Why Does the NFL Care About Breast Cancer?

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Aaron Gordon writes, provides the perfect opportunity for the NFL to grow its female fan base.

On Monday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosted their first Monday Night Football game since 2003, the year after they won the Super Bowl. The sellout crowd—an increasing rarity at Raymond James Stadium—was understandably rowdy to face the Colts with the lights shining upon their young, promising roster.

The last time the Buccaneers hosted a Monday Night Football game, less than one in three NFL fans were women. But last Monday, the panning ESPN camera showed a group of fans that exemplified the NFL’s popularity explosion of the last decade: about five rows of young, energetic, cheering women wearing pink.

For the third consecutive year, the NFL is observing National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During all October NFL games, players will use pink equipment—gloves, cleats, sweat bands, protective sleeves—and auction them off after the game, with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society and team charities. For all my grievances with Roger Goodell and the NFL’s marketing arm, they have no contemporaries in the modern sports world. The NFL has grown at rates no league has ever dreamt of. Part of its genius has been tailoring the game to its viewership while simultaneously expanding to new markets. And yes, part of its genius is using cancer as a marketing tool.

No one is arguing with the NFL voluntarily donating the proceeds from auctioned equipment for charitable purposes. However, if you think the pink theme bludgeons fans with “awareness” for a specific type of cancer that hardly flies under the radar, then you’re right. The NFL didn’t choose Breast Cancer Awareness Month as its flagship charitable initiative by accident. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month existed long before the NFL publicized it—every October since 1984 has been National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—but the NFL took advantage of a decreasingly deadly type of cancer to cultivate a demographic they historically ignored: women.

The NFL has grown at rates no league has ever dreamt of. Part of its genius has been tailoring the game to its viewership while simultaneously expanding to new markets. And yes, part of its genius is using cancer as a marketing tool.


Just about a year ago, when the NFL was in the middle of its second year of “going pink”, Ryan O’Hanlon made a convincing case, at this very site, for the NFL to choose a disease that affects its fanbase more than breast cancer does, such as heart disease or prostate cancer. Ryan’s conclusion was based on sound data; research during the 2004-2005 NFL season found a whopping 69 percent of NFL fans were male, despite being a minority in the United States. But, increasing awareness for a deadly disease is an externality of the NFL’s efforts, not the goal. It has to be breast cancer precisely because women know about it.

In March of 2006, the NFL signed a new labor agreement with the Players Association, and by September of that year, many owners began grumbling that they might have conceded too much to the players. Roger Goodell was appointed commissioner and immediately made evident that, to assuage the owners’ concerns about stagnating revenue, he was going to create a rising tide to lift all boats.

One obvious path to increased revenue was to expand internationally, but that proved more difficult than Goodell anticipated. The Cardinals and 49ers played in Mexico City in 2005 but never returned. The Patriots and Seahawks cancelled a preseason game in China in 2007 so the NFL could focus on the International Series in London, which has been a minor success at best, but hardly the revenue boom the league hoped. When the international markets proved resistant to rapid growth, the NFL about-faced and returned its focus to the States, deciding women were the next-best option. They were right.

In 2004, 31 percent of NFL fans were women. Five years later, that number had exploded to 44 percent. It’s hard to imagine many men stopped being football fans, which means women who previously didn’t consider themselves fans became fans at an unfathomable pace.

In 2009, the NFL’s first “going pink” year, the league also debuted its first female clothing line, with jerseys, shirts, sweatshirts, and hats specifically designed for women. In fact, the ad campaign publicizing this new line was the most-liked TV spot of 2009 according to Neilson. Today, you can buy virtually any type of NFL clothing you desire in the “Fit for You” design. (In October, they also come in pink, of course.)

The NFL’s ability to grow its female fan base was a key element to the recent labor negotiations. Television contracts drove the league’s decision to take a smaller cut of the overall pie because they were so confident revenues would continue their astronomic increase. They were right; ESPN renewed their Monday Night Football contract for 73 percent more than the previous deal. ESPN—and surely NBC, FOX and CBS will follow—are willing to pay so much more for NFL rights because they’re reaching so many more eyes. With more women tuning in to football than ever before, new advertisers are considering Sunday time slots and bidding each other up. The league tried to expand in multiple areas, but women proved to be the next frontier. The best part? There’s still room for more growth; the proportion of female NFL fans still lags behind the national demographics.


As Ryan pointed out a year ago, a vast majority of breast cancer patients are women—for every 100 breast cancer cases, less than one is male—but that’s not an argument against the NFL’s initiative regarding breast cancer, it’s the exact reason why the NFL chose breast cancer.

As for the actual color pink, the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website has been using pink shades on the site for years, well before the NFL ever got involved. But, in 2007 Time reported a study that women are biologically programmed to prefer the color pink more than men. Your Sunday telecasts feature flashes of pink not to remind your wife to schedule her annual mammogram, but in the hope she finds the game more visually appealing.

