Look out, Project Runway: here comes the National Football League. Increasingly, league marketers are racing to attract a demographic they hadn't seemed to notice until recently: women.
That's changing fast. Victoria's Secret is due to start selling the 5th and Ocean line of NFL-themed loungewear this fall. Elisabeth Hasselbeck TV's The View is developing maternity shirts bearing cute football terms -- "kicker," "No.1 Draft Pick" -- with Adidas AG (ADDYY) brand Reebok. Other NFL maternity clothes are out from the chain Destination Maternity. Actor Alyssa Milano also sells her Touch football clothing on nflshop.com and at Bloomingdales. There's even NFL-themed thong underwear.
Football's sudden interest in fashion is not altruistic. Women make up 40 percent of the NFL's audience -- by far the most of any professional sport -- and women are increasingly playing fantasy football, accounting for about 10 percent of all players. Some teams, like the Baltimore Ravens, have started fan clubs for women.
In 2006, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that attracting more female fans was a priority. Women want to be treated as "real fans," he told a Reuters conference, because they love the game and want to experience it just as any man does. NFL teams heeded the comissioner's call; the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders, among others, offer Football 101 classes to teach novices -- women and men -- the basics of the game.
Paying attention to women is paying off. Sales of the league's Touch line are expected to rise 50 percent this year over last year, says NFL spokeswoman Joanna Hunter. An average of 38.6 million women watched Super Bowl XLIII in February, beating the total audience of the 81st Annual Academy Awards, according to Nielsen Media Research. The NFL estimates that 45 million women watch -- and 375,000 women attend -- NFL games each weekend. Women also participate in programs like Punt, Pass & Kick, a competition aimed at young fans. Last year, the NFL began a girls' flag-football program.
This fashion explosion represents a sea change from a generation ago, when female football fans supporting their favorite team had to content themselves with wearing unflattering jerseys (designed, of course, for men). "I see a lot of women wearing those oversized jerseys," says Melissa Jacobs, a former ESPN producer who edits TheFootballGirl.com, an NFL fan and fantasy site aimed at women.
One Philadelphia Eagles fan, Kelli Gail, says she was amazed at the amount of merchandise worn by both male and female fans at a recent game at the team's Lincoln Financial Field. "I wouldn't wear a pink hat," says Gail, who works in public relations in New York. No, she says -- to watch the Eagles, she wants to wear Eagles green. "When you have go the Linc, you have to have something."
Jonathan Berr covers the business of sports for FanHouse, a sister Web site of DailyFinance.