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Boston women root, root, root for home teams

Red Sox, Patriots get lion's share of increase in female fans -- and their buying power

The number of female fans cheering for the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots has skyrocketed in the past five years, survey data show, as both teams won world championships and rolled out more apparel aimed at women.

In Boston, 77 percent of women describe themselves as Red Sox fans, up from 45 percent in 2001, according to data from the demographics research firm Scarborough Sports Marketing . Female fans have increased so dramatically that the Red Sox's audience now is split almost evenly between men and women, mirroring the region's general population. The Patriots are only slightly behind, with 63 percent of Boston women identifying themselves as fans -- double the 32 percent who said they were fans in 2001.

As women flock to games, the Patriots and Red Sox are looking for ways to encourage them to make it a long-term habit. The Red Sox are considering giving them special access to the ballpark on certain nights, including the chance to take batting practice on the field and to listen to sports speakers. The Patriots have focused on making Gillette Stadium friendly to families, which increases its appeal to women, team officials said.

``A Patriots game late '80s or early '90s wasn't something you'd necessarily take your wife or sister or mother to," said Stacey James, Patriots spokesman. When Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994 , he put an emphasis on changing the rowdy atmosphere, James said. Part of that involved demolishing Spartan Foxboro Stadium and replacing it with Gillette Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2002.

``He made it into a place where you can bring your kids," James said.

Sports teams are particularly interested in women fans because they shop. Sales of Patriots merchandise targeted at females -- everything from tank tops to ``ladies hand-off thong" underwear plastered with the team's logo -- have quadrupled over the past several years, and now bring in about $3 million annually.

Sales of Red Sox gear aimed at girls and women are also on the rise. ``I actually have two pink shirts and a pink visor," said Natasha De Sherbinin , 16, who attended a recent Sox game with three female friends. She said she likes pink because ``it represents the female fans. It's not like guys are going to buy a pink shirt."

The proliferation of female fans here is unusual compared with the rest of the country. Nationwide, only about 43 percent of women express interest in Major League Baseball, and 42 percent in the National Football League -- roughly unchanged from 2001, according to Scarborough Sports Marketing.

The on-field success of the Patriots' and Red Sox, as well as Boston's sports-obsessed culture, naturally attracts new fans, said Howard Goldberg, Scarborough's senior vice president of sports marketing. Though the championships matter, he said, the most important factor is a winning record over time.

``It's not like all of a sudden the Super Bowl is here or the World Series is here and all these fans are flocking in droves," Goldberg said. ``It's more of a compound -- building on the success of the teams. The fans are growing more and more each game."

In a city like Boston, few will admit to being newly converted fans, no matter what the survey data says. At Fenway Park, about a dozen women interviewed all insisted they had been following the Red Sox since they were young girls. They also had strong opinions about the new fans -- whoever they might be.

``They're of the moment: They're sure they're right, but they're not," said Kathryn Iverson, 55, who said she has been a Sox fan for 40 years. ``There's a lot of that, male and female. It ain't us."

Red Sox executives say they are consistently impressed by female fans' knowledge of the game and the team. Some women say they feel an urge to be competitive.

``Women want to keep up with men, and men are always watching sports," said Leah Willett, 29, who wore a ``I'm a wreck for `Tek" shirt at Fenway Park recently, a reference to catcher Jason Varitek. ``It gives them something to talk about."

Scarborough's 2001 and 2005 Boston surveys defined a sports fan as anyone who went to a game, watched on TV, or listened on the radio within the past year. Its data also showed that the percentage of Boston women cheering for the Celtics also has increased slightly over the past five years, while the percentage of female Bruins fans fell, most likely because of hockey's prolonged labor dispute.

Though corporate sponsors have viewed sports primarily as a way to reach men, some now are realizing that a Boston sports sponsorship could be effective with women, too. When the Red Sox first pitched a sponsorship to CVS Corp. -- whose customer base is 80 percent women -- executives at the Rhode Island pharmacy chain were skeptical. But after conducting research, the company found the Sox did indeed attract a rabid female fan base, and that the numbers were growing rapidly. CVS signed a major sponsorship deal that includes advertising on the Green Monster at Fenway Park, spring training tie-ins, and the designation of a special area at Fenway as the CVS Pharmacy Family Section. CVS also advertises with the Patriots.

``We're so focused on women from a marketing point of view," said Helena Foulkes , CVS's senior vice president of marketing and advertising. ``We wanted to spend our dollars in a way that mattered to women."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

 FROM THE GLOBE MAGAZINE: Fandemonium (By Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe, 6/18/06)
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