Women fans score big business for pro sports
By CONNIE MABIN
By CONNIE MABIN
BEREA, Ohio — They sat front and center on aluminum bleachers in the middle of August, wiping away sweat and battling humidity as they leaned forward to get a closer look at the bulging muscles of football players they drove nearly two hours to see.
The sound of shoulder pads bouncing off each other just inches from where Leslie Mulligan, 47, and her 85-year-old mother sat didn't deter the Hermitage, Pa., women. They peeked over sunglasses and leaned closer to the field to study the plays develop, clutching freshly printed team rosters and taking notes.
No. 92, the 6-foot-5, 365-pound Cleveland Browns nose tackle, Ted Washington, caught Mulligan's eye during the training camp practice. "He's so big but he can really move around," she said.
Forget the tight-end jokes. These women are serious sports fans, and there are millions of them nationwide with money to spend and devotion to give to franchises that are no longer ignoring them.
Well, don't entirely dismiss the tight ends. Many female fans admittedly are interested in more than the on-field play. And sports teams, advertisers and others are finding that the softer side of athletes — and the women who love them — are big business.
"Women buy 80 percent of just about everything in the consumer economy," said Marti Barletta, president of the Chicago-based consulting firm TrendSight Group, which specializes in marketing to women.
More women mean an opportunity for teams to make money from more sponsors, Barletta said. And the franchises are finding an added bonus: Women tend to be fiercely loyal customers.
"Most guys will turn off a game if their team isn't going to win," she said. "Women will hang in there. They sort of have a bond with the players."
That emotional tie to sports is a big part of Ivette Ricco's femmefan.com, an ESPN-meetsPeople Magazine style Web site that has grown from 10,000 visitors a month in 2004 to more than 2 million monthly.
"I strongly believe that the female fans have a different perspective of sports than men, sports what I call beyond the score. I don't think women are so involved in the numbers in the game. They enjoy more of the human aspect," she said.
Besides news stories, the site designed for women offers blogs, lifestyle features on players, a clock counting down the seconds to the start of the NFL season, downloads of songs like "If Chicks Ran the NFL," and a self-explanatory, photo feature called "Locker Room Lookers."
"I don't make any apologies for that," said Ricco of San Francisco. "Because men have no problem mixing sex with their sports."
In Pittsburgh, a newspaper's "Vote for the Hottest Steeler" contest was massive. (Long-locked, soft-spoken defensive back Troy Polamalu won.)
Last year, NASCAR signed a licensing deal with Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., the world's top publisher of romance and other fiction targeted to women, to produce NASCAR-themed books.
The Cleveland Indians have capitalized on the popularity of heartthrob center fielder Grady Sizemore with pink "Mrs. Sizemore" T-shirts that sold out in one day and a television ad in which the smiling superstar invites fans to the ballpark, calling baseball "a game for the ladies."
Tiffany Pearson, 23, a project manager in Palm Harbor, Fla., helps run the "Grady's Ladies" fan club. The Ohio native said most members are lifelong fans devoted to sport first, sex appeal second.
"Grady's Ladies exists because Grady Sizemore is an amazing player. The added bonus is that he is handsome and has the cutest dimples we've ever seen," she said.
The NBA estimates that 46 percent of its fans are women, a popularity it said is partly due to its drama-filled games; its sister league, WNBA; and the "likeability" of players some of its high-profile players.
"There are female fans out there of all ages," said Linda Choong, vice president of the NBA's Global Merchandising Group, which racked up $100 million in sales to women last year. "They're very much top-of-the-mind for us."
During this year's playoffs, the NBA launched a marketing campaign specific to women that included ads in entertainment magazines, more articles about players off the court and an appeal to the emotions by highlighting the storylines on the court — Cleveland Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes returning to help the team advance in the postseason after the unexpected death of his younger brother, for example. The result: female viewership was up 33 percent on male-dominated ESPN, said Carol Albert, vice president of league advertising and marketing.
The basketball league with its NBA4Her clothing line was the first to do it in 2002, but now the NFL, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and NASCAR all offer fashion made just for women, from pink jerseys to ponytail holders and garter belts. There's even a Super Bowl champions Steelers swimsuit wrap.
NASCAR estimates 40 percent of its fan base, which spent $1 billion last year on official merchandise, is women. Its partnership with Harlequin is meant to market to that demographic and draw in new fans, said NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola.
"Products for women were very limited in the past and that was a missed opportunity," Giangola said. Besides the romance novels, the racing league is selling cook books, Tupperware and even a line of high-heeled shoes with its logo on it.
"In the Groove," by best-selling author Pamela Britton, was the first Harlequin title released just before the Daytona 500 in January. It's about a desperate, jobless kindergarten teacher who takes a job with Lance Cooper, a fictional racing champ she knows nothing about. The pair get acquainted on his tour bus, and let's just say engines get started.
Canada-based Harlequin spokeswoman Marleah Stout said sales of the books — 200,000 have been printed — are brisk. The partnership has been so successful that the company plans 21 NASCAR-themed books next year, printing over a million novels, she said.
Stout said the partnership was a natural because Harlequin knows women and "NASCAR wants to pay more attention to their female fan base because it is growing." She says the hookup is like fried ice cream: "Sounds ridiculous, but it's delicious."
At Browns camp, 20-year-old Liza Shamis of Avon Lake wore a slim-fitting brown-and-orange Browns jersey over a pair of denim shorts as she recalled learning about football and baseball from her father.
Daily, she reads newspaper and Internet articles about games and players, keeps up on statistics and follows the top stories on ESPN.
"I'm obsessed with Lee Suggs," she said, blushing as she spoke about the recently-cut running back.
But Shamis makes it clear it's about more than looks.
"It's so much more than that. I have to know more facts — how they play and things about their lives," she said. "When we're watching the games sometimes the guys will be like, 'Hey go make us some food.' And I say, 'Are you kidding me? The game is on; I'm not making anything.' "