Women and the NFL

Samantha Martinelli watches football regularly. She competes in a “pick ‘em” knockout contest for each week of the NFL’s regular season.

And when the New England Patriots and New York Giants take the field Sunday evening, Martinelli will be tuned in.

Martinelli, a sophomore at Youngstown State University, is one of 6,002 women who have slowly made their mark on the NFL. According to the Nielsen Company, females accounted for 33.6 percent of the NFL audience in the 2010 season.

“I enjoy the entertainment of an NFL game,” Martinelli said. “I think football has really grown on me. Now I can watch even when my favorite team [the Steelers] isn’t playing.”

Thomas Oates, an assistant professor of communication at Northern Illinois University, said he believes fandom is increasing in the NFL and that women play a role. 

“The NFL is growing in popularity in general, but the number of women following the league is reported at much larger numbers than in the past,” he said. “By some estimates, women make up nearly half of the league’s fans.”

The Nielsen Company reported a total NFL audience of 14,430 for the 2006 season, with 4,697 being women. Compare those numbers to a 2010 NFL audience of 17,867 — with women accounting for 6,002 — and NFL popularity is on the rise.

Oates specializes in the study of sports culture and media. Acknowledging the recent spike in female fandom, Oates said he does not think increased interest is sudden.

“It’s hard to know if this change is as impulsive and dramatic as is reported, because most of the available numbers come from parties with an interest in reporting growth in the women’s market,” he said. “The league and its commercial partners have only recently begun paying close attention to women as possible consumers, so while many women may have been interested for a long time, the marketers are only just discovering it.” 

One way the NFL is making up for past ignorance is by offering merchandise in a women’s clothing line. Tracey Bleczinski, the NFL’s vice president of consumer products, said women’s NFL apparel sales have doubled since 2004.

“The variety of NFL clothing available to women has increased,” Oates said. “It’s not too surprising that the numbers of women buying NFL merchandise has grown.”

Andrew Billings, professor of telecommunication and film at the University of Alabama, said that women — like men — have come to view football as more than just a sport to follow. The level of sport has moved to the level of a cultural phenomenon.

“Must-see TV is largely gone in the age of media fragmentation, leaving the NFL as one of the few events that people discuss the next day,” said Billings, an expert in sports media, identity studies and entertainment studies. “Women wish to be part of these larger conversations and are finding that they enjoy the NFL product.”

Through the media, the NFL product provides tremendous access to their games and teams, which is also beneficial in garnering women’s interest, he said.

“A plethora of ancillary NFL media options allow women to learn more ‘behind-the-scenes’ backstories that Olympic research already tells us women crave more than men,” Billings said.

Come Super Bowl Sunday, expect the popularity statistics to continue their rise. 

Billings said last year’s Super Bowl became the most viewed U.S. telecast of all time, even when featuring two teams (Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers) that do not represent top-20 U.S. media markets. 

“I’m anticipating that this year’s Super Bowl will garner the highest rating yet, given the overall interest in these teams,” he said.

And expect women to be watching.

“Women will, in turn, likely be viewing at unprecedented levels,” Billings said.