Granted, some of those 93 million gals may have been watching not so much by choice as by proximity—sharing the couch with football-crazy husbands and sons. (And to be fair, sometimes it’s guys who are dragged along by NFL-obsessive women.) But it's useful for the NFL to court even casual female viewers. Why?
1) They still buy gear. "Casual female fans might view the game more as an excuse to be together with their families," says Bleczinski, "tailgating, or watching together in the living room with snacks and friends. But they still enjoy showing team loyalty just like the guys do."
2) According to Bleczinski, women are the "CFOs of households," controlling 80 percent of spending decisions. If NFL stores and web sites become shopping destinations women, a mom might search for that cool Cowboys top she saw on a friend—and, while she’s at it, throw in a couple of Tim Tebow jerseys for her kids. (Tebow gear was a massive hit with kid NFL fans last year. "Tebow has that superhero thing," explains Bleczinski.)
3) Most important, in my view: Football is nearing a dangerous crossroads, and its survival may well depend on keeping women on its side.
News headlines about the NFL have lately tended to highlight the violence of the game. There's been ongoing debate over the long-term health impact of sustaining repeated concussions. Recently, New Orleans Saints coaches were punished by the league for encouraging their players to injure opponents—even establishing bounties for monster hits that sent players to the trainer's room.
This is perhaps not the sort of thing a mother wants to hear about a sport her young son or daughter is clamoring to play. (To be sure, dads are also attuned to their children's well-being, and many are troubled by what’s going on in the NFL. But when it comes time to decide if Junior gets to play football, I feel like the buck might stop on mom's desk.) If news reports like these continue to shape perceptions of the game, no doubt over time many women will be driven away in disgust. That might translate into a less encouraging living room atmosphere when Bobby wants to watch the Packers. It also might mean that Bobby is forbidden from joining Pop Warner next fall. Consider: How many female boxing fans are around these days? How many modern moms would allow their kids to take up the sweet science?
NFL marketing vice president Peter O’Reilly says that both male and female fans have appreciated commissioner Roger Goodell's "swift, clear action" with regard to the Saints' bounties. But fines and suspensions don't alter the fundamentally brutal nature of the sport. If parents turn on the NFL, stop watching games, and discourage their sons from entering the talent pipeline, football will eventually lose its dominance over the American sporting scene. And plenty of those parents are women.
Pundits like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have theorized that football will disappear, or undergo radical rule changes, within a couple of decades. As the battle for the sport's existence heats up, yoga pants and leather handbags might be useful weapons in the war to stay within women's good graces.
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