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.
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.