Are Women Becoming Football's Loudest Cheerleaders?

More and more female fans are tuning in to the "ultimate reality TV show"

Tom Brady cut his hair. I know this not because I spotted the New England Patriots quarterback and his supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen in the latest issue of Us Weekly, but because I watched a football game.

Gone are the days of football widows -- wives and girlfriends who would lose their men to the pigskin temptress every season. Instead, more than ever, the sport is bringing families together... for better or for worse.

"I live in a very divided house. My DH [dear husband] is a die-hard Redskins fan, and my team is the Cowboys. It definitely can get interesting," jokes iVillage community member southerngirl1014.

The National Football League currently boasts a fan base that's 44 percent female, with a whopping 43.5 million women having tuned in to catch last year's Super Bowl. That's more than double the number of gals who watched the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, according to The Nielsen Company.

"Women love our game for many of the same reasons men and kids do -- the action, the athleticism of our players, the competition, the stories and rivalries," explains Peter O’Reilly, the league’s Vice President of Marketing. "Like our male fans, many of our female fans are avid, and understand the X's and O's, routes and strategy of the game."

But not all of the viewers know (or need to know) about the Emmitt Rule in order to enjoy game day. Because, unlike other sports, football offers up fun-for-all traditions, such as tailgating, that even the biggest rivals can agree upon.

"There are others who look at football as a social event without a focus on the game itself," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham clinical psychologist.

Added O’Reilly, "In today's environment, when schedules are busier and families tend to have fewer hours together, we find that Sundays have become that much more meaningful."

The league hopes to capitalize on this Sunday Funday attitude with their new "homegating" collection, which includes loads of houseware goodies -- from team-branded wine glasses to cupcake decorating kits.

Along with the party supplies, a slew of new "sporty" accessories and gear also recently debuted (for those whose real American pastime is shopping). Think lots of bejeweled bangles, fuzzy snow boots and, for the glitziest gridiron goddess, $3,000 feathery clutches. The shrink-it-and-pink-it tees and jerseys may be history, but sparkle and shine are definitely here to stay.

The line's accompanying advertising campaign features women of the NFL family (wives and daughters of the league's coaches and executives) modeling the latest apparel, bags and jewelry. This glimpse of the game beyond the field is part of what draws in many female football watchers.

"Doing stories about the players' lives and giving a closer look at the teams through an all-access show allows viewers to see players as they interact with the community, and their relationships and families," explained Klapow. "This has the effect of bringing women (and men), who may not have much initial interest in the sport, into the 'life' of the NFL."

Above all, the league knows how to put on a good show, and is better packaged, produced and choreographed than any four-hour awards extravaganza.

"NFL games are the ultimate reality TV shows," says O’Reilly. It's entertaining from beginning to end, adds Tavia Hunt, wife of Kansas City Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt.

Tavia, who appears in the new apparel ads, said that when she began dating her now-husband, her mother quickly became a convert. "On Monday nights, instead of watching The Love Boat on her TV, her and my father would watch the game together."

As for next year's Super Bowl XLVI, you can expect lots of "girl" power. Madonna will reportedly headline the halftime show on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis. The NFL has not confirmed the rumor. After a string of mostly male performers, including The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, the 53-year-old pop star has the potential to attract even more female eyeballs to the big game.

But everyone knows the real reason we watch -- the commercials. "Women and moms are a critical audience," explains Maureen Bosetti, EVP, National Broadcast Director at Optimedia, a media services agency. She predicts that more companies will try to appeal to the NFL entire audience, and possibly try to emulate Volkswagen's viral Darth Vader ad, which features a pint-sized version of the Dark Lord testing out his awesome powers over minivans.

Now that kid could totally be the MVP.

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