Over the last decade, the NFL and its teams have made a concerted effort to appeal to women, starting female-only fan groups, launching exclusive product lines and even buying space in Marie Claire. From 2009 to ’13, the league saw results, as female viewership rose 26%. But the initiative has caused controversy too, like when the Buccaneers rolled out a women-focused RED campaign that many saw as demeaning. A series of domestic violence scandals and greater concern about the health risks of football at both the youth and professional levels have also threatened the efforts. So, where does the NFL stand with women entering the 2016 season?
Given the demographic's size and diversity, it's an impossible question to answer. But, to round out Women's Week here at SI.com, we checked in with a half-dozen fans of the Seahawks, Broncos and Cowboys. They range from beginners to die-hards and have roots stretching from the Pacific Islands to Canada. We asked each of them a series of questions about enjoying game day as women, their reactions to the biggest debates surrounding the sport and where they see things heading in the future. A quick rundown of our panel:
Tiffany Anderson — A Pacific Islander born and raised in Hawaii, Anderson now lives in Tennessee, where even her house is enemy territory. She’s a Cowboys fan after growing up rooting for the ’90s dynasty with her dad, her husband roots for the Bears, while her mom is a Giants fan and her daughter pledges allegiance to the nearby Titans.
Meredith Brannon — The Broncos recently recognized Brannon for her dedication to the team, 43 years after a two-year-old Brannon moved to Colorado and started her fandom. Now a single mom, she’s become so recognizable at team events that Taurean Nixon recently let her wear his Super Bowl ring.
Kris Calpin — Calpin’s sincere fandom only dates back a couple years to when her husband took her to the 2013 Seahawks-Falcons playoff game. Atlanta won the game, but Seattle earned Calpin’s appreciation.
Amanda McDonald — Born in West Virginia, McDonald fell in love with the Seahawks after falling for one of their fans while living in South Carolina. She’s now the chapter president of the Carolina Sea Hawkers, a group with nearly as many women as men.
Sharon Smith — Originally from Canada, Smith started out as an Eagles fan but became a Seattle convert around the turn of the century. Now 59, she’s hopeful her 10 grandchildren will learn to love the same team.
Kim Tangler — Since becoming a cheerleader when she was seven, Tangler has been a football fan. Now 42, she’s committed to the Broncos, having lived in Colorado since 2000. She’s an avid sports talk radio listener and has learned to isolate herself in her bedroom on game days to avoid saying any choice words in front of her four children.
The answers in this roundtable have been edited and condensed.
Question 1: The Experience. How is a game day different for a woman? Is being a female fan something you are conscious of?
Anderson: I never really thought of game day being different for a female. I just think personally that we make it look really good [laughs]. We’re only different because we’ll scream and shout at every play, no matter what, because we don’t know all the rules and regulations as a typical sports guy might. I believe that we care about the main things like touchdowns, fumbles and winning the game and being able to brag about it. Since I can’t go to the stadium I try to obtain the best experience, whether it’s in my living room or at the bar with my fellow Middle Tennessee Dallas Cowboys fan club members. I enjoy watching the game with like-minded individuals both male and female that love football and have so much passion for our team.
Brannon: I don’t think it’s any different, male or female. It’s not just a guy’s sport like it used to be. Every game, I go with a girlfriend and they love the game as much as I do and we can talk about it.
Calpin: As a female fan I think that sometimes people look at me like, she doesn’t know what she is talking about. I get a staredown like, ‘Oh she’s a frontrunner or a newer fan.’ I think sometimes I have to pull stuff out and show I know what I’m talking about, but I don’t like to have to feel like I have to prove myself. A lot of the things I wear just have a logo rather than a player’s name because I don't want to be looked at as just a girl who is wearing the Russell Wilson jersey because he’s the hottest thing. Maybe when he is old and retired I could wear it.
But when I’m with our team’s fans as a group, it’s not a he/she thing, it’s an us thing, a we thing. My experiences aren’t gender dominated.
Tangler: I do get a little harassment sometimes, you do get a little being a woman having your opinions. There is a little bit of discrimination like, ‘Some chick is trying to say something. She doesn’t know anything about football,’ but I can carry my own. They realize I do know a little bit.
I want to be a fan. I don’t want to be a female fan. I tweeted out the other day, my biggest pet peeve is pink Broncos gear. I don’t want to put it on my daughter. I want her in the team’s colors.
Question 2: The League. How would you rate the league’s performance in terms of respecting and promoting its female fans?
Anderson: I really don’t know how to answer that because I haven’t really seen anything that actually separates the males and the females. I guess they could do a little more that caters to the females. I’m not sure.
McDonald: I don’t see a problem with it. It’s great, especially with the Seahawks, they embrace it. Going to away games, here against the Carolina Panthers, they talk crap to us, but as far as the NFL itself, they get it.
Smith: I think they are doing a better job trying to get women involved. You’ll see a lot more ladies on the field and more women showing up at all of the games. Women are becoming more high-profile now. You can also get a lot more women’s gear than you could back in my day. My jerseys were men’s jerseys, and I had to put them on like night shirts.
Tangler: I don’t know if they’ve made any differentiating factors for women fans necessarily. I don’t really know if they promote female fans or not, but I don’t think that matters. I just look at myself as a fan. I don’t want any special treatment at all. I do like the female fan club for my organization [Crush]. The Broncos do such a good job with that that I think some of the male fans feel jealous I have all these opportunities for autographs and things like that.
