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‘Softer’ NFL Turns To Merchandising, Women To Expand Fan Base

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 28:  General view of atmosphere at The Jets Game Celebration the NFL Victoria's Secret PINK Collection at MetLife Stadium on October 28, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Victoria's Secret PINK)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 28: General view of atmosphere at The Jets Game Celebration the NFL Victoria’s Secret PINK Collection at MetLife Stadium on October 28, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Victoria’s Secret PINK)

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By Christy Strawser, digital director

DETROIT (CBS Detroit) As Ndamukong Suh gets fined not just for crunching opponents’ knees, but also for touching his helmet to another player’s chest, it’s safe to say the NFL is softer than it was in years past.

Let’s sum it up this way: Victoria’s Secret makes NFL sleepwear for college girls.

In this case, the secret’s out of the bag. The NFL is working to broaden its fan base, and many believe that’s one of the reasons the game is changing, evolving as it tries to maintain its hold on the hearts and minds of Americans. Efforts at marketing to women have brought 16-page women’s magazine spreads breaking down the game, girly NFL T-shirts, aprons and oven mitts.

There’s the ongoing concussion situation, but Lawrence Jackson, a free agent who played for Detroit from ’10 to ’12, told CBS Detroit’s Ashley Dunkak one of the factors in the game’s changing on-field dynamics could also be more women watching the game.

Talking about how the NFL used to glorify hits that would result in suspensions and fines today, he said, “Back at that time, football was still growing in popularity,” Jackson said. “The perception was different. There weren’t as many women watching the game.

“The enormity, I would say, of the game was different. It was not a global brand, on top of the fact that they weren’t studying concussions like they are now. There were still a lot of those players from that era and eras before where those kind of hits were glorified, and a lot of those guys struggled. The league’s changed to a more offensive league, and people want to see that paid entertainment …”

The NFL says the two — marketing to women and stricter on-field regulations — are not connected. Rather, changing on-field play is connected to greater health and safety standards and those standards are being explained to women as part of an overall marketing effort aimed at adding them to the football fold, insiders say.

A clinic was held this weekend at the Chicago Bears facility to educate women, presumably mothers, about the health and safety of football with a focus on “safer tackling techniques.”

“It’s a population that has a great deal of influence in determining what activities their kids will be engaged in … and we want to be sure parents have a better sense of what kids are involved in,” explained Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety.

He added that education events like this one are “a responsibility that comes with our popularity.”

And the sport is certainly gaining popularity with women. According to Ad Age, 50.4 million women tuned into the latest Super Bowl, compared to the 24.5 million who watched the Oscars, and the 23.8 million who watched the Emmys.

“The Super Bowl’s female audience has more than doubled from only five years ago, and the last three Super Bowl broadcasts have set records for being the most-watched shows by female viewers. The previous record was held by the 1994 Winter Olympics figure-skating showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding,” Ad Age’s Michael McCarthy wrote, adding:

“The game has become as much entertainment and soap opera as sport.”

Business Week reported the NFL includes 185 million American fans — nearly 60 percent of the population. Peter O’Reilly, the league’s vice president for fan strategy and marketing, said about 45 percent of those fans are women. In 2002, the number was 14 percent.

Amid the entertainment, there’s still a violent, hard-charging sport in there somewhere, and some of the players aren’t overly enamored with the new, softer side of the NFL.

Lion’s Dominic Raiola told CBS Detroit’s Ashley Dunkak “Football’s a violent game. I don’t think you can ever make hitting somebody soft. It’s just ridiculous.”

He was referencing yet another fine against the NFL’s bad boy du jour Ndamukong “mess you up” Suh, who was slapped with a $31,500 fine after a hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Many thought the hit was clean; the NFL ruled he made contact with Weeden’s “forehead hairline.”

Told the NFL was considering fining Suh for the hit, Raiola called the idea ridiculous.

“I saw the play on the sideline,” Raiola added. “It’s not on purpose. It’s ridiculous … It was a football play to me, but I guess maybe my view of football now is different from the way football’s viewed now. I really don’t know what they’re looking at.”

He’s not the only one complaining.

Retired linebacker Lawrence Taylor grumbled about the rules making the game soft during a media conference call last month promoting a Showtime documentary on his Hall of Fame career.

He said, according to the New York Post, “It used to be a game where it wasn’t for the weak at heart, it wasn’t for the weak at mind, it was something you’d go into, you have to dedicate yourself, you have to want to be out there when it’s hot outside, you have to want to hit. … The problem with it now is that it’s making it a game where everybody can play.”

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