Thursday, June 3, 2010

Game Strategy or Kisses and Hugs? How Do You Help Females Develop a Passion for and Knowledge of Football?

In football, X’s and O’s refer to specific plays that are used in executing an overall offensive and defensive strategy for a game.  Males often learn the X and O game tactics through their own youth play experience, formal or informal, whether in backyard games, in junior high or high school, or beyond.  For many men, knowing football X’s and O’s is a part of growing up, a decidedly male thing in an overwhelmingly male sport.

For most women growing up, X’s and O’s are more associated with affectionate symbols for kisses and hugs sent on letters to friends as teenagers.  X’s and O’s as game strategy is more often an alien concept than something that is truly understood.  Most women have never tried to play football.  They’ve never seen a playbook.   If they learn it, it’s through osmosis from the sidelines or from watching TV commentary on games.  If they’re lucky, someone knowledgeable about football will explain the game to them.

I hate to generalize.  There are plenty of males who are not into sports and never had the experience of playing or watching football. There are some females who learned football X’s and O’s through participation in informal play in neighborhoods as kids or who have participated in the growing trend of Powder Puff football leagues for girls or women.  I knew a female who was the quarterback of her high school football team.  She was just smarter than any of the guys in her small high school in terms of executing game strategy, so the school made an exception to allow her to play.   The first female to ever score points in an NCAA Division I-A football game was Katie Hnida, who walked on for the University of New Mexico as a placekicker.  She scored two extra points in a 72-8 rout of Texas State University on August 30, 2003.

College football programs have begun to address the knowledge gap in women’s understanding of football.  Why is this important?  According to a study conducted by Scarborough Research in 2006 and reported in (see article here ), slightly over 33% of all NCAA football fans who attend games are female.  36% of all NCAA football fans who attend 10+ games per year are female.  That’s a very significant number of revenue-producing patrons! 

There is clear business interest in helping women enjoy and understand the game. Marketers know that females control about 80% of all household spending (sorry, guys, but it’s true).  So encouraging females to embrace football can lead to anything from better game attendance to more sales of licensed merchandise.

My Own Experience

I became a football fan through marriage to my husband Terry. Football wasn’t part of my college experience or my family’s passion.  Basically, I just wasn’t all that familiar with the game when I met Terry.  I had watched a few junior high and high school games. I lived in a decidedly pro-sports town, Boston, where I might get interested if the Patriots were Super Bowl contenders, but that was about it.  Any interest in football was more of a social experience than any strong passion for the game.

So when Terry posed the marriage question, he said, “Carolyn, one thing you need to know about me.  I intend to go to all the Penn State football games.  You can go with me, or you can stay home.”  Basically, my choice was to embrace Penn State football or kiss him goodbye every weekend in the fall.  Beaver Stadium was 185 miles away from our intended home.  This wasn’t just a few hours out of a Saturday.  Each game would be a weekend commitment.   I wasn’t about to stay home. 

Ignorance in this instance was bliss: I wasn’t opposed to football, so I told Terry, “Sure, I’ll try it.”   It turned out that I loved Penn State football!   So becoming an avid fan wasn’t really a problem. It helped that Beaver Stadium at Penn State is one of the best college football venues around.  It also helped that we had the winning-est (and oldest) college football coach, Joe Paterno, who continues to stand for something: not compromising academics to win games.

Over time I began to understand my own attraction to the game.  There are four aspects of the game that appeal to me:

1.  the customer experience of being physically present at a game,
2.  the chance to watch young players evolve over 4-5 years,
3.  the game itself with its complex strategic elements, and
4.  the post-game banter in the workplace.

The Customer Experience

Marketers talk a lot about the customer experience. We try to figure out what is it that makes customers want to come back and partake of our products or services again. Penn State has built one of the best customer experiences in the nation.  That experience includes the tailgating, the interaction with other fans, the pre-game and halftime shows, the crowd, the crazy student section, the post-game tailgates waiting for the parking lots to clear out.  

For away games it is visiting a new campus, experiencing their unique traditions and atmosphere, and good-natured bantering with opposing team fans – often being invited to one of their tailgates on an impromptu basis. None of this experience can be obtained by watching a game on TV.

For a football novice like myself when I started attending games, it was this customer experience that was the first “hook” – I knew nothing really about the game at first.

The Evolution of Players

The second aspect that hooked me was the chance to see players evolve over time. Over a stretch of 4-5 years, you watch each of these young men develop their skills from their first appearance in a spring Blue-White scrimmage game to their final appearance on Senior Day, their last home football game. You watch them play every down during their career.   You watch their freshman mistakes and the ups and downs.  You feel the grief when they get injured.  You feel the joy when they turn into difference-makers between winning and losing a game.  You are thrilled when they graduate, but also sad because they definitely will be missed.

Most of the college football players you come to know and love over 4-5 years will graduate and become successful in other fields besides sports.  Only a handful will enter the NFL, and very few of those will survive more than a few years.  A school like Penn State ensures success not only on the field, but also off the field, through carefully monitoring their academic progress and ensuring that they are prepared for life beyond football. 

Learning X’s and O’s

Over time, I’ve learned how the game is played. It’s easy to learn the basics, but harder to learn all the offensive and defensive schemes. I’m still not totally confident in all the X’s and O’s, but I can now recognize certain plays as they develop on the field, have fun second-guessing what plays might come next, or what plays might have worked better than the failure that just occurred. I now follow the entire line-up of players and not just the ball. I pay more attention to things like good blocks and tackles that allow plays to be successful.