Question 3: The Debates. From Ray Rice to CTE, football has proven to be a violent sport both on and off the field. Have any of the recent debates given you pause? Have you felt any conflict between being a woman and supporting the sport?
Anderson: No, I have not had any mixed feelings at all when it came to these domestic violence incidents because it’s not like it hasn’t been happening before and it happens to a lot of people, both celebrities and normal people and in every sport and any other occupation. It’s unfortunate that because they’re celebrities they have their business plastered all over the media for everyone to see.
Brannon: There’s all kinds of things. Aqib Talib with the shooting, I really didn’t know what to think about that. These guys are role models. Kids look up to them. People know their names. If it was my neighbor you’d never hear about it, but because they are in the limelight, there’s so much more pressure. But it’d never make me stop watching the game or pause to think I don’t like the NFL.
The new rules, as far as concussions and trying to make it safer, my guy friends don’t like that they can’t hit as hard as before, but I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.
Calpin: There is some stuff that needs to be addressed overall in sports in general. Players need to be held to a higher standard because kids are watching. Everything from domestic violence to drinking and driving to steroids.
As a mom I look at it all and say people need to be held more accountable. It bothers me because my kids are growing up watching this and somebody else’s kids are growing up watching this. I get a little disillusioned, but at the same time some players are out there going to children’s hospitals. Some players are doing amazing things so I try to focus on that more and as I teach my kids, there is good and bad in everything. We still have the power to do better as a society, and as a person we choose how we want to go and look at it.
McDonald: Being a woman, we’ve all got a little mommy figure in us I think, so I don’t want to see any players hurt, but it hasn’t bothered me. The putting hands on women though, that’s not cool. I really do think they need to be harder on that if they can prove it. There are two sides to every story but if you can prove someone put hands on her, then I think they need to be punished. We did discuss the whole Hardy thing and the Adrian Peterson thing, but it doesn’t really steer anybody away from watching. If a player on my team put his hands on a woman or a child and he came back, I don’t know if I’d want to support that team or player any longer. That’s where we are. It hasn’t happened with Seattle. It seems like our coaches up there, we don’t put up with any of that. I hope it doesn’t happen. If it does I might be a little reluctant.
Smith: There are more penalties now which makes it easier to know your players are being protected. ... You support your team and you hope and pray they are not going to be in the media for the wrong reasons. The abuse, when you hear of a player that has attacked his wife or girlfriend, that gives you pause. You didn’t expect that. You thought they were above or beyond that. Sometimes we do put our players on a pedestal when we have to stop and realize they are just like everybody else.
Tangler: No, I actually don’t care what they do in their personal lives. I like football so I’m not going to judge them. Why should Ray Rice’s punishment be more from the NFL than it is legally? I thought he should have been able to play for free and have all that money and publicity go to a good cause.
We are not always the ones getting upset over domestic violence and concussions and things of that nature. We certainly don’t like domestic violence, but that outrage—I just don’t like that it’s a generalization. What I didn’t like was when [Cardinals coach Bruce Arians] made a comment about how it was because of women that we have all these concussion protocols, because of women not wanting their children to play football.
Question 4: The Game. How much conversation is there about preventing kids from playing football?
Calpin: As a nurse, I was an emergency room nurse, I saw things come in and I want to, like that old Charmin commercial, put my kids in bubble wrap, but I think it’s good for them to learn the sport—get that team camaraderie and competition and sportsmanship.
McDonald: That’s more of a media thing I think. I haven’t had any conversations. I do have some kids in our group and they play.
Tangler: My sons just started tackle football. I think the media always incites things—sparks it up. I haven’t watched the movie [Concussion] and I don’t want to watch the movie. I love football. I don’t want my son to get hurt but they have learned a lot. We’ll take it as it comes. I was listening to local sports radio and Brandon Stokley was on there saying he almost feels like because he played the sport and knows how dangerous it was and what it feels like, that’s why he opted out for his child. Maybe it’s actually the men who understand how hard they hit, rather than the woman. I have one friend who is nervous about it, and another one who is like, ‘You got to let them do it.’ Definitely mixed views on that amongst my peers.
Question 5: The Future. Where do you see things heading for women in and around the NFL?
Anderson: Women’s role in football has already changed. There are more women sports reporters and more women coaches as well. I would hope that they have more professional women football teams and not just the ones inside arenas playing in bikinis. I just hope that it expands a whole lot more on and off the field.
Calpin: Honestly, I hope we are out there and not just in lingerie and lacy bras. I hope women are getting out there. I really think there are a lot of men that would cringe at that, but I think we need to get more involved. I see lots of sportscasters that are women who are not just pretty faces. I’m not going to be the one that gets out there—not at 47—but I hope someday somebody breaks that barrier to where woman can actually play not as a powderpuff team or a league that’s sexualized. Maybe it’ll be a female coach someday that eventually changes one level and then we see change at other levels.
It might set a role model for anybody in anything. We have a female running for president these days! Who knows what’s next. Who knows what it would change. I just hope it would keep the integrity of the sport intact, regardless of what it is, because I love my football.
McDonald: Honestly I see a lot more women coming out now than I did before, especially single women. I see more and more women in Seattle and talking football on Facebook pages. The NFL only had smaller-size jerseys for women and now they are coming out with 2XL and 3XL. It’s all going to grow and there will be as many women as men, I think.
Tangler: I think we’ve always been there and the more opportunities the team gives or supports these groups, you’ll see it more. We’re there. We’ve always been there.