Decked out in their black and gold football jerseys, hundreds of Pittsburgh Steelers fans descended on Heinz Field for a sold-out event on September 16.
But it wasn’t for Monday Night Football – rather, it was for the Steelers’ latest “Ladies Night Out,” one of three events held annually by the team to engage and reward its female football fans.
Those in attendance worked out and met with current and former Steeler players and coaches, ran football drills around Heinz Field and toured the players’ locker room.
The Steelers fan base is split 50/50 between men and women, according to Ryan Huzjak, the team’s vice president of sales and marketing. Women probably make up the majority of the team’s 11.6 million social media followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, he said.
The Steelers have been holding events like its “Women’s Training Camp” and “Women’s 202” events since 2001. These events lift the Steel Curtain that used to separate the team from its most ardent supporters.
During this July’s full-day training camp event in Latrobe, Pa., the ladies ran drills on the field at Saint Vincent College with Steelers legends, then watched this year’s squad practice from the sidelines. The annual 202 every fall at the Rooney Sports Complex is more Xs and Os-oriented – attendees get to analyze game film with real coaches and complete skill drills with current players.
Ladies Night, launched in 2006, is the newest addition. During Monday night’s event, the women met safety Terrell Edmunds and tight end Vance McDonald, threw around the pigskin, scored autographs and posed for pictures with team legends.
All three events cost fans $150. Attendees get a catered meal and a gift bag. Women have to be at least 18 years. There are no kids allowed.
“We’ve known for many years now that we’ve got a passionate, rabid group of female fans. We wanted to try to give them the opportunity to experience the sport authentically, up close and personal,” said Huzjak. “We give them some customized opportunities to interact with our players, our former players, our facilities. Get a chance to learn the game, get on the field, experience some things. We’ve had great success with these events. They sell out quickly every year.”
These events are not huge money-makers. But they’re not loss leaders either. They attract team sponsors like the UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh that are eager to reach the team’s female fan base.
With six Super Bowl wins, the Steelers are one of the few NFL teams with a truly national, even international, fan following. The Men of Steel boast season ticket holders in all 50 U.S. states. “Terrible Towel”-waving Steelers fans are known for their fierce devotion. Back in the 1970s, they formed fan clubs for their favorite players, like running back Franco Harris (Franco’s Italian Army) and linebacker Jack Lambert (Lambert’s Lunatics).
The Steelers are not alone when it comes to courting female football fans. The league estimates 45% of its fan base is now women. More women watch Super Bowl than the Oscars every year. The NFL held its own “Ladies Night Out” before Super Bowl 50. Fox Sports sideline reporter Erin Andrews hosted the event, which featured “fanicures,” shopping and a Vogue-sponsored style lounge.
Female fans offer a “massive opportunity,” said Michele Steele, ESPN’s Chicago-based studio anchor and correspondent.
“I love seeing more and more NFL teams prioritize female fans. Teams that want to maximize their business have to reflect their customers,” she said.
Steele, who led coverage of ESPN’s weekly Monday Night Football games for SportsCenter, said there’s a fine line between being inclusive and condescending. Teams have to be smart about how they engage female football fans.
Don’t employ the old pink it and shrink merchandising strategy. Instead, they should seek to “make a personal connection,” according to Steele.
“Instead of pink and glitter merchandise, make the head coach available for a Q&A. Or a star player. Show the women fans that they matter,” she said. “To their credit, some teams already do this. After the event, send every woman that goes to a fan fest a video message from a favorite player. “
Looking ahead, Steele would like to see more female-focused team events that revolve around health and fitness — and less around fashion. She suggests teams offer fans group workouts, with a tour of the stadium afterwards.
The Steelers are such a part of traditional family life in Pittsburgh that their appeal cuts across genders and generations, according to Huzjak.
“We’re Pittsburgh’s community team. So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that our female fans are as rabid as our male fans — or that there are as many female fans as male fans,” he said. “It’s just a part of the way of life here in Pittsburgh.”