Football and the Female Audience

For years the NFL has been the biggest professional sport in America and a rating powerhouse. If you look on the surface, business appears to be good­—of the 50 most-watched sporting events in 2017, all of the top 10 were NFL games. But a closer look reveals that all is not well for the NFL. Ratings were down 9% in 2017 … and that’s after being down 8% in 2016 from the previous season. As the NFL searches for answers, they know they have to appeal to multiple demographics and most importantly, gender. Female engagement is vital for the health and growth of the league. How has the NFL done engaging female fans so far? It’s worth taking a closer look.

Addressing a violent league…off the field

As violent as NFL in-game action is, the league has also struggled with handling off the field incidences. What is most concerning for a league trying to grow female viewership is how it has handled domestic violence. In its’ highest-profile case, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was initially given a two-game suspension for a domestic abuse incident involving his fiancé in 2014. As mild as the punishment felt to the public at the time, when footage of the incident was released there was a major outcry for how the NFL handled the situation. Although Ray Rice was eventually cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL, the public damage was done. Other high profile cases over the years with current players, as well as NFL teams drafting college players with prior violent incidences, has led fans to question how concerned the league truly is with domestic violence. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has since promoted setting a high standard for player and employee discipline, with a punishment of six games for a first policy violation and a lifetime ban for the second. For a league looking to appeal to female fans, the NFL has been questionable at best in handling violence towards women.

NO MORE – a response to domestic violence

In response to growing concerns about the NFL and domestic violence, the league partnered with the NO MORE campaign, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of domestic abuse. During the 2015 and 2016 Superbowls, the NFL funded commercial spots for NO MORE to promote the intolerance of domestic violence. Players took part in the movement by appearing in PSAs asking the public join them in raising awareness and combatting the issue. Commissioner Roger Goodell appointed Jane Randel, co-founder of the organization, as a senior advisor on the NFL social responsibility team. Her position on the committee is to address issues of social injustice.

Breast Cancer Awareness

In the past, the NFL tried to raise awareness by having breast cancer themed games, where teams would wear pink uniforms calling attention to the cause. This temporarily boosted the face of the NFL but struggled to make a strong difference. More recently, the Crucial Catch Campaign was designed by the NFL in partnership with the American Cancer Society. Crucial Catch broadens the efforts of the NFL against breast cancer to raise funds and awareness for other forms of the disease. The public can get involved by registering family and friends to help fundraise, bidding for authentic memorabilia on the NFL auction site, and by sharing the Defender App. The Defender application is a tool to help educate users on the risks they may face daily, by evaluating health and lifestyle choices. The discussion of cancer awareness is continued on social media through the hashtag #CrucialCatch.

The NFL Women’s Summit

The NFL’s Women’s Summit was created and organized as an interactive experience for young women to discuss how to achieve goals, prepare for challenges, and utilize tools critical for personal and professional development. The 2017 Women’s Summit was held in Texas in the days leading up to the Superbowl. About 250 Houston adolescent girls were in attendance. Female role models including Olympic Gold Medalist, Gabby Douglas, spoke at the summit, inspiring the audience. Other speakers were leaders in the NFL, players and Commissioner Roger Goodell. The event was streamed live, allowing people to view, but also join the discussion on social media with the hashtag #NFLWomensSummit.

Women working in the NFL

Having an increased number of women working in the NFL is one way to make a stronger connection with potential fans. Within the league, female involvement may seem low but is the highest in NFL history, including the first female coaches. Kathryn Smith, formerly with the Buffalo Bills, became the first ever full-time coach in 2016. Others have included Jen Welter, the first positional coach in the league, and Katie Sowers, former offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49s. Cathy Lanier, former Washington Police Chief, also holds a notable position in the NFL as the Chief Security Officer. According to Reuters, an Experienceship program will be launched by the league, giving the opportunity for young boys and girls to view the workplace. This allows children to see if they could picture themselves working within the NFL offices one day.

Showing a genuine commitment to domestic violence intolerance, community outreach, and professional development for women in the league are all important steps the NFL has taken towards appealing to the female viewer. However, the league cannot rest on these actions alone and must continue to be inclusive. It will be worth following the NFL’s continued efforts to mend and secure relations with the female fan base.


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