The NFL's concerted effort over the past two years to market the game and apparel to women is showing signs of paying off, but sales of league merchandise still trail Major League Baseball and collegiate-licensed materials.
In terms of female fans, the NFL trails only college sports, according to data from The ESPN Sports Poll and the U.S. Census, with league officials saying 44 percent of all football fans are now women.
Various sources show positive indicators for the NFL:
• NFL merchandise sold to women jumped significantly over last year, according to Fanatics, the world's largest online retailer of officially licensed products. The 2011 playoff season showed a dramatic change: an 85 percent sales increase in December over 2010 and a 125 percent increase in January from the year prior.
• Although the 2011 NFL season saw a slight drop in the number of women who watched games on TV, ratings increased from a 3.7 to a 3.9 in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, according to Nielsen.
• The number of American women participating in fantasy football doubled in 2011, according to Ipsos Public Affairs, which works with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Marketing experts say women are a prized demographic for the NFL because of their value to advertisers. Ann Bastianelli, senior lecturer of marketing at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, said 70 percent of "important family decisions" are made by women.
"When we talk about women being the decision-makers, I think a lot of people don't realize that's cars, stocks, electronics -- things people might not associate women making the decisions about," said Meghann Malone, a marketing manager for marketing, advertising and public relations firm IMRE.
A growing female fan base creates a more marketable NFL for advertisers and sponsors.
"A female consumer is a consumer for life," Malone said. "They're the ones more likely to become brand loyalists."
Peter O'Reilly, vice president of fan strategy/marketing for the NFL, said the league has done well in this area the last couple of years.
In 2010, the league introduced a clothing line specifically made for women called "Fit for You," featuring various choices, from junior sizes to maternity clothing. Building upon the positive response to that initiative, the league added to the line in 2011 and opened up a new section of its website just for women: www.nfl.com/women.
The new site highlights the women's apparel line and also added NFL Party, a site that promotes "homegating." NFL Party features a blog with tips and recipes.
"NFL Party was coming together with licensees to make it easy for families and people hosting parties, and certainly women are largely driving that in the home," O'Reilly said. The league considers the site a success, he said, and will increase its content.
O'Reilly also said NFLShop.com saw double-digit growth this season on merchandise geared toward women. Fanatics noted the same, particularly during the 2011 playoffs.
NexTag, the online comparison-shopping site, said women's jerseys accounted for six of the top 10 Tom Brady jerseys viewed and six of the top 10 Eli Manning jersey viewed the week before and after championship weekend. Jersey searches since Jan. 1 have been dominated by women's products, with the top five most-searched jerseys being women's Tim Tebow or Aaron Rodgers jerseys.
When the NFL women's clothing line was expanded in 2011, the league looked to the women who make up the NFL family for some help. Wives of players, coaches and owners donned gear for advertisements, which appeared in popular magazines.
"The NFL has done a really good job realizing wives and daughters of coaches are some of the best ambassadors of the game," said Heather Zeller, founder of AGlamSlam.com, a website dedicated to the intersection of fashion and sports. "They could have used Victoria's Secret models, but these are the women actually watching the game, so they're much more relatable."
One of those women is Suzanne Johnson, wife of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, whom Zeller said has helped push NFL fashion into high fashion. "They're treating sports apparel as high fashion, and that's unique. It's a point of differentiation with other leagues," Zeller said.
Johnson helped create an NFL-themed shopping experience for women before the Jets game against the Patriots this year that looked more like a Miami night club than a sports apparel showroom. Women's Wear Daily reported that Johnson marketed the new duds to magazine editors and even convinced some of her socialite friends to wear Jets jerseys to Badgley Mischka's runway during New York Fashion Week.
Johnson appeared this week on the "Wendy Williams Show" highlighting some of her favorite Jets gear.
Even with the recent successes, the NFL has a way to go to catch the retail sales leaders.
MLB led all sports with $5 billion in retail sales in 2010, with Collegiate Licensing Company behind, at $4.3 billion. The NFL lagged at about $3.3 billion.
With double-digit growth in women's merchandise in 2011 and a growing buzz, the NFL could make up some ground in the next study: "I haven't seen the other leagues in fashion magazines," Zeller said. "They've done more than just create something you can wear in the stadium on Sunday."