Most people don’t associate the macho image of the National Football League with lingerie, pink gloves and jewelry. But football’s female fan base is growing and many teams, including the Chicago Bears, are tailoring their marketing to women.
“What started as, ‘Why is everyone wearing pink?’ has now become ‘Every player is wearing pink because it’s breast cancer month,’” says John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. “I think it is a great credit to the efforts of the NFL in raising awareness and using their popularity for a good cause.”
“Real Bears Fans Wear Pink,” the Chicago Bears breast cancer awareness month campaign, encourages fans to buy $25 T-shirts and wear them to specific games so the entire stadium goes pink. This year’s game will be against the Detroit Lions and will be televised nationally Monday, Oct. 22. “Very few people haven’t been touched by breast cancer and survivors are very passionate about the disease,” said Marge Hamm, director of Bears Care, the team’s nonprofit arm.
Last year, Bears Care distributed $100,000 to charities that provide mammograms, care, assistance and support to breast cancer survivors. Since the program’s inception four years ago, Bears Care has donated $400,000 to local organizations.
Hamm says the breast cancer promotion is targeted to women fans but also resonates with men who have women in their lives who have dealt with the disease. “The players wear pink apparel and we also see players who buy several of our shirts for their family members to wear to games,” she said.
Turn on any football game, and you will see the typical beer and car commercials targeting male fans. But last season, the NFL began advertising team-branded jerseys tailored for the female frame. The series of spot shows a variety of women tossing aside their boyfriends’ jerseys for their own. But some marketing experts are wondering whether women are really being engaged by the league’s new efforts, or are they just for show?
Nicky Schmidt, graduate student at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, is one of the skeptics. “In my conversations with female fans, I would be surprised if [breast cancer awareness campaigns] moved the needle in terms of fan loyalty or lifelong engagement,” she says.
Schmidt recently led a group of graduate students who studied the effectiveness of NFL teams’ marketing to women. Her team reported to the Bears on a weekly basis and made a final presentation of the team’s front-office staff.
Schmidt says that women fans come in threes. Some are just as die hard as men; some see football games as a way to have family time; others don’t care about the players or the scores, they just like to socialize.
Nearly half of NFL fans are women, according to She-conomy, a marketing agency that creates campaigns directed to women. Many teams offer women-only fan experiences called “Football 101,” where women meet team members, indulge in shopping and happy hour specials and take home “swag bags.” Earlier this month, a Victoria’s Secret store opened inside the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium featuring Cowboy’s Pink-branded items along with bras and other lingerie.
“Over the last two years, the league has made a serious effort to gain the attention of the female fan,” says Rowady, whose clients include EA Sports, ESPN and Red Bull.
For example, last year the league announced plans to launch a website for women that includes apparel and advice on how to “homegate” with NFL-branded sandwich presses and wine glasses.
Rowady says the efforts are working and he points to an ESPNW.com report showing women’s NFL apparel sales have more than doubled in the past year. “There is certainly a buzz around the NFL female fan from marketers’ and brands’ perspective. The league is just scratching the surface with this demographic.”
Schmidt says the NFL still has a lot to learn about the female fan. “It’s great to have pink cleats, pink towels and pink gloves, but until an individual feels they are a part of something, they won’t feel a more personal connection to the league or the sport. I think it’s an important starting point for the league but not a significant look at female fan engagement.”