By and large, it's been a great summer for sports fans. Last month, Oakland, Calif.'s Golden State Warriors earned an NBA Playoffs title, its first in 40 years. Chicago residents lost their collective minds when the Blackhawks, much to the bewilderment of the NHL, celebrated its third Stanley Cup victory in six seasons. We saw the U.S. bulldoze Japan in the Women's World Cup final.
Meanwhile, the female fan market, which has long been robust, is becoming more prevalent than ever. Forty-six percent of this year's 114 million Super Bowl viewers were women, reports The Washington Post, higher than this year's Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined.
Women's-specific sports paraphernalia, though, does not seem to reflect the size and buying power of that demographic. Featuring swirly logos and flimsy v-necks, female fan apparel tends to have a slightly girlish aesthetic. Much of what you may find in a women's section, be it covered in rhinestones or sized for a child, feels like it belongs in a trend-driven teen retailer; think a Wet Seal, rather than a Gap. The marketing ploy is obvious: Women should want to look like, well, "women" when participating in an athletic activity — and "women," generally, wear bejeweled t-shirts and plunging necklines. Right?
The "pink it and shrink it" strategy, while archaic, is one that has long been employed by the retail industry to target female shoppers. According to decades of market research, a woman is more likely to buy a bubblegum-colored toolkit than a slate gray one, as is the case with a football jersey. It's applied within technology, too. In 2009, Dell launched an infamously cutesy website named "Della" to sell PCs as "style statements" with tools for "[tracking] calories" and "mini-breaks throughout your day." After a massive backlash, the company apologized.
Michelle Castillo, a 28-year-old NFL fan and staff writer for CNBC Digital, describes the recent efforts of the NFL to veer away from the Pepto-Bismol pinks of yesteryear. "About five years ago, they started revamping the clothing they offered to women," she says. "The NFL was realizing that women were tired of [the 'pink it and shrink it' aesthetic], so they really started reaching out to other designers like Victoria's Secret and Marchesa to start making more designs for women, as well as bringing in more of those vintage styles and more women's sizes."
The NFL's efforts may be paying off. As of Sept. 2013, the NFL had seen double-digit growth in women’s apparel sales for four consecutive years. And that growth is likely to continue, Castillo says, since its female audience is continuing to grow. Indeed, the NFL's official online store stocks an incredibly broad range of colors, cuts and styles. "If you go back five years ago, most of what was available to women was literally just smaller jerseys in pink," she says.
Rhiannon Madden, the NFL's director of consumer products, talks us through the league's design strategy. "Each year we get a little smarter about it, a little more sophisticated about it," she explains. "We look at what's happening in the marketplace, what's on-trend, what women are wearing on the street and also what women are wearing in stadiums. We take cues from our fans, as well as what's happening in fashion."
The NFL, Madden says, works with a number of different partners — including Nike and Victoria's Secret Pink — to best deliver to the NFL's ever-growing female market. "We're really looking at the individual consumers, since we have such a massive female fan base," she says. "Forty-five percent of our fan base is female, so we can't speak to them all the same way." She lists a selection of the women's offerings, which, as she states, now includes plus size, maternity and athleisure-minded workout gear. "We even have blazers now."
And yet, classic, normal-looking fan apparel without unnecessary bells and whistles can still be difficult to find in women's sizes.
One of the NFL's primary vendors for women is Touch by Alyssa Milano, helmed by the multitasking "Who's the Boss?" magnate. With a butterfly tucked in the right-hand corner of its logo, Touch by Alyssa Milano carries merchandise for four major leagues, the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, and is even carried within department stores like Lord & Taylor and Macy's. The brand's inventory is expansive and comes stocked with everything from velour track pants to teardrop earrings. Many items, be it a lace-up t-shirt or a pair of embellished jeans, are modeled by Milano herself.
Alas, Touch by Alyssa Milano is one of the more prevailing perpetrators. Its tees — the majority of which possess either a scoop-neck or lace-up neckline — are particularly fussy. If an item isn't flourished with a fleur-de-lis-inspired pattern, it's almost certainly displays distressed graphics or cursive lettering. Any and all raglan "jersey"-type tops are, naturally, of the off-the-shoulder variety.
Another heavily trend-driven licenser is Miss Fanatic, an Orlando, Fla.-based company founded by one-time Miami Dolphins cheerleader Tiffany Pearl. In 2008, Pearl designed a line of swimsuits — made of actual football pigskins — for the team's cheerleaders to wear to an event; she launched Miss Fanatic soon after. Pearl has found that her shoppers want to wear "figure-flattering garments," rather than what she dubs "the old-school, oversized jersey."
