More and more women join the legions of NFL's television fans

November 17, 1991|By Mark Armijo | Mark Armijo,Arizona Republic

PHOENIX -- Her left hand tightly fisted around the thin neck of a beer bottle, a woman who looks to be in her mid-20s jumps to her feet and begins pumping her right arm upward into the barroom smoke.

She bellows out an elongated scream that sounds a little like the sharp shrill of a locomotive's whistle, then turns to her female friend still sitting at the table.

"Did you see that?" the woman yells to her friend. "Did you see that hit? Yeeeeaaaaahhh!"

Up on the large television screen, a crumpled New York Giants running back is dragging himself to his feet, still feeling the effects of a blind-sided jolt from a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

It is "Monday Night Football" in the National Football League, and the din in this Phoenix sports bar has reached a symphonic crescendo.

Oh, and something else. Not only is the place packed with men, it is filled with women.

It might come as a surprise to some, perhaps many, but according to the "Simmons Study of Media and Markets," more women watched at least one NFL game each week in 1986 than soap operas -- 26 million, in fact.

According to a 1989 study done for the NFL by the Simmons Market Research Bureau, a private research firm in New York City, women now account for 41 percent of the NFL's television audience.

"That's amazing to me," Phoenix Cardinals offensive tackle Luis Sharpe said. "I didn't realize that many women watched us. I thought there was supposed to be a lot of football widows out there."

Furthermore, 37 percent of the viewers who watch games "frequently or almost always" are women, up from 33 percent in 1980.

And not only does a 1989 Harris Poll say the NFL is distancing itself from other sports in terms of popularity -- in 1985, the public chose pro football over baseball as its favorite sport -- it also says the NFL female audience is increasing.

According to Simmons, the percentage of the female NFL audience was 29 percent in 1975, 32 percent in 1979, 35 percent in 1983, 38 percent in 1986, and 41 percent in 1989.

Why? What is it about the NFL that draws women in droves to seats in front of their televisions?

Or is that a sexist question? Where does it say that women can't enjoy the NFL just as much as their boyfriends and husbands, anyway?

"I've been a football fan most of my life," said Dawn Hennessy, a 21-year-old door hostess at a Phoenix sports bar. "I guess it comes from my mother because she was a total football nut. I don't need to watch a game so I can be with my boyfriend. I make him watch it with me.

"I don't really know why I'm so interested. I just like sports. Baseball is too boring, but with football, I think the fun part is to see somebody get hit, to see if they're going to get creamed."

Not that pro football is a blood sport on a plane equal to such primarily illegal sports such as cock fighting and dog fighting, but George Sage, a University of Northern Colorado sports sociologist, said women have shown that they can become fans of a violent sport just as avidly as men.

"It's been proven throughout history that women have been willing to attend any kind of blood sport if they were allowed," said Sage, who has written several books dealing with sports phenomena. "Once it was socially acceptable for women to go to boxing matches, they showed that they could become avid fans.

"There's something about the violence of the game that attracts women. It's sort of a fascination of watching people hurt themselves."

But Sage said football's roughness is nowhere near the sole or primary reason females are attracted.

"I think the interest is primarily wanting to be with their spouse or boyfriend," Sage said. "In this day, most couples are working, and about the only time they have together is on Sunday. If the wife or girlfriend doesn't go along, they're really disconnected.

"Football's also a highly entertainment event. It has a lot of attractions to it. There's the competition, the ritualism, the pageantry and I think, there's some sexual attraction to it.

"Football players with uniforms on are sort of a magnification of the male masculine body. What you got is an accentuation of that masculine body when you put on a tight uniform."

Ah, the hunk factor. Although the NFL has more than its share of 300-pound dough boys, it also its share of muscular, trim bodies.

"They do have nice butts, but their [faces] aren't all that cute," Hennessy said. "What I really respect is their athletic ability."

With such a vigorous female-fan following, it is no wonder NFL Properties, the official licensee for NFL novelties, began selling a line of women's fashion apparel in August -- NFL Spirit.

"In gross retail sales in 1990, NFL Properties did $1.5 billion in business," said Rusty Hawley, an NFL Properties spokesman. "Women purchased almost $750 million of that."

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