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Volume 20 No. 41
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How branded merch, affinity clubs help teams court female fans

The female pro football fan is facing an all-out blitz as the NFL and its corporate partners look to develop a lasting, lucrative connection with this growing segment of their audience.

Women now account for 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base, according to league officials. In 2011, Nielsen’s NFL ratings climbed from 3.7 to 3.9 in the 18- to 34-year-old female demographic, and the number of women participating in fantasy football doubled. Consider further that shopper marketing data from the Boston Consulting Group points to 70 percent of household purchasing decisions being made by women, and the value of the female fan skyrockets.
So how do you get her attention?

The NFL first advertised licensed women’s apparel two years ago. Heading into the 2012-13 season the league rolled out the female-focused “It’s My Team” campaign, featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olympic women’s tennis champion Serena Williams, sportscaster Melissa Stark and other influential women sporting stylish NFL team apparel. Having brands like Nike, 5th and Ocean, Little Earth and Cuce Shoes on board helps send the message that NFL apparel for women is fashionable, hip and perfectly acceptable to wear any day of the week, not just Sunday. Even the fashion media has taken notice, with coverage of these initiatives appearing in Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times fashion blog.

The Chargers’ Lightning Ladies (right) and the 49ers’ Faithfulistas use branded merchandise to drive membership.
Photos by: BDA (2)
Eight cities are hosting NFL women’s apparel Fit For You style lounges this season, complete with stylists, manicures, deejays, photo booths and merchandise. In keeping with the latest trends, this new collection of apparel and accessories strikes a balance between couture and casual. It’s quite the improvement from women’s game-day options just a few seasons ago — which had women rummaging through their husbands’ closets for a three-sizes-too-big sweatshirt, or buying a home team jersey of their own, which came only in pink.

Using merchandise to cultivate this female fandom is a powerful marketing play for America’s most popular sport. From nail polish in team colors to jewelry to sunglasses, a tangible representation of your brand in the hands of your most avid supporters promotes positive brand exposure outside the stadium.

Just ask the handful of NFL teams that are in touch with their feminine side.

Women’s affinity clubs have started to spring up across the league as a way to engage the female fan. The Baltimore Ravens became the first NFL team to offer such a club when it launched Purple in 2007. Six other franchises followed suit: Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.


1990S: 1990s: Teams begin offering NFL 101 for women clinics

2000s: “Shrink it and Pink it” strategy

2007: First affinity group for women created

2010: Debut of Fit For You clothing line and

2011: “Homegating” initiative for game-day parties introduced

2012: It’s My Team campaign; eight cities host Fit For You style lounges

2013 and beyond?: More than half of NFL teams offer women’s affinity clubs; women will spend $1 billion annually on NFL merchandise

The Chargers partnered with new hospital sponsor UC San Diego to form the Lightning Ladies in 2011. At launch, 5 percent of the $50 membership fee proceeds went to the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign. All marketing efforts were financed by the sponsor, including focus groups with season-ticket holders, radio spots, in-stadium messaging, email blasts, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and PR outreach. The first 150 women who signed up were invited to a fashion show at Qualcomm Stadium featuring players’ wives.

The team is also using branded merchandise to drive membership. For the club’s inaugural season, my firm, BDA, worked with the Chargers to create a kit of Lightning Ladies products following a beach theme. Items included a bedazzled beach tote, hat and T-shirt, flip-flops, and a personalized membership card good for discounts at the team store. Among this season’s gifts are a military cap, distressed thermal and polished silver charm bracelet.

“Merchandise is key to fans feeling like they are getting value for their membership fee,” said Jennifer Stakiw, Chargers marketing partnerships coordinator. “We have to make sure each piece is unique and custom and that it’s a style that appeals to our female fans. The charity portion also helps sell the memberships, but these women want to wear their merchandise to games and show off their Lightning Ladies pride.”

San Francisco introduced its women’s affinity club, the Faithfulistas, this year. Along with access to VIP events and viewing parties, members receive a Faithfulistas tote bag, T-shirt, cap, koozie, football-shaped spirit beads and mirror compact.

“The Faithfulistas was the vision of our owner Denise DeBartolo York and her daughters, Jenna and Mara, to help grow our female fan base, so it’s been great to see this come to fruition,” said 49ers marketing manager Krista Olson.

The potential for growth is unmistakable. Baltimore and Washington boast memberships of more than 25,000, and Houston secured State Farm as a presenting sponsor of its Battle Red Ladies club.

The takeaway for the league, teams and sponsors is to avoid the pitfall of discounting the female fan. She not only knows the bubble screen is her team’s most underutilized weapon, but she also is typically her family’s play-caller when it comes to choosing a new car, appliance, insurance company or phone plan. She is more valuable to a marketer than a Super Bowl ad.
Let’s not keep her waiting on the sideline.

Jay Deutsch ( is co-founder and CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates Inc. ( BDA is a premium soft goods and hard goods provider of the NFL and holds licensing agreements with MLB, NCAA, NHL, NASCAR and the U.S. Olympic Committee.