If only based on recent lookbooks, it's safe to say Pearl's creations are not at all catering to the "old-school, oversized jersey"-type. In 2013, busty, scantily clad models posed in an arcade in their bikinis and knee socks; in 2012, the setting changed slightly (a carnival), though the aesthetic (overtly sexy) remained.
"We definitely pride ourselves on being able to look at the current trends in the market and utilize aspects of those trends within our collection to where you're wearing fashion-forward, trendy apparel that can also reflect your team's logos and colors and you can show your team spirit on any occasion," she explains.
While the NFL's growing revenue proves that there is a market for such merchandise, other female shoppers remain dissatisfied. Dayana Sarkisova, an assistant editor at ESPN Insider and a former All-American fencer at Northwestern University, is a rabid Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls fan. She admits to buying her team apparel — jerseys, mostly, which she keeps tidily hanging in her closet — from the men's department.
"A lot of it has to do with having been an athlete," Sarkisova, 24, clarifies. "In general, the stuff you wear to play sports is the exact same for both genders. It's not like I need something that's a v-neck, instead, because I'm a female athlete." She stops to giggle — because, when she speaks it, it sounds ridiculous. "That's the same mindset I have when I get dressed to watch sports. It's just sports apparel. I never think of it as men's or women's."
Sarkisova names a frustration of hers — bedazzling — which is heavily exhibited in both Touch by Alyssa Milano and Miss Fanatic's product range. "I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but," she pauses, "I always find it funny when labels think they have to do something like that in order to sell to the female crowd."
Rather than the men's section, Athena Lo, a petite user experience designer at an iPad-based education technology company, shops the kid's section for her sports fan goods. While Lo, 25, grew up a New York Yankees fan, a recent move to the Midwest converted her into an active Chicago Blackhawks devotee, too. In May, she invested in her first piece of Blackhawks apparel: an Andrew Shaw jersey, purchased immediately after he attempted an illegal head-butt goal in double overtime.
Like Sarkisova, Lo has to hunt to avoid "unnecessary rhinestones," as well as "logos or images [that] are strategically placed over the breasts." Function, she concludes, wins out over form: "If I'm going to watch a sport, I want to enjoy my burger, fries and beer and not have to worry about spilling out of my clothes."
It's not just the glittery decoration or itty-bitty fit that frustrates some female fans. As Lo states, the prices of women's fan garb tend to run higher — if only slightly — than the men's equivalent. Just this spring, NBC News's Jeff Rossen conducted an investigation into something, frustratingly, called the "pink tax," proving that women pay more than men for similar personal grooming products.
Does this also translate into women's sporting apparel? As far as t-shirts are concerned, yes. At the New York-based sports apparel chain Modell's Sporting Goods, a men's version of a cotton Yankees tee — made by Nike — costs $26, while the women's rings up at $32. At Sports Authority, a men's Houston Astros shirt — made by Majestic Athletic this time — is $28, its women's version costing $32. And at the NBA's official online store, men's and women's Adidas-designed celebratory Golden State Warriors t-shirts cost $25.95 and $27.95, respectively. The comparisons go on (and on and on) at similar retailers across the country.
Is this gender-based price differential due to the more strenuous, fashion-focused nature of designing fan apparel for women? Keith Leach, the market director within Reebok's Sports Licensed Division for the NHL, says the company has an entire style-driven arm for female hockey fans. While he admits Reebok certainly isn't "first to fashion," the company does try to react to various trends within a season.
But the question remains: Do women even want sports clothes to be trendy? If "trendy" continues to be a blanket term for body-hugging, slim-fitting or — wait for it — bedazzled merchandise, the answer may be a resounding no. "Fan apparel serves a specific purpose, and that's being a fan," Sarkisova says. "I don't see how that has a gender."
But it's gender, she suggests, that may present an alternative to all those rhinestones: hire more women. "The sports industry in general struggles with this, and I think it's so crucial in order to evolve," Sarkisova later writes in an email. "It's startling how often big decisions and creative decisions are being made by men, even when the product is for women. That lack of diversity in decision-making can lead to some really questionable fan apparel and some really frustrated female fans." There's evidence to support this theory, too: The NFL attributed its recent women's sales growth largely to its collaborations with women. "Absolutely everyone benefits when there is a variety of opinion in the industry."
Note: This story has been changed to update Athena Lo's job title.
Homepage photo: Broncos fans before Super Bowl XLVII in Denver, Colo. Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images