Readers of Marie Claire found an extra 16 pages in their September issue this year courtesy of the NFL. The insert, titled “The Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football,” came sandwiched between a Q&A with pop singer Natalia Kills and an ode to the leopard print. Along with five full-page ads for apparel from the NFL’s women’s collection, it included party hosting advice (oven-roasted kale as a chili topping), $685 high-tops to pair with a Tom Brady jersey, and a primer on football terminology (“Wide receiver: Catches the ball thrown by the quarterback”).
The insert, produced by Marie Claire’s editorial staff, is part of the NFL’s ongoing effort to expand its marketing to female fans. “About four years ago, there was a push, recognizing how many women fans we have, that we need to speak to them,” says Jaime Weston, the league’s vice president for brand and creative. “And while they follow the game like every other fan, like our male fans, they do want to be spoken to in a little bit different way.”
The push for female fans includes print advertising buys, a new series of TV spots that will run during games starting this week, expanded merchandise offerings, and pop-up clothing boutiques at stadiums. With every campaign and product, the league seeks to target women without condescending to them. “That’s something that we really, really try never to do, never to patronize,” says Rhiannon Madden, the NFL’s director of consumer products. (She’s not related to the coach-turned-commentator, although she says she’s been asked that “at least once a day for the past 11 years.”) “The Marie Claire article wasn’t at all condescending. It was, ‘You know the X’s and O’s. Football is coming up. Let’s get excited.’”
The tagline for both the print and TV ads is “Together We Make Football.” The first TV spot shows a series of women in NFL jerseys out there grabbing life by the horns—skateboarding, dancing, carrying briefcases and babies, riding bikes through New York City, fire eating, and flexing—all set to a coach’s pep talk. The glamorous yet tough imagery is part of deliberate move away from the traditional “pink it and shrink it” approach to women’s apparel.
The emphasis now is on replica jerseys identical to the men’s, except for the cut, and NFL-branded clothes for settings other than a sports bar, plus accessories such as “fanicure” nail polish sets. “It’s definitely not a lady’s version of the men’s product,” says Madden, “It’s made for women, to fit women, for women to feel good in.” For the second year, the league is showcasing its women’s gear at pop-up shops, or “style lounges,” at select stadiums on game days. “Essentially we take their product and we build out a boutique,” says Madden. “There are fitting rooms. We do manicures. There is a DJ.”
In addition to clothing, the league offers a fast-proliferating menu of branded merchandise that includes toasters, wine bottle holders, salt-and-pepper shakers, cheese boards, and other paraphernalia for what it calls “homegating.” The idea is to reach fans who come to the NFL indirectly through the gatherings that Sunday games inspire, a group that skews female.
The league counts 185 million Americans as fans, based on ESPN polls of those who self-identify as interested in the sport. (That’s nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population.) Of those, says Peter O’Reilly, the league’s vice president for fan strategy and marketing, about 45 percent are women. The more important distinction for the league, however, is between avid and casual. The divide, says O’Reilly, is roughly down the middle. Among the avid half, a third are women. And a slight majority of the casual fans are women.
Reaching these casual, mostly female fans is part of the league’s strategy to broaden an already massive base. They are on the NFL’s target list, says O’Reilly, along with youth and Hispanics. These demographics offer room for growth as the league approaches saturation among its base. While its 90-plus million avid fans are probably near their limits in time and money spent, sales of women’s apparel, the NFL reports, have tripled in the past four years.