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NFL Draft

Through Courses and Cookbooks, League Recruits Female Fans

January 22, 1998|DIANE SEO | Diane Seo is a frequent contributor to The Times

Imagine millions of women, suited up in their favorite team jerseys, religiously tuning in to watch the game that already draws lots of men to the edges of their recliners.

That's the dream envisioned by the National Football League, which in the last season beefed up efforts to attract more female fans.

By offering more Football 101 classes, an extensive line of women's NFL clothing, flag-football leagues for both sexes and even a cookbook, the NFL's so-called Women's Initiative is underway with positive early results.

"The reaction exceeded our expectations," said Sara Levinson, president of NFL Properties. "We knew we had a huge fan base of women out there. The key was to tailor programs to get them even more involved."

Professional football is still the most-watched sport on television, and the NFL scored big last week with its $17.6-billion network deal. But despite high hopes for this weekend's Super Bowl, football's television ratings have slipped in recent years, with average Nielsen ratings at Fox, NBC and ABC all dropping in the 1997 season.

That's why the NFL has zeroed in on women. By generating a stronger base of female followers, the league hopes to secure football's future as America's most beloved sport.

"The NFL is being proactive here," said William F. Gloede, editor of Mediaweek, an industry trade publication. "Unlike major league baseball, which hasn't done much to generate new fans even though its popularity has been going down, the NFL is doing something about its declining viewership."

The NFL, however, likes to put a different spin on its marketing push, saying it simply has a duty to nurture its huge number of female fans. It cites polls reporting that 40% of those attending games are women and 43% of football fans are female.

But advertisers aren't buying the numbers. To them, football is still a way to reach men who savor the rough-and-tumble competition on Sunday's and Monday nights.

"The perception is that women are in the room and part of the party going on, but advertisers don't believe women are passionately embracing football," Gloede said. "Personally, I think if advertisers are buying NFL time to reach women, they probably should have their heads checked."

In time, the NFL hopes to change that perception. And so far, folks at the league are encouraged by the response to their marketing efforts.

About 15,000 women attended last year's Football 101 sessions, an NFL-sponsored event that teaches women basics about the game. Twenty-three of the NFL's 30 teams organized classes, which drew an average of 600 participants per session. None was held in Los Angeles.

"When we scheduled a class during the first year, 800 people signed up in three days," said Robyn Walters, a representative of the San Diego Chargers, which has sponsored Football 101 for the last two seasons. "We had to put 1,000 people on a waiting list.

"It's like a game. We had women screaming, clapping and cheering. It's really a great way to bring more women into the loop."

Football 101 will continue this year, with some clubs even planning to offer a more advanced course, Football 201.

"The joke is that because women know so much, we now need advanced-placement classes," NFL Properties' Levinson said.

Last summer, Arlana Kerigan of San Diego paid $30 to attend a three-hour Football 101 class with a friend from work.

"We had a really nice catered dinner beforehand, and it was a high-energy, fun atmosphere," the 38-year-old said. "I already knew a little bit about football, more than the average woman, but I still learned some new things."

For the most part, the women's NFL clothing lines also fared well in the 1997 season, with 10 licensees producing everything from NFL nightgowns to polo shirts to leather jackets. Most of the licensees plan to expand their lines this year, and some retailers have increased their orders.

J.C. Penney Co., which carried the women's clothes in 10 football markets, sold out of its merchandise well before the season ended. (Stores in the Los Angeles area did not carry the women's lines because there is no local professional football team.)

"The merchandise got [to the company] a little late, but what we got, we sold," said Duncan Muir, a Penney spokesman. This year, J.C. Penney plans to sell the clothes in 30 football markets.

Manufacturers have also learned that, unlike men, women don't want team logos emblazoned all over their clothes.

"The designs have to be more subtle than in the men's business," said John Moretz, president of Moretz Mills in North Carolina, which produces NFL turtlenecks, denim pieces, leggings and sweaters. "Women want women's clothes, not downsized menswear."

Along with J.C. Penney, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sports Authority and specialty stores carried the women's lines, mostly in areas with strong support for professional football.

"At first, the retailers were very cautious," Moretz said. "But they were blown away by the 'sell-throughs.' "

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