The NFL is becoming a women's game faster than you fans think

Katie Sowers, a coaching intern for the San Francisco 49ers, keeps an eye on training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., on Aug. 8, 2017. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

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Katie Sowers, a coaching intern for the San Francisco 49ers, keeps an eye on training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., on Aug. 8, 2017. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

Wearing all of her Dallas Cowboys swag, Tamy Ben walked around AT&T Stadium before the season opener against the New York Giants last month. Like most in North Texas, she couldn't wait to get in the stadium and get the 2017 NFL season underway.

"I've been a Cowboys fan my entire life, ever since I was a little girl," said Ben, a Fort Worth, Texas resident. "I am a true Cowboys fan."

Ben was one of thousands of female fans attending the Cowboys-Giants game that day, and is one of millions who enjoy the game on a weekly basis.

Women fans make up almost half of the NFL fan base with more than 45 percent women identifying themselves as fans. Cowboys Executive Vice President Charlotte Jones Anderson said women account for more than 47 percent of their fan base.

The numbers certainly are eye-opening, but don't come as a surprise to many.

"We rule the world," Ben said, smiling. "Ladies rule the world."

NFL executives wouldn't disagree with that sentiment. The league and its teams have catered to the women fan for years and understand the value they bring to the game.

But it hasn't always gone smoothly.

Exhibit A: Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Newton made sexist comments to Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue last week then apologized in a Twitter video the next day.

Social media's reaction was swift.

But the NFL's reaction was just as fast.

The league reacted with rare whiplash action, denouncing Newton's comments as "just plain wrong and disrespectful."

Outside of the obvious reason for such a quick move on Newton's outlandish and distasteful comments, the NFL also knows that women control the checkbook of most households and tend to be the primary decision maker of whether their sons will play the game with rising safety concerns.

"I've really always known of the interest that women have in sports," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "They grew up with it hearing their grandfather's stories and they heard their daddy's stories of two-a-days. So it's never surprised me that they're as interested as they are.

"Now, as it turns out, they're certainly a dominant decision maker many times relative to whether their offspring play football, the boys play football. So in that sense I'm really interested in them being fans in the aspects of the game that can build and provide character and leadership.

"So, from a personal standpoint as well as a Cowboys standpoint and the league, I think they're very vital to our game."

Questionable characters 

The NFL is comprised of a variety of players with varying backgrounds. However, it is a violent sport that attracts a few who are far from model citizens.

The Cowboys have had plenty of players make headlines for the wrong reasons over the years. They've brought in players in recent years linked to domestic violence (Greg Hardy) and drugs (Randy Gregory) and multiple arrests (Joseph Randle).

And the cloud still hangs over this team with star running back Ezekiel Elliott facing a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, stemming from a July 2016 domestic violence allegation.

Elliott has gone the legal route to try and clear his name and get the suspension dropped, and a number of women fans continue to support him.

Ben was among many women wearing an Elliott jersey for the season opener.

"You know what? I look at it like this _ everybody is human," Ben said. "We're going to make mistakes. ... (The Elliott investigation) went on too long. You had a whole year. What's the hold up? It doesn't take that long to say yes or no."

When the Elliott suspension was announced, a women fan, 33-year-old Reina Bangloy of Bakersfield, Calif., proudly held up a "Free Zeke" sign at training camp.

"I think it's very unfair," Bangloy said at the time of Elliott's suspension. "We definitely want him to be out there and play for us and, you know, what's going on is not right."

For NFL Network reporter Jane Slater, the players with off-field issues such as Elliott don't represent the entire league. Instead, Slater said, there are far more "good guys" in the league than those who create off-field drama.

"Those instances are a minority of the players in this league. For the most part, the guys that we talk to are really good guys," Slater said. "I'd point to guys like Jason Witten and Sean Lee and Brandon Carr. There are some really amazing guys in this league. There are some outliers.

"I've heard a lot of people think people are going to be turned away from the league because of instances like Greg Hardy, but I don't think we've seen that. I think there was some outrage over the Greg Hardy situation when it happened, but I don't see it affecting the Cowboys.

"If anything, I'm seeing more pink jerseys in the stands. Plenty of women were trying to get autographs and went to training camp. I have plenty of female followers on Twitter and Instagram, so I don't see the lasting footprint of that."

Jones Anderson agreed with that standpoint, saying: "There are more players that do it the right way. We all run into challenges, no different than society, and there's always a challenge that you're going to have to face.

"I'm very proud of the vast majority of players who have played for us. A lot of them are great examples of not only being the best at what they do, but also recognizing their responsibility to community. The have that visibility and use it to go out and make an impact in the community on a lot of different causes."

Cowboys sideline reporter Kristi Scales echoed the thoughts of Slater and Jones Anderson as well.

Scales, who is in her 27th season overall with the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network and 19th as the sideline reporter, has been through it all beginning with the wild 1990s teams.

"There have been players that have tarnished the 'Star,'" Scales said. "But overall the 'Star' is still the biggest brand in pro sports for female fans as well as male fans."

Embracing females

The Cowboys are among the most visible organizations in catering to female fans, which is why they have one of the biggest female followings in the league.

They have a website targeted at the female base, 5 Points Blue, and have several prominent female voices around the organization.

Jones Anderson, Scales and Slater are all prominent female voices around the organization that are visible on a daily basis. Former Star-Telegram Cowboys beat writer Charean Williams became the first female voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame 11 years ago.

Around the league, women have broken ground in becoming officials (Sarah Thomas), coaches (Katie Sowers, Jennifer Welter and in the broadcast booth (Beth Mowins).

"I've been involved with the league for 30 years and the influence of women have become more apparent and that much more valued," Jones Anderson said. "In our culture with the Cowboys, we do value that. My father has always valued that insight.

"For us, we hope we can set a lot of examples here for young women who have an interest in sports whether it be on the field, in media or in management, that those lanes are open for them."

The Cowboys attempt to emulate the fan base as much as possible too. Jones Anderson said the organization's staff is about 47 percent female.

"That correlates directly to who are fans are," Jones Anderson said. "The female fans have a very loud voice and are very prevalent and very influential.

"Women are more engaged than ever about football. Not only are they passionate about their teams, they know more about the sport. They're interested in more details about the game, both from a statistics standpoint and from a lifestyle standpoint."

Slater has seen it hold true among her female friends. She points to fantasy football as a way women have become more involved in the sport, and watching the games over the weekends gives them more time with their spouses or significant others.

Scales has gotten a first-hand response with the content she produces for the team's more lifestyle-centric website, 5 Points Blue. The website is geared more toward the female fan base, but male fans have also gravitated toward the content.

"The website is football, but it's also lifestyle so there's tips for healthy tailgating and healthy living and stories about the players off the field as well as on the field," Scales said. "If I'm writing an X's and O's piece on football, I may add a line or two that is a little more descriptive or educational.

"For example, in referring to the nickel defense, I may add a phrase such as 'when they got to five defensive backs on the field' in order to explain the nickel."

At the end of the day, the NFL understands the importance of the female fan base. It's why thousands attend games every Sunday and why millions more tune in on the weekends.

Walking around AT&T Stadium before any home game and you'll notice waves of women getting ready for the game.

Yanine Montez traveled with her mom, Lupe, from Albuquerque, New Mexico to the season-opener last month. Both were making their first trip to AT&T Stadium, but had knowledge of every player on the team.

"We watch every game. Every single game," Yanine said. "My dad was a huge fan, so we kind of had no choice. But I love Dak and Dez and Jason and Cole Beasley and Zeke. This is the best time of year.

"We just love the guys."

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