The changing face of Super Sunday

Marketers, NFL focus on game’s audience of 40 million women

By Michael McCarthy


NEW YORK — The Super Bowl is becoming the Women’s Bowl.

The National Football League’s championship game has been the Holy Day of testosterone for three decades. But we’ve come a long way, baby.

This Sunday, 40 million women will watch Super Bowl XXXV, pitting the New York Giants against the Baltimore Ravens. That’s a bigger draw for female viewers than the Academy Awards, with 27 million.

And those numbers aren’t lost on advertisers, who know women influence 80% of household consumer purchases. So this weekend, you’ll see the nation’s top marketers in touch with their feminine sides like never before.

You’ll see multimillion-dollar ads and promotions aimed at women during the game, which is the highest-rated TV program of the year. You’ll see football-themed shows on female-oriented TV networks. And you’ll spot such female celebrities as Marion Jones, Daisy Fuentes, Patti LaBelle, Courteney Cox Arquette and Wynonna Judd invading the once-impregnable male bastion of the Super Bowl.

Anheuser-Busch, the biggest advertiser in the game, has been changing its Super Bowl creative approach to appeal to both genders. “Women are a huge part of this audience,” says Bob Lachky, A-B’s vice president of brand management. “We’ve been working hard for five years not to do typical guy jokes.”

A-B scored touchdowns the past few games with lovable “Rex,” the method-acting dog; two Dalmatian puppies separated at birth; and the “Next Generation” birth of a Clydesdale foal.

The approach has let A-B — dare we say it — show its sensitive side. “It’s been a wonderful eye-opener for us. It’s taught us that it’s OK to be emotional and have a smile — not always go for a gut-laugh,” says Lachky.

And this year’s game kicks off what looks to be a “Year of the Woman” in sports marketing. Female athletes such as Jones, Venus Williams and Michelle Kwan appear to be taking over as endorsement champions from retired male jocks like Michael Jordan, John Elway and Wayne Gretzky.

“Super Bowl Sunday is as much for women as it is for men,” says Heather Paige Kent, star of the CBS prime-time TV show ‘That’s Life.

‘She should know: Kent will host a Lifetime Television special Friday night at 7 ET called ‘NFL Stories: Straight from the Heart. ‘This won’t be your father’s NFL Films — no footballs spiraling through winter skies; no stirring martial music like ‘Cossacks Charge’; no exhortations by legendary NFL Films narrator John Facenda to “Be savage again.”

Instead, we get a story about deaf Oakland Raiders cheerleader Mona Vierra. And one about Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teams coach Joe Marciano, a 45-year-old bachelor who adopted a baby boy and formed “his own special team” as a single parent.

“The NFL sought us out because they knew Lifetime could help expand their female viewership,” explains Harriet Saltzman, Lifetime’s vice president of sports programming.

Football shows such as this are about more than X’s and O’s — they tell the “human-interest stories” that make women watch sporting events like the Olympics, says Kent.

As the rough-and-tumble XFL gets ready to challenge the NFL’s dominance in February, Kent thinks the move by the NFL and its sponsors to give women a big hug is a “great” idea. “Everyone needs a few fans — myself included.”

Make no mistake, though, the helmeted gladiators on the field love to act macho — one Ravens player declared that Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George should “take his panties off” before the AFC Championship Game.

But the NFL and its sponsors want to show that they “get it.” If Bronco Nagurski is turning over in his grave, so be it. It’s all part of making the NFL more “inclusive” and expanding the league from “the premier American sport” to “premier sports entertainment,” says John Collins, the NFL’s vice president of programming and sales.

Super Bowl vs. Oscar

CBS is, however, asking advertisers to pay $2.3 million per 30-second commercial to target women on this most manly of days. One expert, Laura Ries, president of marketing consultancy Ries & Ries Atlanta, thinks they are foolishly wasting their millions.

“Most women watch the Super Bowl next to their husbands or boyfriends because they don’t have a choice. The guys may be glued to the screen — but the women are talking to their girlfriends or watching the kids.” The Oscars are the “real Super Bowl of advertising to women,” Ries maintains.

But Betsy Berns, author of ‘The Female Fan Guide to Pro Football’, counters that “Women can have a conversation and still watch the game — unlike men.” Berns says that she has talked with women around the country, from “football widows” to fanatics like one woman who refused painkillers during the birth of her child so that she wouldn’t miss a playoff game.

