It wasn't long ago that the NFL seemed to be dominated by images of beer-chugging, overweight men cursing at TVs or pounding their chests in stadiums across the country. (Just picture the dudes from that SNL sketch with Mike Ditka, where the football maniacs in love with "Da Bears" were all one beer and bratwurst away from a heart attack.) Meanwhile, a large number of women either hated the sport or simply tolerated it while sporting oversized jerseys that couldn't flatter a 250lb man, much less a 150lb woman. But much like airbrushed denim jackets, the era of the football widow is "so yesterday." As the league prepares to kick off its 90th season, women are now playing major roles both behind the scenes and in the stands in terms of reshaping the face of America's game.
Just scan the crowd of any NFL game and you'll notice a dramatic shift in the ratio of men to women fans compared to 30, even 20 years ago. Over the past decade, the rising presence of the female fan has been felt not just in the stadiums, but in the stores. Women, who were once forced to buy jerseys in the "little boys" section, suddenly had the option of more tailored, albeit totally silly, pink versions of team apparel. Sure us lady fans moaned and groaned about the Malibu Barbi inspired team gear, but at least we could take solace in the fact that the league had noticed us. When you look at the numbers, they had no other choice.
Women made up 43% of the league's fan base just 4 years ago. Today, that number is somewhere near 50%. 375,000 women attend NFL games each weekend and more than 45 million women watch pro football on TV. And wouldn't you know it, women's apparel is now the league's fastest growing business. So it's no wonder ladies now have a growing number of apparel options -- and they're even sold in the teams' colors!
One NFL executive who helped lead the charge in answering the apparel needs of the league's female fan base is Tracey Bleczinski, the Vice President of Consumer Products. Bleczinski oversees some of the major decisions involving women's apparel. As both a league executive and a fan of the game (she just loves her Chiefs!), Bleczinski is proud of the NFL's increasing efforts to embrace the growing legion of "chicks in the huddle."
Women's apparel has only been around for 10 years. When it first started it was a 'pink it and shrink it' strategy. As that's evolved we've become more sophisticated with it. It's the evolution of the business.
Let's face it, we women just LOVE to shop. "We're the Consumer-in-Chief" in most households. Long before the league had apparel that fit our fashion needs, we were buying the bulk of the team gear for our husbands, boyfriends and sons. It only makes sense that the league would shift gears and cater to the fans who are spending the bucks.
Part of the NFL's latest outreach will involve a clever, new concept this season called the NFL Pop-Up Shop, which opens in New Orleans tomorrow and will remain there for the weeks leading up to and following the home opener. The shop will feature a smorgus borg of Saints gear, all for women. If the pop-up shop is successful in New Orleans, the concept could expand to other markets.
"This year, our main apparel marketing effort is around the women's store," Bleczinski says. "It's a non- traditional way to reach consumers in a way that's more about feelings and emotions, more about feelings than transactions. It appeals to women as it relates to how they shop."
Ever wanted bezazzled Saints flip flops? You'll find them in the Pop-up Shop! What about black and gold Capri pants, Saints workout gear, leather jackets or even Saints jeans? The store will have that, too. And it will also feature non-apparel merchandise like nail polish kits, spa kits, yoga mats and scent diffusers. Oh my!
"The idea is to generate buzz and also to build that customer anticipation with exclusive products," says Bleczinski. "Traditionally, women's products were mixed with men's. We thought it would better serve female fans to showcase products the way women want to see them."
Beyond draining our bank accounts with offers of fabulous merchandise, the league's outreach to female fans has extended to offseason activities, like the NFL 101 Workshops for Women. These workshops, which are hosted by individual teams, cover life in the NFL, the history of football, strategy, equipment and officiating. (Don't forget ladies, you can always brush up on your NFL knowledge by checking out our Football Chicktionary.) Additionally, more than 1 million girls annually participate in NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick. The NFL's Girls Flag Football Program is now in 12 states at the high school level and below. While these programs primarily target kids, Bleczinski says they still go a long way in terms of bringing more women fans into the fold.
The NFL has long had a robust female fan base. We're always looking to engage and reach out to all of our fans. The "Play 60" initiative is focused on helping kids but at the same time, it's reaching out to women because moms are the gatekeepers of the house and make the decisions about what kids do.
Female fans are not only on the league's radar but influencing major marketing decisions. But it's also important to note that while women have used their purchasing power to get a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t, female fans are emerging as more than just walking-talking dollar signs in the eyes of the NFL and to a lesser extent, the media. We ladies are slowly being regarded as passionate, informed fans of a sport that was once synonymous with all things machismo.
We've come a long way baby.
Follow Shaneika Dabney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chicksndahuddle