As the rows of young, enthusiastic female football fans last Monday night demonstrated, the NFL isn’t going pink to make women aware of breast cancer. They’re going pink to make women aware of the NFL.

—Photo AP

About Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon is a sports writer for the Good Men Project and is on a quest to visit every professional sports stadium in America. He will be the one wearing a "Welcome to Taxpayer Field" shirt. You can follow him on Twitter and and email him at agordon.ihs@gmail.com.


  1. i will kill u

  2. MorgainePendragon says:

    “there hasn’t been any truly new or better testing or treatment for prostate cancer in decades – and there is virtually no mention of it at all anywhere.”


    From July 2011:

    “What’s new in prostate cancer research and treatment?
    Research into the causes, prevention, and treatment of prostate is under way in many medical centers throughout the world.


    New research on genes linked to prostate cancer is helping scientists better understand how prostate cancer develops. These studies are expected to provide answers about the genetic changes that lead to prostate cancer. This could make it possible to design medicines to reverse those changes. Tests to find abnormal prostate cancer genes could also help identify men at high risk who would benefit from more intensive screening or from chemoprevention trials, which use drugs to try to keep them from getting cancer.

    If you’re going to whine, at least get your facts right.

    • Not buying it says:

      @ Morgaine

      You are right he should man up & keep quiet about prostate cancer like most other men, shame on him.

  3. From the article referred to above (NFL needs to stop being pink):

    “Heart disease is the number-one killer in the United States. It accounts for more than 615,000 deaths per year. It even kills more women than breast cancer.”

    My wife had mentioned this to me yesterday. She thought it was odd the NFL picked breast cancer and not heart disease. I guess pink is easier to market.

    • Anonymous Male says:

      Heart disease is just not as “sexy” right now, awkward as that word is to use with breast cancer. Breasts are external, hearts are not. Hearts don’t have catchy, taboo nicknames that can be unleashed. “Save the Tickers!” just doesn’t sound the same as “Save the Ta-Tas!” And, a lot of heart disease is connected to high-fat, high cholesterol diets and obesity, not something that a lot of NFL sponsors are comfortable drawing attention to. Domino’s Halftime Report, anyone? One more factor is that the causes of many forms of heart disease are somewhat well known, there are lots of things you can do to help prevent it, but breast cancer is still more mysterious in that way.

      • Completely agree with you Anonymous Male. I think that this campaign gets so much press, not because the NFL is trying to expand it’s market so much as it enjoys, like the rest of the world, exploiting women’s breasts. Even when it is played off as doing it for women’s health.

  4. Aaron Gordon says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I think these are some important points. But, think of it this way: there is no mandate the NFL MUST care about cancer, of any type. It could have just continued as it did previously, with October just another month on the NFL calendar. But, the league decided it was in it’s best interest to start a massive cancer awareness campaign, which is raising a significant amount of money. That’s because many people care about cancer.

    We can (and do) get into debates about whether this was the cancer that deserves/needs the most attention or money, what the NFL’s motives are, etc. But that misses the point. The NFL has no intrinsic reason to care about cancer. But, because we are the NFL’s customers, and we care about cancer, ipso facto, so does the NFL. This is a prime example of when charity is not out of the good, pure heart of the donor, but out of market forces. To me, it’s a beautiful thing. Is it the PERFECT cause? No, but its certainly better than what we had before: no charitable donations whatsoever from a multi-billion dollar business.

  5. Hey I’ll wear a blue bracelet! Can I get one that says “Save the C**ks!” ? Or “I love dicks?” Or “PeeStrong”

    Our daughters can wear the bracelets to school and defy administrators who request they take them off.

    We can hold Testicle Festival fundraising Balls! And color every women and girl’s dance recital, fashion review, gymnastic event, etc. blue! We’ll be sure to shame anyone who doesn’t get on board with claims of sexism.

    It’s been proven to work for the breast, boob, titties, chi-chi, boobies, ta-ta, girls campaign. It could generate million$!

    Crystal Jones- I’m very sorry for your loss. My dad is the greatest man I have ever known. I can’t imagine losing him now at 41, much less when I was 22. Heartbreaking. Coincidently, my dad spent his 40 years as an oncologist helping families who battle cancer. It took a huge toll on his heart too.

    • John Anderson says:

      “Hey I’ll wear a blue bracelet! Can I get one that says “Save the C**ks!” ? Or “I love dicks?” Or “PeeStrong”

      Our daughters can wear the bracelets to school and defy administrators who request they take them off.”

      If we created bracelets that said ”I love cocks” or something similar, it would probably have to be our daughters wearing them. I have nephews who think they look better with trendy hair styles that shave their heads for St. Baldric’s, but I can’t envision them wearing that.

