For the month of April, the National Football League has established a temporary, pop-up shop in Times Square—coinciding with the NFL draft, which will be held in New York starting April 26. Inside the shop you'll find familiar items: authentic team jerseys, baseball caps with team logos, and posters of NFL stars in action. You'll also see some slightly odder licensing partnerships: Tervis tumblers and kukui nut necklaces with NFL branding. And you'll see a few products that may seem downright out of place in an NFL shop: yoga pants, and bejeweled and embossed leather handbags.
Since 2010, the NFL has been ramping up its efforts to market to women. Female-targeted NFL merchandise had previously been an afterthought—an offshoot of extant dude gear. " ‘Shrink it and pink it’ was our old strategy," says Tracey Bleczinski, vice president of NFL consumer products. This approach was reasonably successful, and showed that women wanted NFL merch. “But we saw an empty space in the marketplace that we could fill with much more sophisticated products."
These days, the NFL is wooing female shoppers with a clothing line from actress (and sports fan) Alyssa Milano, featuring tees in flattering cuts and fabrics. (Milano has a bit of a cottage industry going on, having previously lent her expertise to a line for Major League Baseball.) There are nail polish sets in primary and secondary team colors, so you can create your own NFL nail art. Last year, women's winter boots were a big hit.
And then there are the aforementioned handbags, from luxury brand Anastasio Moda. Though the most expensive bag at the pop-up shop costs $595, online you can buy a jeweled New York Giants clutch—featuring Italian silk and sheepskin leather—for $3,495. Those with more utilitarian tastes can opt for the Italian suede tote bag—elegantly embossed with your team’s logo—at $695. "We see these bags as something a woman can bring to the luxury box of the stadium," says designer Angelo Anastasio. "Or to look stylish at the tailgate party." The NFL won’t release sales figures, but a spokeswoman claims the high-end bags were a big hit with shoppers at the ladies’ night event the pop-up shop held earlier this month.
The biggest surprise isn’t that this stuff sells. It’s that the NFL didn't move more swiftly to create woman-friendly merch. The number of female football fans is shockingly huge. According to an NFL spokeswoman, there were more women watching the Super Bowl this year (43.3 million women 18 and older) than there were total viewers for the Academy Awards (39.3 million). "Some people say the Oscars are the Super Bowl for women," says Bleczinski, "but in fact the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl for women."
The NFL says that 44 percent of its fans are women and that women make up one-third of what it terms "avid" fans (those who identify themselves as "very interested" in pro football). The NFL is easily the favorite sports league of women 12 and over, with Major League Baseball a distant second. In 2010, 93 million women (almost four out of five) watched some part of the NFL season.
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.