-up clothing boutiques at stadiums.” Judging by media coverage, dollars spent (according to the NFL, women’s apparel spending went up 76 percent in the last three years), and the much-talked-about football fashion spread in the September issue of Vogue, it would appear these efforts are working. (Though in 2011, Katie Baker smartly argued that the rise of female football fans more likely results from sports and popular culture increasingly blurring than it does from savvy NFL marketing efforts.)
I love a form-fitting, logo-emblazoned throwback blazer as much as the next gal. And it’s understandable that the NFL tries to boil female interest down to clichés—marketing, after all, is marketing. Yet the focus on merchandising both misses the real reasons women watch sports and forgoes an opportunity to engage them in far more meaningful—and for the NFL, lucrative—ways. If league execs spent as much time bettering the stadium and fan experience for women and families as they did contemplating how to get Condi to model her Browns jersey, pro football could win over more female fans, keep the avid ones it already has, and transform casual female consumers into lifelong, diehard fans.
For starters, many women would prefer to not be discriminated against at the entrance of a stadium. But the NFL’s new “clear-bag” policy does just that. In the name of “providing a safer environment,” it requires any bag entering an NFL stadium on game day to be “clear plastic, vinyl or PVC,” and to not exceed 12” x 6” x 12”. According to the league,“official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bags” can be purchased for prices starting at $9.95 each.
Keeping patrons safe is an admirable and responsible goal. But the policy nevertheless feels inherently sexist to many people. It’s difficult to imagine a rule forcing men to empty the contents of their wallets into a plastic bag, yet purse-carrying women now must publicize their personal items at the stadium entrance, maxi-pads and all. The policy also contributes to the impression that the league thinks of women as consumers rather than valuing them as fans by cajoling them to replace their purses on game day with official league merchandise. And some aspects of the policy, especially those pertaining to women and children, could be criticized as being “security theater.” One provision comically suggests, for example, that children carry their own clear bag full of diapers into the stadium.
This highlights another way stadium experiences discourage would-be female ticket buyers: by making it difficult for women with families to bring their kids along. According to Forbes, one reason why women are such valuable consumers is that they are often caregivers, and in that role, regularly make financial decisions for families. But many moms and dads, even without the hassle of getting the toddlers through security, don't feel safe bringing their kids to stadiums. At my last game, a 20-something guy standing directly in front of me in line beat two older men to a point in which an ambulance was called. Afterwards, my husband and I watched as the ass-kicker ran, unpunished and covered in blood, back to his seat. To the best I could tell, the altercation began over their places in the beer line. That was the moment when I decided I could never bring my children to a game.
Because I don’t feel safe bringing my family to NFL stadiums, I, like many parents, have found ways to be a fan from my couch. I’ve played (and won) in fantasy leagues and been the commissioner of a NFL survivor league for the past few years. But online activities don’t satisfy me as much, and my sidelined status isn’t good for the NFL since I’m no longer buying game tickets or shopping in all those fancy new pop-up boutiques.
Designated entrances and sections where sippy cup-schlepping parents and kids aren’t subject to over-the-top terrorist screenings seem like an obvious solution. Even the TSA has adopted similar exceptions and accommodations at airports: Toddlers no longer have to take off their shoes at security checkpoints; milk, formula, and anything in a sippy cup or bottle are allowed while other beverages are not. If the NFL were to adopt rules like these, families like mine could still come, spend money, and groom the next generation of NFL fans without putting a damper on the experience of fun-loving folks who started tailgating at 6 a.m.
Another way I’d like to be a football fan as a parent is by encouraging my kids to play to the sport. But whether I will steer my kids towards the game depends on how the NFL decides to handle issues regarding youth and player safety. As of now, as Daniel Engber recently wrote in a Slate article, there have been no long-term studies on cognitive impairment related to football, and, as he puts it, “You can’t promote ‘safety’ in football, youth or otherwise, until you understand—scientifically—how dangerous it really is.”
Obviously, not all female fans are moms, but this issue resonates with many women, regardless of their childbearing status. Women are proven to care more about safety than men when it comes to activities like buying a car, and when I spoke to five lifelong female football fans while putting this piece together (two were moms, three were not), they all mentioned that if the NFL were to make more effort to increase player safety, they'd enjoy the game more.
The good news, though, is that some teams are already taking steps to help women and families plan less stressful trips to the stadium. The San Diego Chargers, for example, offer a family-friendly tailgating section of their parking lot that’s sold out every time I’ve been to a game. The Green Bay Packers helped pass laws aimed at preventing youth concussions, and the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium will benefit from an ingenious app that allows patrons to monitor bathroom lines (which could be especially helpful for women) as well as beer lines from their seats. The app could also help women and parents with kids to map out their snack runs and bathroom breaks strategically, missing as little on-field action as possible while avoiding the kinds of beer-line brawls I encountered the last time I went to a game.
NFL fan communities, too, have shown that they can welcome women. Carrie, a Boston-area attorney and friend of mine, is the biggest football fan I know. She’s been to 14 different NFL stadiums in the past five years, and when Carrie talks to fans sitting around her on her annual stadium tour, she says they all discuss their team and the game with her like they would with “any dude sitting next to them.” If male game attendees can take the female fans among them seriously, why can't the league execs?
Perhaps it’s no surprise, though, that the NFL's execs are out of touch with avid female fans like Carrie and me: As far as anyone outside can tell (since the NFL doesn't release an organizational chart), very few of the league’s top executives are women. And fans can’t blame the NFL's higher-ups for finally recognizing the gold-mine-like potential of female consumers—after all, according to that Businessweek article, the league’s 90 million “avid fans,” who also skew overwhelmingly male, “are probably near their limits in time and money spent.” But eventually, the casual shoppers will also be tapped out, and the NFL’s savvy marketers may have to shift their focus towards further engaging and pleasing the fans they already have. Maybe then they will realize that when many female fans are deciding on whether to splurge on an NFL TV package, finding room in the vacation budget for tickets to a game, or signing future professional football fans up for pee-wee leagues, we are basing these decisions on much more than how totally awesome our fanicures are.
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