Darron Cummings  /  AP
Indianapolis Colts football fan Kellie Nowacki reacts at Jillian's in downtown Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007, following an interception for a touchdown by the Colts against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI being played in Miami.
By MSNBC.com
updated 3/19/2007 9:53:12 AM ET 2007-03-19T13:53:12

There is the football fan who feels the anticipation building as the start of each NFL season nears, dreams of Sundays in front of TVs at home or in bars sharing a few drinks with friends as the games play out on the screens before them.

And then there is Claudia Rodriguez.

Claudia Rodriguez with her brother Tom at the World Championship of Fantasy Football draft in Las Vegas.  She finished 17 out of 480 competitors, and highest among women.

Starting in June, Rodriguez, 41, starts digging into fantasy football magazine, spending about 30 minutes per weeknight and at least a few hours on the weekend buried in the projected player rankings. The week before the season starts is reserved for research — she takes off from her job as a claims manager — for the draft in her four fantasy football leagues.  And once the football season starts, Sundays become a routine that start with checking injury reports at 8 a.m. before settling in for 12 hours in front of the TV and computer. 

Her husband usually takes their 9-year-old daughter hiking, or at least out of Claudia’s way.  “He does not want to see me on Sunday,” she said.  “He takes my daughter and they go.”

Rodriguez is what one marketing exec with the NFL refers to as the “super avid” fan, and although this labeled is stereotypically reserved for members of the male population, more and more women are coming down with football fever, while the men in their lives must play the role of supporting spouse.

“It’s the kind of thing guys talk about, but when you actually get it, it's not so great,” said Michael Pusateri. His wife Michele, a die-hard Bengals fan, does not disagree.

Being a wife who is obsessed with football is “the worst,” she says.  “My husband is quite the widower during football season.”

‘The only reality television’
Approximately 375,000 women attend professional football games each weekend, with more than another 45 million watching on television, according to the NFL.  In poll after poll, women repeatedly choose football as their favorite professional sport. In a 2006 Harris poll, 30 percent of women chose the NFL as their favorite, 14 percent chose the MLB, and 10 percent chose college football.

Michele Pusateri, 42, is already counting down the weeks until the opening of the 2007 NFL season.

“The more I watch it, the more real it is,” she said.  “Anything can happen on any given Sunday… It’s the only reality television.”

During the week, Michele, a stay-at-home mother of two in Los Angeles, is busy running errands, driving carpools and keeping the household running.  But during the 17 Sundays of the regular NFL season – and sometimes Saturdays and Monday nights, too – the chaos of daily life is drowned out by the play calls of the 32 teams she can watch from the comfort of her living room, thanks to her NFL Sunday ticket.  Meanwhile, the responsibility of watching the girls, making the meals and even answering the phone and holding conversations with friends who may stop by, falls to her husband Michael.

Michele prefers to watch the games in a quiet room by herself, although now that her daughters are becoming football fanatics, she often has company that takes the play on the field almost as seriously as she does.

“My oldest daughter likes the Miami Dolphins because she likes dolphins and my younger one, because she’s 8, likes the Bengals because I do,” Michele said. “I’m so happy that they’ll grow up and always know football and know fandom.”

The gatekeepers
It is this ability to influence the next generation of football fans — as well women’s influence over major household purchases — that compels both the NFL and advertisers to aggressively market to women.

“They’re gatekeepers,” said Lisa Baird, senior vice president of consumer products and marketing integration at the NFL.

Video: Co-ed wins Super Bowl ad contest “There has been a lot of press that the majority of advertising during games is still for male products – cars, electronics, beer,” said Stephen Ross, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Kinesiology specializing in of sport branding and marketing, sport consumer psychology and spectator behavior.  “But when it comes to purchase decision-making in the home, women are the majority the big-ticket decision makers."

"Advertisers in the NFL know, and specifically in the Super Bowl, the audience is much more than the 18 to 34-year-old male audience," he said, pointing out the Super Bowl Chevy ad that featured a twist on the traditional commercial featuring attractive, scantily clad women.

More women watched the 2007 Super Bowl (42.2 million) than men and women combined watched the Academy Awards (40.2 million), and 66 percent more women watched the Super Bowl than the Academy Awards (25.4 million), according to Nielson Media Research.

In order to continue to grow this already strong number of female fans, Baird pointed to several marketing efforts aimed at women, including highlighting player’s involvement in community activities, which she says appeals to women who are usually active in their own communities; encouraging more female participation in fantasy football leagues (Claudia Rodriguez, who finished 17th in the World Championship of Fantasy Football, is just one of roughly 1.5 million women who participate in fantasy leagues each year, according to a 2005 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project); and continuing to develop products designed specifically for women, a profitable business.

The NFL just started marketing women’s apparel seven years ago.  In that time sales have risen to 15 percent of an estimated $3.5 billion in total merchandise sales for the 2006 season. 

The enablers
At about the same time the NFL started offering women’s apparel, Ivette Ricco realized there were hardly any media outlets catering to specifically to female sports fans.  In March 2000, she launched FemmeFan.com, which reports the latest sports news, but also offers photos of “locker room lookers” and recipes for tailgating.

Ivette Ricco surrounded by "Cheeseheads" at a 1999 playoff game.
“It’s growing incredibly and way beyond my expectations,” Ricco said.

It was Ricco’s husband Mike who first introduced her to football after they got married.  While Mike may be slightly embarrassed these days when Ivette is one of the loudest people cheering in their section at 49ers game, he always supports his wife’s love of sports— whether it's by serving drinks to guests who stop by on football Sundays so Ivette can stay glued to the couch, or by comforting the grandchildren when Ivette’s screaming at the screen sends them into tears. (Ivette’s daughter does not ask her to baybsit on Sundays anymore.)

Mike Ricco is what Michele Pusateri describes as an “enabler.”  Mike prints out a list of channels showing each game every week, then takes care of their daughters so Michele never has to leave the TV.  Matt Rodriguez watches his and Claudia’s daughter when Claudia flies to Las Vegas for the World Championship of Fantasy Football draft, and just shakes his head and laughs when she bolts in the middle of family outings to find a quiet corner where she can call into the radio show for which she serves as a fantasy football expert.

It could be worse. Their wives could be this fanatical about the Major League Baseball with its 162 games per regular season.

“My wife works very, very hard,” Matt Rodriguez said.  “She is by all accounts a workaholic so the way I figure at least I can give her one day a week to make up for it.  She deserves that one day to veg out and do that one thing she really loves.”

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