  6. Crystal Jones says:

    I see that NFL is always supporting Breast Cancer awareness and donating to the cause in the month of October. Ihow in the hell can I get them to donate to the Prostate Cancer Cause in September for Prostate Cancer awareness? 1 in 6 men will develop this cancer and some doctors say that it’s a good chance that every man will get this cancer SOME time in their lifetime if they reach the age of 85. Every 18 minutes a man DIES of Prostate Cancer. But you don’t hear anything about Prostate Cancer. No. ALL you hear about is Breast Cancer. And you want to know something? The same amount of men die from Prostate Cancer as women die from Breast Cancer. Breast Cancer is to women what Prostate Cancer is to men. You see Pink everywhere. I bet most you have worn a pink ribbon or bracelet or did something for Breast Cancer but how many of you have ever worn a Blue Ribbon or Blue Bracelet or donated to a charity to support Prostate Cancer Awareness? Not many..if any. How sad is that? This is your brother, son, husband, father, grandpa or friend that could DIE from this. Did you know that in 2009, Breast Cancer Research received $872 million worth of federal funding and Prostate Cancer only received $390 million!!! They say 2010-2012 will be the same.

    And I want to put a stop to this!! I realize people may be more aware of Breast Cancer because it’s a “woman’s” disease and women talk about everything and are more open about their health…and men are more quiet about stuff like that. But it’s time to realize that Prostate Cancer IS a women’s disease because it affects millions of women too..in the sense that these women have to deal with their husbands, helping care for them, or their FUNERALS, and daughters losing their fathers before they can even walk them down the aisle!
    We applaud the NFL for raising breast cancer awareness during the month of October by allowing players to wear pink accessories. “As prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women (and some men), we ask the NFL to allow light blue items in September for Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. With your help we can raises awareness of prostate cancer, a disease that claims more than 32,000 men’s lives each year and impacts millions of families.”
    This year, it is estimated that there will be 217,730 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed and that 32,050 men will die from the disease.
    Pam Barrett, director of development for Us TOO International, a non-profit prostate cancer education and support network, told TheDC that the goal is to raise public awareness for the disease.
    Pam Barrett“I’m a breast cancer survivor myself. And I reaped all the benefits from all the awareness, fund-raising and research generated by pink ribbon efforts,” she said. “Those things are not there for prostate cancer and frankly, it’s been hard to figure out how to reach out and engage others to support the men. Few realize that more men are diagnosed with prostate cancer than women are with breast cancer. So, for the NFL to wear blue for prostate cancer would be excellent. It would greatly help direct public consciousness and consumer products and organizations who support breast cancer to also focus on the needs of men with prostate cancer.”
    And I want to help raise awareness for this cancer that affects millions every day all over the country. I want everyone to be as aware of this cancer as they are about Breast Cancer. Why is this so important to me, to you and to so many other people? Because prostate will kill almost 30,000 men this year alone—that could be a family member, friend, neighbor or colleague. One was my father. My dad died from Prostate Cancer when I was 22 years old. No girl should have to lose their father that young . Please help me to raise awareness to fight this disease. WE NEED to raise PROSTATE CANCER awareness in September. WHO do I contact to make this happen!? I would LOVE LOVE to wear BLUE Prostate Cancer NFL wear!

  7. Black Iris says:

    You know, it might not just be about marketing or marketing to women.

    Men care about breast cancer because they love women. They don’t want their sisters, mothers, wives, or daughters to die.

  8. The fund-raising campaigns against breast cancer are monsters of revenue. This is about the NFL hooking up with one more revenue-generating brand, not about raising money for charity. The pink ribbon is the equivalent of the Nike swoosh. I often wonder how much of the money raised goes for actual cancer research and how much goes for “administrative” and other costs. I bet the percentages would be scandalous. Pink is a convenient color because 1) it’s eye-catching and 2) no teams have pink as a team color, so it’s very noticeable on all teams. It reminds me a lot of the Seattle Seahawks’ preference for bright neon green shoestrings and gloves – one more eye-catching part of the branding.

    You’d get the idea from the pink armies that breast cancer is the major cause of death among women. It’s not. It is a very common type of cancer, but it is also one of the most survivable – 90% are still alive 5 years after diagnosis. (That’s one reason so many people CAN come out to raise money – most who have it live to tell the tale and live to raise money for other people.) Compare that with about 20% for ovarian cancer, which still has no good early detection method. Women today are much, much more likely to die from heart disease caused by obesity, but now you’re stepping on the toes of the big junk food sponsors. Breast cancer is a handy target because it’s not generally linked to any products that big corporations sell. And, of course, it has the word “breast” in it.

    Am I the only one who thinks that it’s just there to give the male fans one more reminder of boobs? Associating the NFL with breasts in the subconscious sounds like a brilliant marketing ploy to me….

