A Generation of Women Goes for Gridiron

Tyler Horton came into the world on the evening of Jan. 12, at about the same time the Jacksonville Jaguars were mounting a last-ditch drive against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

In the midst of labor, Tyler's mother, Michelle, issued an unusual request to relatives gathered in the delivery room: She asked them to turn on the TV.

"I didn't want to miss the fourth quarter," she says.

Ms. Horton, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, is one of a growing number of women who are demonstrating more than a casual interest in professional football. A recent Harris Poll found that 41 percent of women follow the NFL, up from 32 percent two years ago. More than 40 million women watch weekend NFL broadcasts, and women buy almost half of all league merchandise.

It's hard to determine why this is happening. Perhaps a generation of daughters who watched the NFL with their fathers is coming into adulthood - and watching with their daughters. Maybe it has something to do with efforts by broadcasters to stop speaking in jargon.

Then again, the trend may represent a glacial shift in societal attitudes.

"Women today know a lot more about football than they did 20 years ago," says Art Taylor of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport and Society in Boston. "It's mainly a revolution among younger women."

This rising interest comes at a time when more girls and young women are participating in sports. Under 1972 Title IX reforms spelled out by the US Education Department, schools and colleges across the nation have been required to spend more money on women's sports programs and to provide more opportunities for women to participate. As a result, more females are taking up rackets, bats, and basketballs at early ages.

Recent studies have found that almost 90 percent of parents accept the idea that sports are equally important for boys and girls. A 1996 poll for Sports Illustrated for Kids found that 89 percent of girls say they've participated in sports, compared to 96 percent of boys.

But even though more girls get involved in organized athletics, it's not clear their participation makes them more receptive to football. Unlike baseball, which has been easily replicated for girls in the form of softball, or sports such as tennis, soccer, golf, and basketball that vary little by gender, football remains an overwhelmingly male preserve.

In the Sports Illustrated poll, only 13 percent of girls say they've played some form of football, and according to the New-York based Women's Sports Foundation, only about 400 girls are playing high school football nationwide.

So why are so many women falling for a sport they've never played?

"It makes good television," Professor Taylor says. "And broadcasters have found ways to make the game more entertaining."

Indeed, the Fox Network, which recently purchased exclusive rights to NFL games and the playoffs, has made efforts to tailor its coverage not only to women, but also to the millions of men who don't follow the league.

In addition to limiting the use of football jargon, adding camera angles, and using telestrators to diagram plays after they've happened, Fox's on-air personalities will sometimes gather on a miniature football field in the studio to act out on-field situations. Fox has also encouraged its team to try to add an element of humor to the broadcasts.

"As I travel around the country, more women are coming up to say thanks for not talking down to them and not using esoterica," says James Brown, Fox's studio frontman. "It's so easy for me to get up in the booth ... and talk about stunts and traps and whether a play was a 'tex' or a 'lex,' but that's cocky, show-offy kind of stuff that only a small percentage of people understand. We're using lay language and diagramming plays more. That's what people appreciate."

John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach and the game's premier color man, spends a good deal of time during games with an electronic pencil in his hand, diagramming slow-motion replays on a machine called a telestrator. This technique, he says, is not just for the benefit of women.

"I think that helps everyone," he says, "because there's a lot of people who bluff and say they know the game, but they don't."

HERE in New Orleans, as the trickle of fans arriving for the Super Bowl turns to a cascade, it's not hard to spot women who've been caught up in the NFL frenzy. Brenda Hollis, a Milwaukee resident and lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, traveled to New Orleans with four girlfriends, all of whom are standing in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel looking for autographs.

Ms. Hollis is carrying a commemorative football that already bears the signatures of six players, including her favorite, strong safety LeRoy Butler. She's wearing Packers earrings, a Packers wristwatch, and a denim shirt with the green and gold Packers insignia embroidered on the pocket.

"Fans are fans," she says, "male or female or whatever. I don't know anybody who thinks I'm strange because I love to watch football."

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