MLB, NFL seek to blend fashion and fandom

Pricey handbags and bracelets join foam fingers at sports-team outlets as leagues seek to expand women's marke

The manager of the Orioles team store stepped away from the baseball-themed hair ties, headbands and nail polish to unlock a case displaying a leather-strapped Dooney & Bourke handbag.

The black bag was patterned with neat rows of white "O's" logos and had a $329 price tag — enough to buy a handful of large bobblehead dolls plus a dozen $11 orange foam fingers.

The Eutaw Street store at Camden Yards sells those, too. But the foam fingers and replica jerseys and caps — as reliably a part of the baseball experience as the seventh-inning stretch — now share the shelves with an array of newer products reflective of a concerted push by Major League Baseball and other big league sports to better appeal to women by closing the gap between fandom and fashion.

MLB and the National Football League have long pitched products to women, who are estimated to account for 46 percent and 43.5 percent of their respective fan bases. And, hoping to better engage this market, the leagues are moving beyond feminine-styled jerseys into accessories. The idea is to meet women in their worlds by selling handbags, jewelry and other products stylish and subtle enough to be suitable outside the ballpark.

The leagues want to create an environment in which the Oriole or Raven birds don't seem out of place dangling from charm bracelets or sterling-silver necklaces.

Accessories for fans of the Ravens and other NFL teams include Anastasio Moda suede tote bags (costing more than $500), helmet-shaped Pandora charms, and Alex and Ani charm bangles.

In addition to Dooney & Bourke clutches, MLB also markets Alex and Ani bracelets, Pandora jewelry, Origami Owl charms and Alex Woo necklaces to its 30 clubs.

"Because we've been around so long — 1869 — we've sold a lot of foam fingers over the years and we sell a lot of novelty baseballs and things like that," said Mike Napolitano, an MLB vice president overseeing such accessories and an array of other licensed products.

"In order to expand and grow, you really need to cater to every fan you have," Napolitano said. "Women didn't like wearing men's-cut, bulky T-shirts and jerseys. They started tailoring them themselves and obviously that led to us getting smarter about it and catering to women. As a complement, accessories have really come on strong the last three to five years. It's one of our biggest growth businesses on the hard goods side."

The challenge for MLB's and the NFL's licensed partners is designing products that appeal to women without condescending or resorting to stereotypes.

At the Orioles store, manager Ann Marie Naumes said "there was a backlash" against early women's designs that trended heavily toward pink.

What Baltimore fans of both genders really wanted were "traditional team colors," and that means plenty of orange and black, said Naumes, of Delaware North Sportservice, the team's stadium retail partner.

The store doesn't offer products from teams other than the Orioles.

"We get plenty of requests from Yankees and Red Sox fans and we just tell them: 'This is Oriole Park at Camden Yards,'" said Sean Gury, retail director of Delaware North Sportservice.

That means the hair twists ("hair wear with attitude," the package says), nail polish kits, garter belts, hair clips and stretch headbands at the store are all offered in orange, black or white.

Longtime Ravens fan Robin Perry expressed a similar preference for team colors.

"I don't have anything in pink. I am not a fan of the color pink," said Perry, 52, a registered nurse from Baltimore.

But she does have a Ravens-themed Pandora bracelet and plenty of handbags in the team's purple and white.

"There is something now for everybody. They make a lot of things catered to the women instead of just jerseys for the man," Perry said.

"We spend a lot of money," she added.

The NFL began an advertising campaign devoted to women's apparel in 2010. The league says the Super Bowl last February averaged 54 million female viewers, the most-watched show ever among women.

Tommy Bahama and Levi's now have their own NFL lines. On Thursday, actress Jamie Chung and celebrity host Erin Andrews will appear at an NFL fashion show in New York City to unveil new attire marking the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.

"Our women's demographic has been a focus of ours for a long time," said Brad Downs, vice president of marketing for the Ravens.

The club says 47.5 percent of its fan base is female — 2.5 percent higher than in 2007 when it launched a female fan club that now has 30,000 members.

The team suffered a massive public-relations blow last year when website TMZ broadcast video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, unconscious in an elevator. The team ultimately severed ties with Rice, organized domestic abuse seminars and forged a partnership with House of Ruth, which provides services for battered women and their children.

A month after the video surfaced, Downs said 5,000 female fans attended the team's Purple Evening, the signature event of the women's fan club, at M&T Bank Stadium featuring football clinics, giveaways and the opportunity to meet players.

"We really didn't see much of a drop-off," he said.

There are no rankings of where the Orioles and Ravens fans stand in overall accessories sales.

Alex and Ani, which partnered with MLB in 2012, lists the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies as the leading markets for its baseball-themed charm bangles.

At Dooney & Bourke, brand strategy director Peter Beaugard said interest is driven partly by teams' performances on the field.

"If the team is strong it tends to be that you have stronger sales," Beaugard said. "One of the most avid fan bases seems to be the [St. Louis] Cardinals," who have the best record in baseball.

After winning their division last season, the Orioles have hovered near the .500 mark this season.

Dooney & Bourke got involved in baseball after its founder designed a bag for the Yankees in 2013 and the idea caught on.

MLB was a $9 billion-a-year business in 2014. League officials declined to divulge the percentage of that derived from retail sales or what share the women's market holds.

But analysts said the women's market is rapidly expanding, partly because there is so much more choice today than in past years.

"When it comes to marketing to female fans, the NFL and MLB have placed an emphasis on fashion," said Heather Zeller, founder of the blog A Glam Slam, a site devoted to fashion in sports. "From apparel to footwear, from jewelry to handbags, from tween to maternity styles, team-themed clothing and accessory options for women continue to expand."

Some fans can hardly get enough.

"I've got the jewelry, the T-shirts, purses, earrings, necklaces and bracelets," said Peggy Breidenbaugh, 51, a Ravens season-ticket holder from Aberdeen. "And I've got my 'Keep Calm and Hate the Steelers' T-shirt."

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