Longtime sports journalist Trenni Kusnierek felt as if she’d time-traveled to a long-gone decade when she heard about RED, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ self-described women’s movement. Although the initiative attempts to “recognize and celebrate” the NFL team’s female fans, it vows, among other things, to help women better understand football and to dole out “gameday style tips.” As a result, RED’s unveiling is prompting no shortage of eye-rolling among critics, who decry the program as sexist.
For many members of the National Football League’s ever-growing female fan base, the Buccaneers’ program represents a fundamental misjudgment of the way women enjoy the sport.
“I would like to say I was surprised, but I wasn’t,” says Kusnierek, an anchor for Comcast SportsNet New England. “It is disappointing to know that even in 2015 the perception is that women aren’t really interested in the game itself and [are] instead concerned with how good we can look while serving up tasty tailgate treats.”
The Buccaneers’ tone-deaf misstep comes at a critical time for the NFL, an organization still reeling from a domestic-violence scandal that led many to question its attitude toward women. Female fans now compose about 45 percent of the NFL’s 150 million-strong fan base, as well as a third of its television audience, according to a league-endorsed study in 2013. With the NFL less than five weeks away from the kickoff of its 2015 season, its teams need to connect with women in an authentic way for the league to have any chance of meeting its goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027 .
“Fans know when approaches are gratuitous or beneath them,” said David Carter, executive director of the sports business institute at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “A league like the NFL and its individual teams should know their fan bases fairly well, especially when the NFL has such a strong following [among women]. This is a critical customer base for them to get right.”
Most agree the Buccaneers’ press release for the RED initiative last week was not a deliberate attempt to infuriate female fans. The program’s goal is to improve the fan experience through active engagement with local women -- an admirable concept, in theory. But the Buccaneers went wrong by presenting women as casual bystanders, more interested in dressing up for a tailgate party than following the in-game action. Critics are particularly taking umbrage with the Buccaneers’ description of the RED Launch party Sept. 10.
“Event highlights will include an ‘Insider’s Talk’ with Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, surprise appearances from Buccaneer legends, game day style tips from local area experts and even a RED Lifestyle Lounge session to educate attendees on the art of incorporating their passion for the Bucs into their other lifestyle interests such as tailgating and home entertaining,” the press release said.
A Buccaneers representative declined to comment Friday on the backlash.
Elements of the Buccaneers’ press release read like “something out of a 1960s housewives magazine,” said Erin Morris, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies women’s sports development. “They’re recognizing that women are a big part of their fan base, but they’re not figuring out how to connect at all. This campaign is emblematic of that,” she said.
Criticism of the RED initiative also extends to the program’s official Web portal. Among the first posts is an explanation of football’s play clock, the “RED Term of the Week.” That the Buccaneers feel it necessary to explain a basic football concept to women is indicative of how RED is missing the mark, said Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Purdue University.
“If you’re a novice fan, like you’ve never watched football, maybe you’re coming in from another country and you want to learn about American football, that makes sense,” Cooky said. “But the assumption that women don’t know football, I think, is problematic and what’s raising people’s hackles.”
The backlash on social media also constitutes a sore spot for the Buccaneers, which dealt with a fair amount of criticism last April when the team selected former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston with the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston gained national infamy while in college for a slew of off-field incidents, including a 2012 sexual-assault accusation. Critics are now linking Tampa Bay’s association with Winston to the RED initiative, as further evidence of the franchise’s overall attitude toward women.
“They drafted and are planning to start someone who’s been accused of rape and sexual violence. They go from that to a campaign about how women can look cute in Buccaneers apparel. I see a direct connection,” Morris said.
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@TBBuccaneers) August 6, 2015
The NFL has been scrambling to make amends with female fans since last September when leaked surveillance footage showed former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knock his fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Along with the NFL’s failure to adequately address similar instances of alleged domestic violence involving Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, the Rice incident forced the league to confront arguably the biggest public-relations crisis in its history.
Facing corporate-sponsor pressure and calls by women’s advocacy groups for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation, the league completely overhauled its personal-conduct policy and included two women on its new “conduct committee.” Domestic-violence incidents now result in lengthy suspensions.
There are other signs the NFL’s attitude toward women is evolving. The 2015 season will feature the debut of Sarah Thomas, the league’s first full-time female referee. The Green Bay Packers named Susan Finco the first-ever female member of the team’s executive committee last June, and the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an inside-linebacker coach in July.
“In fairness, I think the NFL is trying to change the culture,” sports journalist Kusnierek said. “I’m not sure we’ve seen any real shift yet, but change takes time.”
For all its missteps in the past 12 months, the NFL is still a financial juggernaut. The most scandal-ridden season in league history was also insanely lucrative, as the league’s 32 teams split $7.2 billion in revenue for the 2014 fiscal year, ESPN reported. But the Buccaneers’ recent faux pas should serve as a wake-up call about the care teams must take not to alienate nearly half of its customer base.
“What it does reinforce to everybody that either works for the team or the league -- its business partners like sponsors and the media -- is that they have to pay very, very close attention to each of its fan bases, understand that they’re distinct, appreciate that they’re looking for different things when it comes to consuming the NFL and approach them authentically,” USC’s Carter said.