From nail polish to spa products to pregnancy wear, the U.S. National Football League has got women covered this Super Bowl weekend. At least that's the goal of a colossal marketing effort aimed squarely at female football devotees, who make up a surprising 44 per cent of the league's fan base.
According to the NFL, league-sanctioned women's-clothing sales have doubled since 2004 and increased twelvefold since 2001. As part of its Fit For You collection, the league released hundreds of new products targeting 29-to-40-year-old women last fall. The aggressive campaign involved a website (www.women.nfl.com) as well as TV spots featuring women flinging their husbands' well-worn old jerseys at their spouses - before modeling form-fitting numbers embossed with his (and her) favourite teams in their place.
While the NFL has sold women's apparel since 2000, the fall expansion was a prominent and significant one, including partners as diverse as Reebok, Victoria's Secret, nostalgia brands Mitchell & Ness and Junk Food Clothing and even Motherhood Maternity.
"We have expanded our product offering to include more styles and silhouettes such as maternity, tweens [and]plus sizes," Tracey Bleczinski¸ NFL vice-president of apparel, wrote via e-mail. For expectant moms, there are maternity T-shirts that read "We are fans" (that's mom and unborn child), stretchy fleece pants and bib and onesie sets for the tiny, squirming Bills fan. Who's buying? Mostly women heading to showers, says Laurie Wirgler, vice-president of Philadelphia-based Motherhood Maternity.
Wigler describes a recent NFL commercial that featured her company's Seattle Seahawks maternity tee: "You can see the mom standing behind her husband rubbing her tummy. It's great to see that the NFL is thinking about us, thinking about women and certainly moms and getting the whole family involved."
Although the NFL has attempted to go beyond the "shrink it and pink it" philosophy behind most women's sport apparel, much of the line is, well, cringe-worthy. Think helmet pendants, purses crafted out of hoodies and jeans with team logos stitched onto the rear end. The hospital scrubs work in a functional kind of way: Root for your favourite team while performing open heart surgery? Maybe the spa set might be more her speed: sea salts, a brown-sugar scrub and goat's milk lotion, all packaged up curiously behind a Steelers logo.
The campaign is directed at all-American, girl-next-door types. The star attraction is mega-Giants fan actress Alyssa Milano, who models a slit-sleeved top she designed in an online look book alongside other wholesome brunettes (actually season's ticket holders) and a gaggle of NFL wives. Among them are Christy Cooley, ex-cheerleader-turned wife of Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley; she sports a jersey under a leather vest and studded wristband. Less successful is Tanya Snyder: The wife of Redskins owner Dan Snyder models a logo-covered tee peeking out from beneath a pinstripe suit.
Inexplicably, the look book features the models sharing workout and dieting tips. The fitness regimen of October Gonzalez (wife of Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez) includes "Pilates and keeping up with her three kids." Super fan Maria Munro "loves stadium food, but stays healthy by bringing healthy snacks of her own." Milano's lithe body can be attributed to "caring for five dogs and 10 horses."
The lifestyle info is a 180 from the belly-busting wings and brewskies gleefully foisted on men at this time of year. That and the ditzy taglines ("Who says football isn't pretty?") has left some wondering if the products aren't a touch insulting to diehard female fans. Never mind that many of the items have little connection to the actual sport: Nail polish, panties and pendants are a far cry from the footballs, helmets and commemorative plaques peddled to male fans.
"Because we have such a vast and robust female fan base and we don't expect all of our fans to celebrate their team in the same fashion, we have created a broad assortment of products that speaks to all of our female fans," Bleczinski explains. "We have products for our most avid female fans as well casual and emerging fans."
Helen Lenskyj, a retired University of Toronto sociology professor who has written about gender and sport, isn't moved by the inclusive line. "I have a book in my collection, published in 1970, called A Wife's Guide to Pro Basketball and it devotes an entire chapter to fashion," Lenskyj says. "It's as though we went back 40 years. The role of the woman is to be a fan and to be a well-dressed fan, to be thin, heterosexually attractive and understand the game a bit, but mostly to be there as a kind of trophy."
Regressive or not, "it's very smart merchandising," counters Richard Powers, a professor at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management who specializes in sports marketing. Powers offers a hypothetical scene between spouses: " 'I'm going to watch the game on Sunday, honey, and here's a sweater for you, too.' It's kind of fun."
So how much of the marketing appeal reflects real female fandom and how much is part of the elaborate, age-old game of trying to steal hubby's attention as he melts away into his game?
"I would say it's 50/50," Powers says. "A great number of women really like the sport. And it's one of the top-viewed sports by men. Some women want to spend time with their partners. And - let's face it - guys and football, single women, there's a target market."
Before it was hawking itsy-bitsy boy shorts for the NFL, Victoria's Secret was actually celebrating the inevitable end of the Super Bowl. A 2008 Valentine's Day ad featured manslayer Adriana Lima dressed in black lingerie, twirling a football. "Victoria's Secret would like to remind you this game will soon be over. Let the real games begin," the ad read.
"What are guys going to notice?" Powers says, referring to the new NFL collection. "The older shirts were just not flattering at all. They never fit properly and now women have an opportunity to be part of the team in their own style."
"I think the Canadian Football League could learn something," he adds.