>> Much fuss was made in the summer of 2014 about the possibility of the NFL losing points from their highly valuable female fan base in the wake of two players’ heated scandals—Baltimore Raven Ray Rice’s domestic assault caught on hotel videotape and Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges. Memorably, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann said the images of Rice’s assault of Janay Palmer were “symbolically knocking out every woman football fan in this country.”
Come that September, media analysts were obsessively tracking female viewers, and little seemed to have changed. Rice was released from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely; Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault of his then 4-year-old son—and was suspended for the season. Meanwhile, a month into the 2014 season, Sport Business Daily reported that a record number of women were tuning in to the NFL.
In fact, the number of women who watch professional football has been on a steady rise for over a decade now—females made up an estimated 45 percent of total NFL viewers in 2014. The Ravens female fan base is only slightly different, in that our city’s team has historically boasted a somewhat more higher female demographic than much of the NFL, according to Brad Downs, VP of marketing for the team.
“So we’ve wanted to make sure we’ve engaged with them,” Down says.
And engage they have. Purple, the free-to-join, Ravens-sponsored fan network for females (though the club cannot, by law, exclude male fans), launched in 2007. Now roughly 30,000 strong, Purple hosts a ticketed annual dinner each October with interactive entertainment, player autograph opportunities, etc.—it’s attended by about 5,000 women on average. Members receive a monthly e-newsletter and may attend chosen events throughout the year, like a bingo night with player cameos (wide receiver Kamar Aiken called numbers recently).
When Purple launched eight years ago, 50 percent of women in the Baltimore market said they considered themselves Ravens fans, according to Katie Bollinger, advertising and marketing coordinator for the Ravens. Last year, 64 percent of women polled said they are fans, which represents 28 percent growth. Forty-seven percent of the Ravens fan base was female in 2014, compared to 45 percent in 2007.
It’s only predictable that the NFL—and the Ravens as a franchise—works hard to honor and protect their enormous female demographic, as women tend to be the main shoppers and spenders in the typical American household—and therefore the key target for advertisers. Merch sales—a highly profitable element in this multibillion-dollar sport—flag another reason to include the ladies.
On a more humanistic note, 2015 has been a feministically inspiring, historic year for pro sports: This summer, the NFL hired it’s corporation’s first full-time female referee, Sarah Thomas, and, additionally, Jen Welter became the first- ever female assistant coach—for the Arizona Cardinals. “This is what progress looks like,” read part of Vice President Joe Biden’s Tweet on the subject of Welter’s hiring.
It’s also inspiring to talk to a handful of highly diverse female Ravens fans about their commitment to the game, their traditions around it and their philosophical concerns, and to discover that the image of the housewife who doesn’t understand the game is about as outmoded as the notion women can’t drive.
“I think that women have [always] been into football, but it was more comfortable for people to perpetuate the stereotype of the Sunday widow sitting around being miserable,” says Joyce Boyer, 55, a member of Purple.
Boyer, a divorced art teacher in Baltimore County, says that in place of a man cave, she has decorated a reading room with Ravens-related merchandise, from a neon Ravens clock to designer Ravens boots to the purple beaded jewelry she makes herself. Incidentally, Boyer, if she’s watching a game at home, prefers to mute the volume and listen by radio because the broadcasting is more technically specific. On the side, she plays fantasy football, a growing trend for women.
Boyer grew up in Compton, outside Los Angeles, with a football coach father who sent several players to the NFL, and says she has long studied the sport with strategic interest—“We followed the original Rams.”
She moved to Baltimore 31 years ago and has always appreciated the sense of equality that she feels in a Ravens-rooting context.
“I like the blue-collar work ethic feel of going to a Ravens game,” Boyer says. “Your socio-economic status doesn’t matter, other than your ability to buy a certain seat.”
Her favorite player of the moment is outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, Boyer says, because “Some go through the motions—he plays with heart.”
Like Boyer, Karley Emrich, 38, another registered Purple member, plays fantasy football.
Emrich’s so invested in her hometown team that she ended a hospital stay a day ahead of her doctor’s recommendation— after she delivered her son, Walter, by C-section in December of 2006—so she could catch the Sunday Ravens game in her own living room. “I was healing well and it was okay,” she says laughing.
Emrich and her husband, Walter—himself a Cincinnati Bengals fan first and Ravens fan a distant second—made a pact that year: “If it’s a boy, he comes home in Bengals gear,” which he did—a girl would have come home purple. But score one for the Ravens and call it even: Emrich’s 2006 baby shower, thrown by her mother, and attended by more than 100 men and women, took place at Ravens stadium. A planned event in the club area, it was a surprise to Emrich. Poe, the team’s costumed bird mascot, attended the event. “The cake was Ravens,” she says. And she received gobs of purple and black baby clothes.