I have appreciation for the competitive strategy involved. It’s a game that appeals to the intellect as well as the more base emotions when plays go right or go wrong. It’s simply engaging once you know enough to follow what’s happening.

And there are constant surprises.   Just ask Coach Joe Paterno.  Even with all his experience with the most wins in FBS college football, he can be out-coached.  That's what makes it so fascinating.

Post-Game Banter

For the first ten years of our marriage, we lived in Easton, PA.  I worked as a marketing director for a high-technology firm in central New Jersey.     That’s where I learned the value of following sports and being knowledgeable about sports. It helped me professionally in terms of being considered “one of the guys” as a female in a male-dominated high-tech workplace.  As we all know, in the workplace, easy-going informal relationships can lead to formal work opportunities.  And they did. 

Every Monday morning, there would be a string of co-workers in my office, mostly male, to talk about Saturday’s college football games.  There were a number of co-workers who loved Penn State, including some alumni.  But there were also Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Rutgers, USC, and Notre Dame fans.  Our common bond was football.  The banter was constant about who would win each week.  It was a great deal of fun to be the center of all this discussion. My co-workers were clearly admiring of the fact that I actually attended Penn State games. They were quite envious of me as I traveled to watch Penn State play.

Or, sometimes, they were envious of my husband Terry.  Because often a male co-worker would ask me “How did you get interested?  I’d love for my wife to go to (name of school) games with me, but she’s just not excited about it.  How do I convince my wife that it’s fun?  To give it a chance?”  These men were truly curious about how I had become such an avid Penn State football fan. 

I never developed a coherent answer for them.  I just took to football like a duck takes to water.  It helped that Terry was patient with me when I asked dumb questions.  It also helped that we recorded all the games, and would watch them again when we returned home, so I could benefit from the TV commentary on plays and Terry’s thoughts as we reviewed what happened.  I saved most of my dumb questions for the second time we watched the game so he could concentrate on the game as we watched it live.

But primarily I would say now that it was the fan atmosphere of the game – the sheer excitement of being there – that was the most important and first “hook”.

So I would say to these men now:  make sure the game you’re attending has a great fan atmosphere, something that’s compelling beyond the game itself.   A great tailgating scene helps, a wonderful half-time show.  Don’t make tailgating a burden for females to prepare.  Keep it simple.   Make sure you’re both properly outfitted for the weather (good weather really helps!)  Don’t bring her to her first game in November.  Make it September or October.

Make sure the values of the school’s football program go beyond winning games.  Spend some time before the game explaining how the game is played. Discuss some of the nuances of game strategy.  Keep a sense of humor.  If all that is there, the rest should take care of itself.

Another Option: Self-Education on Football

A good source for basic football understanding can be found on  James Alder has written a guide to American football that can be helpful to anyone who is new to American football and wants to learn the basics. 

There are Internet resources geared toward women:  for example, there is a fairly new site based out of Chicago called Football101Women.  It’s stated purpose is “giving ladies the 411 about football: facts, fashion, food and more!”  If a female is too embarrassed to ask her boyfriend or husband for answers to her questions, or if the male is too impatient, this looks like a fun site to get basic questions answered. 

There are books that can be given as gifts.  One book that seems intriguing is entitled Game-Day Goddess:  Learning Football’s Lingo by Suzy Beamer Bohnert.  Written by a female for females, it’s a humorous description of common football terms organized in dictionary-style.  You can buy it in paperback for $13.00 by clicking on the box to the left:  

A More Compelling Alternative:  Football Classes and Camps for Women

Do a search on the Internet, and you will find that many major colleges offer “Football 101” classes.   These can be as simple as an evening session, where participants have the opportunity to interact with college football coaches and get their questions answered.

Or, look for a full day football camp for females at your school.   One such camp is being offered at Penn State on June 11 for the first time.  It’s entitled Football Ladies X’s and O’s Camp, and is a one-day experience designed specifically for women, held at Beaver Stadium.  This camp, co-sponsored by Global Football/Global Sports, Inc. and the Penn State Department of Athletics, will include lectures by Penn State assistant coaches, a tour of the locker room, in-stadium demos, and drills that females can participate in.  Lunch will be held at the Pollock Hall training table.  In the afternoon, the ladies will play an hour-long flag football game on the grassy field of Beaver Stadium.  It concludes with dinner at the Nittany Lion Inn.  A portion of the $395 tuition will go to breast cancer research.  While some universities’ football camps for women have 200 or more participants, this one is limited to 50 women. It will be an intimate experience for those who have enrolled.

Even for an experienced football fan such as myself, this sounds like too much fun to pass up!  So I enrolled in this class, and next week I will learn about X’s and O’s directly from Penn State coaches, and play my first-ever football game on the hallowed grounds of Beaver Stadium. 

Well, maybe I’ll play my first-ever football game. This will be something that’s completely outside my normal comfort zone.  I’ll make that determination on the spot once I decide how daunting it will be for a 59-year-old female whose physical capabilities for such a game are probably mediocre at best.  

But, knowing me, I’ll probably give it the old college try.

To be continued after June 11!

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