Why Women Feel Ignored When Watching Football

September 27th 2015

Phoebe Petersen

With women accounting for more than a third of the NFL’s average viewership, according to the Washington Post, it seems strange that watching commercials during a game is still like finding oneself dropped into a meeting of the old boys’ club. That's because seemingly every ad during an NFL game is aimed at men, despite the reality that an estimated 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base is female and  “Sunday Night Football” ranked first in 2013 terms of TV viewership among women ages 18 to 49.

Wassup Budweiser ad

Ads during football games are not as much about scantily clad women as they are about male bonding.

Although I was expecting to see scantily clad women selling beers and cars, the reality was something different. I was surprised to see that many advertisements were devoid of women altogether. Instead, the cameras zoomed in on men: men talking about their jobs, men ordering food, men driving trucks, men chopping wood, the list goes on. The message was clear: football (and the products advertised) brings men together.

A recent BMW advertisement, featuring four men headed off to a game together, typifies this theme. The men are crammed together in the car, checking that they have their lucky socks and rabbit’s foot as they pull out of the driveway. Their camaraderie and ritual makes it obvious that going to games is something they have a history of doing together. The experience is billed as male bonding at its best.

Similarly, a Kia ad spotlights the relationship between father and son. The son tells his father that he quit his job in order to drive across the country. The father wistfully replies that he wishes he had done that, and the commercial ends with a scene of father and son sitting together on their cross-country road trip.

In other ads, men bond over Draft King’s fantasy football leagues, play pool with Jack from Jack in the Box, and talk to former NFL star Troy Aikman while buying Miller Lite.

Other ads emphasize male independence.

Commercials that veer away from male bonding are focused on a man’s independence and power. In commercial after commercial, men are seen showcasing their strength, while women are conspicuously absent. When women are on screen, like in the below National Car Rental ad, they are the smiling saleswomen in the background, waving as the boss tells viewers that he can choose a car “without having to ask anyone.”

Similarly, women are the passengers in advertisements from Toyota and Ford, but not the drivers. Time and time again, women are left on the sidelines.

With so many female viewers, does it still make sense that these ads only target men?

All of this left me, as a female viewer, feeling somewhat alienated from the experience. Given that women now make up a significant portion of NFL viewership, it was striking just how few ads were targeted at women. That being said, there were a few exceptions. Microsoft ran an ad for Windows 10 that targeted female viewers by showing images of children from around the world with the voiceover saying, “One of these kids is going to change the world, we just need to make sure she has what she needs.” Apple’s advertisement for the iPhone 6 used a female voiceover and primarily female hands to demonstrate various features of the phone, and there were a few commercials with mixed gender groups spending time together, like this one:

Unlike its advertisers, the NFL seems to embrace female fans.

Interestingly, the NFL itself seems to be the major source of advertisements targeted explicitly at women. In 2013, it launched the Women’s Resource Initiative (WRI), a section of its website devoted to women’s voices. During last Sunday’s primetime games, the NFL played advertisements targeted at women and families, including this one, which features women sporting apparel for various NFL teams and ends with a female Jets fan and a female Giants fan greeting each other warmly on the subway with the line “football is family.” An advertisement for the NFL ticket exchange included the same slogan.

The NFL seems to be among the first to catch on to the fact that female football fans don’t seem to be going anywhere. If anything, women are becoming more prominent in the football scene as the NFL targets more merchandise at them. In the words of Dr. C. Keith Harrison, author of the NFL’s report on Female Spectators and Influencers: “I suggest that all of us that value good business to ‘woman up’ in the 21st Century.”

Perhaps it’s time for more advertisers to take note.