    At least it’s not hypocritical. Male fans really do sincerely care about breasts. No one is in favor of breast cancer. What I think is hilariously hypocritical is the NFL’s campaign against childhood obesity. Right. Nothing says low BMI like an offensive lineman. Are you telling me those 350-pound guards were not overweight when they were kids?

  9. Actually men don’t like to go to the doctor to screen for prostate or colon cancer BUT if their wives uunderstood they could be widowed and their children orphaned if their man gets cancer, motivation could increase. Seems to me a creative campaign could accomplish that. I also know several couples who have lost their children to cancer…that is also one that affects many.

    When my kid got his SI Kids mag in pink this month, I wonder if he thinks that “women’s cancer” is the only one worth being aware of…after all, the messages are everywhere! We are aware already!

    • Because of the lack of funding in prostate cancer (including government funding), there hasn’t been any truly new or better testing or treatment for prostate cancer in decades – and there is virtually no mention of it at all anywhere. Since it’s only a men’s disease, it’s evidently not worthy of public mention or much government funding.

  10. It’s always a good thing to try to raise awareness and funding to help people suffering with any disease. Certainly breast cancer is a worthy candidate. However, it’s also very politically correct to support breast cancer, because it does affect so many women.

    It would have been equally politically INcorrect to support prostate cancer since it only affects men. That is why you seldom if ever see any major organization coming out against prostate cancer. It would be considered sexist.

    • To prove how politically incorrect it is to address a disease that affects men only, even at a site called Good Men Project, breast cancer has been written about here more than twice as often as prostate cancer.

      But, that’s still better than other feminist sites, such as Feministing.com, where it’s literally a 100-1 ratio. That shows what they really think of men.

    • John Anderson says:

      I don’t know that discussing prostate cancer is not PC. I view not PC as things society frowns upon or considers wrong by definition like racism, sexist, or homophobia. There was a male prison that wanted all their guards to meet certain objective physical requirements like drag 180 pounds 100 yards. Their thinking was just because the guard was female it wouldn’t make the inmate any lighter. This line of reasoning didn’t hold up because it was thought to be sexist because it would result in a disproportionate number of women being disqualified for employment consideration. This is PC.

      I’m not sure how many people would ridicule or prevent a person from advocating for prostate cancer awareness or funding prostate cancer research. It’s more a matter of ignoring it than trying to stop advocacy. It’s more not providing a medium for it. If you’re not aware of it, how can you advocate for it? For example, I didn’t know September was prostate cancer awareness month. I just assumed it didn’t have one.

      My employer though the managers and customers are both overwhelmingly women (only 1 of 9 or so VPs is a man and 2/3 customers are women), would probably agree to host some prostate cancer month activities. They may not be willing or want to do it. Who would want to be seen saying no to supporting a worthy cause when they’ve supported other causes like breast cancer awareness or the 9/11 fund, but they won’t bring this up themselves and as long as everyone else remains uneducated, they won’t need to deal with it.

  11. I’m not a fan of the pink campaign. Admitting that doesn’t make me very popular but for the last 20 years they’ve raised sick amounts of money and I’m not sure what breakthroughs they’ve funded. I’m plenty aware of cancer. I just lost my uncle to brain cancer. What color is that? I do care about the sick and/or dying or survivors but I don’t need pink crap to prove it. The afflicted would probably prefer a nice conversation or a hug more than anything.

    I also find it a bit offensive that someone would assume I like anything because it’s pink and I’m a girl. Please stop pinkifying my sporting goods. But maybe I’m in the minority on this with regard to other women.

    I’ve always liked football though. (I’m actually terrifying force of nature at wide receiver/linebacker in flag football.) More than anything I’d like to see the NFL use their marketing muscle to demonstrate they care. About anything. I guess I’d like to see that from any large multi-million dollar entity.

  12. Breast cancer as a marketing tool…you nailed it. It’s a disease, not a marketing tool. But this isn’t about trying to help stop a disease. It’s all about the money.


  1. […] “Football’s Female Audience Keeps on Growing and the NFL Is Showering the Attention Back” Why Does the NFL Care About Breast Cancer? What is […]

  2. […] there are still some out there who only see this as a marketing ploy. Our friends over at the Good Men Project think this is purely a way to get more female fans — last year they pointed out that more […]

  3. […] to Aaron Gordon in his article for The Good Men Project, the NFL’s Think Pink support (which seems to be on […]

  4. […] Cincinnati at Jacksonville (-1) … The Bengals are better than people realize, but since that’s really all that can be said about this game, here are two quick, interesting reads from this week. The first is on the kickoff rule, and how it’s actually made kick returns more exciting. And the second is on the NFL’s breast cancer month. Is it one big marketing gimmick? […]

Speak Your Mind