Berns says the best news for advertisers is that “Even women who are not interested in the game are closely watching the commercials. You have to watch — or you miss half the conversations in America the next day.”

And advertisers are getting in step with the trend. Gone for the most part are ads treating women as sex objects — the way they often were in the “old days” of Super Bowl spots. Does anyone remember the cheesy 1973 Noxzema shave cream commercial where Farrah Fawcett puts shaving cream on Joe Namath’s face? “You’ve got a great pair of hands,” says Broadway Joe, while Fawcett purrs in delight.

Last year, Visa and Southwest Airlines ran commercials showing women as football fans. Oxygen Media launched its women’s Web and TV network during the game. Nuveen tugged at the heartstrings with a controversial spot showing actor Christopher Reeve apparently walking again. And Web site took aim at brides and expectant mothers. “We did it to reach the female audience. For us, it paid off,” says chief Mike Budowski .

This weekend, an all-out marketing blitz will target female consumers. The game plan:

* A-B will air a mix of heartwarmers, including a couple of possible animal spots. Also, look for a new “Whassup?!” commercial like the one last year showing “Dookie” getting busted by the guys for watching figure skating with his girlfriend. “That ad absolutely resonated with women. Quite frankly, it catapulted the campaign,” says Lachky.

* Diamond retailer Zales is sponsoring pregame programming to plant the seed that Valentine’s Day is only two weeks later.

* Breathe Right nasal strips is running a Super Bowl promotion for kids strips “to reach Moms through kids,” says Melissa Hanson, senior product manager. “Females and kids follow Super Bowl activities just as much as men,” she says.

* The NFL will premier an image ad using the Lou Reed song, ‘Perfect Day’. The spot features vignettes such as a father playing catch in the backyard — with his daughter. The campaign is about football “as a unifying experience.”

* New York Giants running back Tiki Barber and wife Ginny Barber are penning his and her Super Bowl “diaries” for “Nowadays, when there’s a Super Bowl party, it’s not just the guys — it’s wives and girlfriends, too,” says Ginny, 24, a fashion publicist for Italian clothier Ermenegildo Zegna. “We read the articles about how much the commercials cost and who will be in them. We talk about the commercials after the game.”

* Fashion designer — and NFL licensee — Nicole Miller is rolling out a Super Bowl print for the company’s 30 boutiques and high-end department stores such as Nordstrom. “I don’t think other women’s companies have a clue about the potential of these partnerships. And we’re not going to tell them,” says Shari Grossman, director of licensing.

* During CBS’ premier of ‘Survivor: The Australian Outback ‘after the game, Reebok will launch its first ad with tennis star Venus Williams. The company recently signed Williams to a $40 million multiyear deal, the richest endorsement contract ever signed by a woman. Reebok intends to make Williams its “lifestyle icon,” the way Nike used Michael Jordan. “Reebok signing Venus recognizes the increased influence women athletes have,” says spokeswoman Denise Kaigler. Stephanie Tolleson, the IMG agent who helped make Williams one of the world’s highest-paid female athletes, says: “Companies are finally seeing women as credible, strong spokespersons. For a long time, they just talked the talk. Now, they’re realizing female athletes are the link to female buying power.”

Reflecting popular culture

Futurist Tom Julian of Fallon Worldwide says Williams’ ascension to Michael Jordan-Tiger Woods territory is an example of the “girl power” trend in pop culture that includes hit movies such as ‘Charlie’s Angels ‘and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. But Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network in Chicago, wonders whether Reebok’s multimillion-dollar investment in a “start-up star” from a “niche sport” may be “more about being politically correct — or trying to match wits with Nike,” says Lanktree.

One Super Bowl advertiser spending $6 million on media and production believes she has the key to why women pay more attention to Super Bowl ads than guys: Men are more likely to go to the bathroom during ad breaks. “Men get up during the commercials; women only get up during the game,” says LaWanda Burrell, vice president of global advertising for EDS.

Maybe for some, but don’t tell that to Linda Hempel. The 40-year-old teacher from Minnesota attended the 1967 “Ice Bowl” pitting the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys with a girlfriend. “Women are becoming more interested in the game,” she says.

Or to Clara Matheson, a 74-year-old grandmother from Stratham, N.H. Her husband, Ron, is the football widow in their family. While she cheers for her favorite teams on fall Sundays, her husband goes fishing.

“I don’t know where I found him. It wasn’t at a stadium, that’s for sure,” Matheson says, laughing.