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January 31st, 2014
06:05 PM ET

Women emerge as NFL game-changers

(CNN) - Remember back in the days when the words "pro football fan" conjured up images of guys gathered around TV screens chugging beer, and cheering wildly? And women who didn't hate the sport, were thought to be simply tolerating it because, well, how else would you get to spend time with your guy on Sundays in the fall?

Fast forward a few years, and the so-called football widow may notice her huddle is shrinking.

According to the National Football League, women now make up nearly half the league's fan base; 375,000 women attend NFL games each weekend.

In fact, Nielsen, which measures TV ratings, found more women now watch the Super Bowl, than they do the Oscars. And these ladies are no longer content to just sit on the sidelines, while the fellas have all the fun.

Over the past 10 years, the league has gone out of its way to embrace the growing legion of gridiron gals, says NFL's director of apparel Rhiannon Madden. The most visible part of that game plan is a revamped line of merchandise options.

"We've had product on the market for 10 years, but as we get smarter about our female fans we've expanded our product offering, and really expanded the depth and breath of what we have," Madden told CNN.

At Macy's flagship store in New York City, an entire section is dedicated to female fan apparel, just in time for the Super Bowl.

The NFL has also paid homage to female fans and the power of their purse strings by putting up billboards featuring famous faces like Condoleeza Rice wearing team apparel, and by airing TV ads like this.

But this new found need to cater to female fans is not just about recognizing their love for the game. The fact is, women are the "consumers-in-chief" of most households. So why not reach out to the fans who are more likely to spend the big bucks?

"We're always trying to learn more, and get smarter about what women want and what the female fan wants. And what we're realizing is that there's always more. There's always something out there that we could be doing," said Madden.

Before even the league got hip to the fact that team gear for women should include more than bedazzled pink jerseys, actress Alyssa Milano was proving that when it comes to giving the ladies what they really want, she's the boss.

Milano is an avid sports fan who got fed up with the lack of team apparel options for women. Back in 2008, she started her own line of figure flattering fashions called "Touch."

"I knew that women made up 50% of the attendance in sports. And I figured if even 7% of those women wanted something, an alternative to either the big jersey, or the pink, then we'd be in good shape," Milano told CNN.

The line now covers all the major sports, including NASCAR and the NHL. And it can be found everywhere from Amazon to Bloomingdale's.

Beyond the fashion industry's radar, women are influencing major marketing decisions, too.

Yes, there are still Super Bowl commercials where women are put on display in ways that might make Hugh Hefner blush.

But you'll also notice a growing number of ads where female fans are the featured players.

The dynamic is shifting from the bleachers to the boardrooms. The percentage of management positions held by women in the NFL increased to 29% in 2013, the highest it's been in more than a decade, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

But that jump was only enough to earn the league a "C" for overall gender hiring in the institute's annual report card.

So, not exactly a touchdown, but a sign that the NFL is steadily moving the ball forward in the quest to shed its "boys club" image.

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