Pittsburgh native Julia Garrity, 28, has long been a diehard Steelers fan. Even after moving to Washington, she attends five home games a year and has accumulated hundreds of dollars worth of Steelers jerseys, bottle openers and flip-flops.
But tension is developing with a fellow fan: her mother, who is troubled by the NFL’s handling of the domestic assault case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
“I couldn’t imagine not watching it on Sundays,” Garrity said. “But my mom’s very turned off. She said, ‘The NFL makes me not want to watch the sport.’ ”
Women make up an estimated 45 percent of the NFL’s more than 150 million American fans and have become perhaps pro football’s most valuable players. Female fans, a group beloved by advertisers, represent the league’s biggest opportunity for growth. Keeping these women spending has become a chief goal of the NFL, which has funded research, expanded merchandising and sponsored spreads in women’s magazines.
But crisis after crisis, from a string of lawsuits accusing some NFL teams of underpaying cheerleaders to the Ray Rice scandal, threaten to undermine the league’s efforts to expand beyond its saturated boys’ club and attract new female fans. League watchers are beginning to wonder: Will women forgive the NFL?
“The value of women in professional sports as fans matters more than ever before. The real question is: Will that group of women put two and two together?” said Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor and New England Patriots cheerleader who runs the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project in Boston.
“I hope and expect that women as consumers of sports . . . feel empowered enough not only to say this is unacceptable but to do something about it. . . . But it’s so easy to default to the gentle version of the narrative. We don’t want to believe our heroes can be so brutal.”
Women, and the companies who depend on them, helped NFL revenue top a record $9.5 billion last year, and Nielsen data shows women have grown to represent more than a third of the league’s average viewership. “Sunday Night Football” ranked first among women ages 18 to 49 for the first time last season, and Fox said its female football viewing audience had hit a record high.
Super Bowl XLVIII, during which advertisers paid $4 million for 30 seconds of air time, was the most-watched TV program for women this year, with 45 million female viewers. According to Nielsen, recent Super Bowls have logged higher female viewership than the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined.
Yet just after this season’s ticketholders entered stadiums, their eyes turned to a casino elevator in Atlantic City. A video posted Monday by TMZ showed Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer. Rice was dismissed by the team and indefinitely suspended by the league, but former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III has been hired to investigate, after an Associated Press report contradicted the league’s insistence that no one at NFL headquarters had seen video of the attack.
On Wednesday, the National Organization for Women called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation, saying the league “has a violence against women problem.” Women who had been abused shared stories on Twitter, via hashtags such as #whyistayed, that sparked a national debate on the everyday tragedies of domestic abuse. ESPN’s Keith Olbermann said the images of Rice’s assault were “symbolically knocking out every woman football fan in this country.”
Though no sponsor has cut ties with the NFL, corporate partners of the league, a marketing juggernaut, have found themselves suddenly on the defensive. Facing criticism on social media about their relationship with the NFL, Marriott Hotels and FedEx said on Twitter that they were “closely” watching for new developments. PepsiCo, a key sponsor, said in a statement, “Domestic violence is completely unacceptable. We are encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves.”
After a rash of NFL controversies — most notably, the 2001 conviction of the Carolina Panthers’ Rae Carruth for conspiring to kill his then-pregnant girlfriend in 1999 — the league sought to reinvent itself in the eyes of women. It invested in marketing campaigns aimed at women and sponsored studies on how to become more welcoming to female spectators. Its most visible effort begins in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when players wear pink and the league devotes a small percentage of merchandise sales to cancer research.
The NFL strategy is not all about damage control. Women tend to more skeptical about some aspects of the game. In a 2012 Washington Post poll, women were much more likely than men — 61 percent to 47 percent — to say “something needs to be done” about the NFL’s worrying pattern of concussions, for example. Commissioner Goodell has made appearances at league-sponsored safety clinics for the mothers of youth football players.
Women make or influence 85 percent of disposable-income purchasing decisions, said C. Keith Harrison, a University of Central Florida associate professor who conducted a study on women for the NFL. The league saw them as crucial to multiplying its hyper-profitable lines of licensed merchandise, he said.
The NFL has pushed to stock more options for women’s team apparel, shifting away from simply resizing men’s clothing, what league executives called the “shrink it and pink it” approach. The NFL’s online women’s-centered “style lounge” now sells not just women’s jersey sizes, but also charm bracelets, vintage tees, leggings, necklaces and skinny jeans. As the NFL’s director of apparel Rhiannon Madden told Adweek, “We weren’t giving them the best outlet to express their fandom.” NFL spokesmen did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
It was a business move dressed up as a crusade for equality, and it worked for the league beautifully, industry watchers say. Women’s clothing is now the league’s fastest-growing segment of sales, having tripled in the past four years, NFL executives have said.
The league sponsored glossy features in magazines such as Marie Claire, which has run a “Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football,” and it forged partnerships with brands such as CoverGirl, now the “official beauty sponsor of the NFL.” The makeup giant has enlisted sportscaster Erin Andrews as a brand ambassador and, in its 2014 campaign, encourages female fans to glamourize their gameday spirit with team-themed “fanicures.”
But the league’s effort has often clashed with the scandals surrounding its most famous faces. Seventy-seven players across 27 of the league’s 32 teams have been arrested since 2000 on charges of domestic violence, according to a USA Today NFL arrests database. And earlier this year, cheerleaders from nearly a half-dozen NFL teams filed lawsuits alleging that they were paid dismal wages, harshly examined through physical “jiggle tests” and demeaned in public appearances in which they would be expected to sit on strangers’ laps.
Yet some league experts expect fans’ response to the Rice episode will play out much as it has in the way of past controversies: a brief outrage that dissipates in the hype and spotlights of a Sunday kickoff.
“Sports fans have an incredible ability to disconnect their love of their favorite teams and their athletes from these kinds of issues,” said Jim Andrews, a senior vice president at sponsorship consulting firm IEG.
The NFL “can’t afford to lose their female fan base, and there are a lot of fans out there who will be up in arms about the way the league has handled this,” he said. “But, worst-case scenario, fans will put all of the blame on the league office or the commissioner. . . . Then they can separate it from: It’s Sunday afternoon, my team’s playing, I’m going to turn on the TV and watch my game.”
Sarah Halzack contributed to this report.