Women in Sports

Meet the NFL’s Newest MVPs: Women

As football season kicks off, we look at how female fans are making the dude-dominated organization rethink its reputation.

For countless years, I’ve had to put up with knuckleheads questioning my devotion to football. Nope, a boyfriend doesn’t force me to watch it. Nah, I don’t lust after Tom Brady. And Imma just ignore your attempts at quizzing me about the rules of the game. Instead, I direct rage at a singular annoyance: why my team, the Cincinnati Bengals, sucks so much.

I’m hardly alone in my female-fandom. Women now comprise 45 percent of all NFL fans. We’ll pause while you process that: Almost half of all NFL fans are ladies. Women also make up 20 percent of fantasy-football players.

Yet the concept of hyper-masculinity has remained a fundamental part of the NFL. Until recent awareness about concussions, the NFL celebrated players’ threshold for pain and injury. It’s also a sport without female athletes or referees—though a female officiator could finally enter the fold in 2014.

The boys’ club attitude trickled into pop culture, what with the trope of clothingchallenged women in game-time commercials and the sexualization of certain female sportscasters. And even more troubling, there’s an astonishing assortment of alleged crimes against women. According to Slate’s crime blog, “21 of 32 NFL teams, at one point [in 2012] had employed a player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record.” Wow.

So how do we reconcile our concerns for women’s issues with our love of the NFL? It’s not easy, but there’s hope. While the NFL hasn’t exactly been proactive in punishing athletes, its commissioner, Roger Goodell, claims he’s working on it. (At present, more players get suspended for substance-abuse violations than they do for alleged criminal activity.) And some players are speaking out against domestic abuse. Among them: former Baltimore Raven Chris Johnson, current Raven Chris Canty, Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten and Brandon Carr, and Pittsburgh Steeler William Gay.

In a bid to soften its image, the League has created uplifting family-oriented and girl-power spots. Still, the organization’s permissiveness toward extracurricular violence may ultimately change as it courts women—the NFL’s favorite, most lucrative, new fans.

Combine the value of each football team, and NFL is worth several billion dollars. And it’s always looking for additional sources of income. Coincidentally, women “drive 70–80 percent of all consumer spending,” according to Forbes. Rest assured, the NFL has wasted little time burning a hole in ladies’ pocketbooks by artfully pushing its merchandise.

In 2012, the organization overhauled its women’s fashion line and launched the “It’s My Team” ad campaign, featuring Condoleeza Rice and Serena Williams. It was styled by Tiina Laakkonen (Dior, British Vogue, Cole Haan). This year, the organization stepped up its game. The NFL bought a 16-page advertorial in the September issue of Marie Claire called, “The Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football.” It’s partnered with Cover Girl on “fanicure” nail-polish sets. It sells a line of maternity wear. It’s recruited Alyssa Milano, Stacy Keibler, and Victoria’s Secret to collaborate on clothing lines.

And in the ultimate show of prestige, the League just cohosted an upscale, celeb-laden event with Vogue to show off its lady-friendly gear, to coincide with New York Fashion Week. (Thus explaining the mystery, earlier this year, of Commissioner Goodell being seated next to Vogue’s inimitable editor in chief, Anna Wintour, at a Kimberly Ovitz runway show.)

The NFL’s secret weapon? A woman, of course: Tracey Bleczinski, its VP of Consumer Products, who recently won the No. 9 spot on Fast Company’s “Most Creative People 2013” list. Her work in blowing up the NFL’s female market has proven so powerful that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—another sport with an exploding female-fan demo—recently poached her to become their Senior Vice President of Consumer Products.

But as we’ve learned, the impact of women on the NFL ultimately trickles down to its fans. “My Purse. My Choice.” (and its hashtag, #mypursemychoice) was the first grassroots girl-positive campaign to go viral. Created by a pair of comediennes, the video—which has tallied almost 400,000 views and was picked up by the Today show—spoofs PSAs to contextualize female outrage over the NFL’s ban on large-size purses from stadiums as a security measure. Now, imagine the impact of a coordinated campaign: Last year, one Baltimore therapist got 20,000 signatures and major media attention, just by penning a letter to Goodell urging him to further his attempts to stop domestic violence.

The more female consumers invest in the League, the more resonant their voices will become. Because there is no greater game-changer for a billion-dollar organization such as the NFL than that timeless aphrodisiac: your money.

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