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How the Rays, Rowdies and Lightning escaped a Bucs-like backlash from female fans

Kimberly Burdette-Hord, 34, left, gets a DJ Kitty Face bag, the giveaway Friday for only women at Girls Night Out at the Trop sponsored by Hooters, from Kevin Higgens as she and her husband, Wesley Hord, 37, of Sarasota arrive at the stadium. 
Kimberly Burdette-Hord, 34, left, gets a DJ Kitty Face bag, the giveaway Friday for only women at Girls Night Out at the Trop sponsored by Hooters, from Kevin Higgens as she and her husband, Wesley Hord, 37, of Sarasota arrive at the stadium. 
Published Aug. 8, 2015

TAMPA

Turns out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't the only local pro sports team with a Pinterest page.

The Rays have one. So do the Rowdies and the Lightning.

Each touts game-day fashion (Prettiest Fans in Baseball) and culinary creations (Hockey Eats), subjects labeled sexist Thursday when the Bucs launched their new RED campaign. The team incorporated these themes into its "groundbreaking women's movement designed to recognize and celebrate" female fans.

It didn't go over as well as the franchise had hoped.

"The ironic thing about these programs is that they only serve to show how little NFL teams actually care about women," wrote sports-gossip website Deadspin on Thursday. Slate.com called it "condescending." The Huffington Post published the headline: "Tampa Bay Buccaneers Launch New Training Program, 'How to Become A Stepford Football Wife.' "

Tampa Bay's other pro teams, though, haven't received near the backlash for their female-oriented marketing campaigns or events as the Bucs did this week.

The Rays started regular Girls Night Out events last year, handing out wine glass tumblers and blue cowboy hats. For 12 years, female Lightning fans have gathered for the team's once-a-year Hockey 'N Heels event, which features behind-the-scenes tours and a coach's primer on the sport and its basic terminology.

So why did the Bucs take heat while the other Tampa Bay franchises didn't?

Mike Sundet, director of sports and entertainment for the national branding company IPG's Momentum Worldwide, said the message teams send to female fans — especially in a social-media driven world where people are quick to pounce — must be nuanced.

"It makes it more difficult when you misstep," he said, "but it also makes it better when you create good group experiences.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to reach different people in different ways, but it has to be done in a tactful way. Nobody likes to be talked down to or pandered to."

The Bucs did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

One element of the Bucs' campaign is a "RED Term of the Week," geared exclusively to teach female fans about football lingo. The first term was "play clock."

The problem, according to sports journalists and public relations specialists nationwide, was that the RED initiative insinuated that all women — and only women — don't understand football. But nearly 50 percent of NFL fans are women.

"A lot of sports organizations have played into really old stereotypes," Sundet said. "It's not only ineffective, it turns people off."

Both the Rowdies and the Lightning have similar programs for rookie fans, but neither franchise educates based on gender alone. On game day, the Rowdies insert a "Soccer at a Glance" tip sheet into the program.

"We're really focused on telling the story to everyone," said Rowdies vice president for special projects Beth Herendeen. "We focus more on educating the people new to soccer across the board."

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At Amalie Arena, the Lightning's "Hockey University" teaches Hockey 101, 201 and 301 classes to "beginners and experts alike."

"We've never designed a specific marketing campaign toward our female audience," said Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett. He emphasized Hockey 'N Heels was a "one-off" event each year, but not a separate campaign, like the Bucs' RED.

About a third of the Lighting fan base is female, Wickett said. But while the team has offered its Hockey 'N Heels event for 12 years now, there's been no Bucs-like backlash.

Sundet said that the reception to events like Hockey 'N Heels, or the Rays' Girls Night Out has more to do with how they're branded than anything else.

"Brands are like friends," Sundet added. "When you're invested in a brand, or invested in a team, and that brand starts talking to you like they don't respect you or your fanship, it's harsh.

"It feels like a friend talking to you that doesn't respect you."

The most successful campaigns, Sundet said, feel authentic — but they also make their point subtly.

"It's almost hard to notice," he said. "It doesn't feel like a female marketing campaign.

"It feels like a marketing campaign."

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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