And when her daughter, Makenna, came along a few years later, Emrich got to bring the newborn home in Ravens colors. (Touchdown.)
But for her, the fantasy football and purple merch are far less important than what happens on the field.
“I understand everything about football,” Emrich says. “We watch every game on Sunday on ESPN. We go to [many] Ravens games.”
Emrich says she used to take Ravens losses hard—“You couldn’t talk to me for three days”—but now she’s composed after about an hour of processing what’s gone down.
For her, the violence—the Ray Rice controversy and the game itself—is not as easy to deal with.
“The Rice violence was a tough one,” she says. “I’ve met him a couple of times; I’ve met Janay. They seem super down-to-earth. But what he did was horrific. These players are on this pedestal and given a gift and can’t seem to get it right. The whole Tom Brady thing, too… It’s very discouraging.”
One thing that’s encouraging to Emrich: Last March five new NFL player safety rules were introduced. And talk of improved safety is spreading. “I was listening to Rob Ambrose, the head coach for Towson, talk about how they’re changing technique—and emphasizing there’s a correct way to tackle. When you know better, you do better.”
Still, on the minus side, for Emrich and her husband, the occasional bad boy football star creates a more challenging parenting moment, given that Walter, Jr., plays sports year-round.
“So I often discuss this with my husband,” she says, “how to be a good person as an athlete.”
Hyper-fan Jody McNanie, an Ohio native who grew up following the San Francisco 49ers, says she watched her uncles and granddad watch football as a kid. But today she’s all about the best apps, websites, sports radio on Sirius and coverage on ESPN. The goal: to take in as much football data as possible.
“I also recommend the book ‘How to Watch Football by Taking Your Eye off the Ball’ by Pat Kerwin,” McNanie says.
The athletic violence of the sport doesn’t faze McNanie so much because she’s good at compartmentalizing, she says, and usually remembers to view football as an entertainment, though she likes “the fact that they have penalties to protect players more.”
Regarding the Rice debacle, she says, “Domestic violence—I can’t have that happen.”
“The one thing I feel guilty about,” McNanie, a gay married woman and assistant team leader for Whole Foods, continues, “is the lack of gay players and female coaches.”
McNanie and her wife, Sarah, find themselves opposing forces on a Ravens-to-Bengals divide fairly similar to the Emrichs’. All the same, they watch football as a family. Her favorite player of the moment: quarterback Joe Flacco.
“He’s underrated,” McNanie—who hasn’t joined Purple—asserts. “He describes himself as boring, married, three kids. He’s not flashy. But he doesn’t worry what the media says.”
Purple member Li Na Goins, 56, a Connecticut native transplanted to Baltimore 32 years ago, had never attended a single game until she and her husband decided to follow the Ravens together as a way to ease their empty nest syndrome.
“Yes, we have tickets and we go to every game,” Goins says. “I wear my jersey, but I don’t get all gooped up.”
Goins, like McNanie, adores Flacco “in terms of what he brings.”
She says, “I had a crush on [tight end] Todd Heap, but he got traded to Arizona.”
But don’t let Goins’ ready admission of a player crush give the impression she’s not all about the rules and regulations and the competitive heat of the game itself—“I’m very vocal. I have my binoculars at games,” she says, “and it makes me feel like I’m playing. I used to hate watching games in the cold, but now I get a buzz. At home, I still use the radio to learn.”
Goins reports her marriage is “even spicier” thanks to the couple’s bonding over the sport, which has ignited new kinds of conversations.
For self-described Ravens fan Nureya Monroe, 26, a Columbia, Md., native and the wife of Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (a New Jersey native), marriage and football are pretty much inseparable right now.
In 2013, when the Monroes got word that Eugene had been traded, and he and the family needed to relocate from Jacksonville, where he played for the Jaguars, to Nureya’s home state, they were ecstatic. But then they snapped into a two-minute drill to move double-quick.
“We got a call in the middle of the night on a Tuesday,” Monroe says. “We moved our family that Saturday—it’s up to the family to orchestrate—and he played the next Sunday. We knew the Ravens wanted Eugene. But it was really just luck.”
Clearly, Monroe’s favorite player pick would be a silly question to ask.
“I try to be my husband’s number-one fan,” she says without prompting, her quiet voice as calm as a veteran coach calling a play. “It’s been a life dream for these guys.”