With the Patriots safely wrapped in their 6-0 record and Gillette Stadium quiet this football weekend, my Sunday routine happily reverted to its earliest days, which meant a daylong appointment with the television and interruptions allowed only if they involved food.
Of course the buffet has changed since I was a kid, and we’re not just talking the serving table. The airwaves are stacked long and thick with so many more viewing options than we once had. This Sunday alone included an early morning game from London, a full selection of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. contests, capped by the Sunday night game, and that’s not even counting the Thursday night contest the Patriots already won against the Giants.
So count me in for a fan-style Sunday, and, as ratings numbers continue to show, count me in among the fastest-growing segment of the viewing fan base. Women.
“What we’re seeing is not only is women’s viewership up, but it’s up at a greater rate than that of men,” Michael Mulvihill told me in a phone conversation Friday.
Mulvihill is the executive vice president of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports, and as a longtime interpreter of television numbers, found the latest statistics reflective not only of a clear trend, but of an important and valuable one as well. Through Week 5 at Fox, Mulvihill said the Sunday NFL package is up 9 percent among women viewers in the 25-54 demographic and 5 percent among men, and that the Thursday night package is up 17 percent among women and 9 percent among men. Those numbers are impossible to ignore.
As sports leagues continue to fight for their place in the ever-expanding landscape of entertainment options, the smart move is to cultivate any area with potential growth. Women watching football, particularly women in that valued 25-54 group who are educated and affluent, are like an untapped gold mine.
“We’ve been paying close attention to the trend among female viewers because I feel like it’s going to have an impact on our future goals of the business of the NFL,” Mulvihill said. “I’m not terribly surprised by it because I feel it’s a trend that’s been a long time coming.”
At least since a generation like mine grew up. I didn’t come from a traditional sports-watching household, not with a mom who emigrated from Ireland, whose understanding of the rules were more about hurling or gaelic football than baseball or football, whose watching of live sports events would have included her brothers racing across the Shannon River that flowed directly across from the street of their Limerick City home over anything inside a stadium. My dad, the child of two Irish immigrants himself, grew up in the shadow of New York’s Polo Grounds. But once those Giants left for California, he switched allegiance to their NFL counterparts, and became a season ticket-holder from the team’s early days, Yale Bowl, Yankee Stadium, and New Jersey included.
I absolutely wanted to follow in his footsteps, but I also wanted to play. And with the passage of Title IX, the 1972 federal statute that required equal opportunity for boys and girls at federally funded institutions like schools, I did. And the more I did, the more I watched. Habits were born and they never changed. Clearly, I was not alone.
Mulvihill sees it in the growing female audience. “I think there’s a short-term reason and very long term one, and the short term probably has been more effort to market to women,” he said. “But in the long term I would point to Title IX as a really important reason. With every passing year, the people that make up those audiences are almost entirely of Title IX, a whole generation who grew up with access to sports. That manifests itself in television viewership. We’re seeing the byproduct.”
Seeing it, and, fingers crossed, appreciating it. The business of the NFL hasn’t always been attentive to women, and as too many examples of domestic violence among players show, it hasn’t always been kind either. It was only a few weeks ago in this space that I called out the Antonio Brown/Patriots relationship as another example of what can be an insidious underlying misogyny in the league. Since the high-profile case of Ray Rice’s domestic violence suspension in 2014 was quickly followed by a suspension of Adrian Peterson over a child abuse case, concerns about female fandom understandably increased, a notion that those violent acts, coupled with the inherent violence of a sport that has left many players battling lifelong brain injury, would drive women away.
Then include the Colin Kaepernick-inspired kneeling protests during the national anthem, causing ire that extended all the way to the Oval Office, and there were plenty who mocked the NFL as a dying league. But ratings continue to show us otherwise. With live sports telecasts reigning supreme as the best reality television we have, the top ratings windows continue to belong almost exclusively to NFL games. As Pro Football Talk pointed out Sunday morning, the NFL is averaging 16.4 million viewers for its broadcasts through six weeks, representing a 6 percent rise from a year ago. By way of comparison, it pointed out, the 2019 NBA Finals averaged 15.1 million viewers and the Rays-Astros game averaged 3.67 million while going head-to-head Thursday night against Pats-Giants, which drew 16 million.
In other words, people are still watching sports. When it comes to the NFL, more than ever, those people are women. And I would contend that the equation goes both ways. When we saw the boffo ratings for the recent Women’s World Cup — most numbers had it drawing a global audience of 1 billion viewers — we know that number included more men than ever. An anecdotal search of my own Twitter timeline during Thursday night’s decisive WNBA Finals game between the Mystics and Sun showed more men interested in that game, too.
The more we go forward, the more I believe those numbers will merge. As Mulvihill put it as we spoke, “People are going to appreciate sports from the idea that excellence is excellence,” he said. “Sports fans have an appreciation for greatness in both genders.”