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Volume 21 No. 26
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Women staying tuned to NFL

Despite major controversies, female viewership swells to record levels

A record number of women are watching NFL games across all networks so far this season despite the domestic violence and child abuse issues that engulfed the league two months ago.

TV executives and sports marketers have been paying close attention to female viewership trends all season, concerned that the ugly off-field controversies involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson would erode league interest among women.


SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour talk about the NFL's strength among female viewers this season and how fans have been able to separate their affinity for the games from the league's off-field issues.

But more than halfway through the season, that hasn’t happened. The combined viewing numbers for all of the NFL’s TV packages this season is up 5 percent in the women 18-49 demo and 4.5 percent in the adult female demo, 18 years and older. Overall, total NFL viewership is up 5 percent, thanks largely to the launch of “Thursday Night Football” on CBS, which added a new broadcast package in prime time.

For the past several years, the NFL has tried to grow its female fan base through target marketing, initiatives such as its annual breast cancer awareness activities and its launch of an apparel line geared toward women. Over the last decade, the NFL has seen consistent growth trends in its female fan base, particularly on television. Overall, women represent about one-third of the NFL’s viewing audience throughout the regular season and playoffs, a figure network executives say they expect to hit 45 percent in the next few years. Women already account for about half of the league’s Super Bowl viewing audience.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of a decade-long trend that shows the increase in women viewers is at Fox Sports. Through 10 games this season, the network has posted a 5.4 rating for women 18 and older, and a 4.7 rating for women between the ages of 18 and 49. Both figures are down slightly from last year (5.5 and 4.8), but are up significantly from a decade ago. In the past 10 years, Fox Sports’ NFL ratings are up 35 percent in the women 18+ demo and up 27 percent in the women 18-49 demo. Such an increase runs counter to television’s prime-time entertainment trends, which have been dropping across all demos during the past decade.

“You’re not going to find a lot of things out there that are up almost 40 percent in an 18-34 demo over the last 10 years,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research.

This was the season where that trend line faced its biggest threat. PGA Tour TV ratings dropped considerably in 2010 after Tiger Woods’ sex scandal; viewership drops were biggest in the female demos. In the first major golf tournament after Woods’ car accident, the 2010 Masters, viewership became older (the median age was 57.8) and more male, TV executives said at the time.

The NFL’s fear was that league games would suffer similar results following back-to-back controversies when star running backs Rice and Peterson were arrested on domestic violence and child abuse charges, respectively. The weeks immediately following those stories added to the angst.

“There was a two-week timeout where conversations with marketers slowed down and came to a crawl,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said at a recent industry conference, speaking about the NFL’s ad business in general. “But after that, once it found its footing, we resumed normal business operations.”

Title IX major contributor to growing female audience?

    Fox Sports’ Mike Mulvihill has an interesting theory about why the NFL’s female audience is growing while the female audience for other television genres has been dropping.
    “The big picture contributor is Title IX. Every woman that is part of the 18-49 demographic is a child of Title IX. You now have these women who as girls were more likely to participate in sports than their mothers were. In the very long run, increased youth participation leads to increased consumption of sports media and increased fandom.
    “We are now in a place — more than 40 years into the life of Title IX — the demographic that does all the buying, the demographic that we need to reach for that pre-Christmas season, those are all women who as girls were part of the Title IX movement. That’s very impactful.”
                                                    — John Ourand

Ad buyers described a similar scene. Chris Dennehy, senior vice president and group media director, Haworth Media + Marketing, whose clients include Target — which started buying the NFL only four years ago — said his Minnesota-based media agency took some time to gauge the effect the scandals were having on viewers. Ultimately, the agency decided that fans — both men and women — were able to separate their love of the game from their disgust at the off-field actions.

“You have to pause for a second,” Dennehy said. “We talked to our clients. We did what any responsible marketer would do: have conversations about it and talk with women to get a sense of whether they were putting that on the NFL or on the individuals. Our assessment is that the problems are more about the individuals than the league itself.”

Eric Johnson, ESPN’s executive vice president of multimedia sales, said that ratings among women are up 12 percent overall at ESPN. Since 2004, the number of adult women watching NFL games on ESPN has increased 60 percent — higher than the 47 percent ratings gains NFL games have experienced on ESPN during that time.

For “Monday Night Football,” that has resulted in an increase in advertisers targeting adults, Johnson said.

“And those advertisers clearly value the fact that women make up such a big part of our audience,” he said. “This is an absolute growth area for us. The numbers speak for themselves.”

Because the numbers among women viewers are increasing, network ad sales executives are reaching out to traditionally female advertisers more frequently. Not only are NFL games bringing in more women than other prime-time entertainment programs, but the women aren’t migrating. Fox research shows that 79 percent of its female audience doesn’t watch “Scandal,” 74 percent doesn’t watch “The Big Bang Theory” and 73 percent doesn’t watch “The Voice.”

In the pre-Christmas season, networks are targeting advertisers that cater to women more aggressively. Ad sales executives said they’ve noticed more traditional advertisers changing their copy to appeal more to women.

For example, Lowe’s has run several spots featuring women “finding their football selves.”

“There’s a significant female audience that has a strong buying power that you’re reaching through the NFL,” said Neil Mulcahy, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of ad sales. “It was always cut-and-dry that men watch sports and women didn’t. Research is now telling us otherwise.”