The NFL has worked on several fronts to draw in female fans: holding special stadium events for women, injecting football themes into shows such as "The Biggest Loser" and expanding lines of merchandise to include not only clothing for women and girls, but household goods such as cheese boards and stemless wine glasses.
But after league officials acknowledged fumbling their response to the physical altercation between Ravens running back Ray Rice and his now-wife at a casino in Atlantic City, the outreach effort is coming under closer scrutiny.
"The league has made really great strides to cater to the female fan base," said Heather Zeller, founder of the fashion and sports website A Glam Slam. "I think fans are starting to look at this as a step backward."
Much is at stake. Women make up 45 percent of the league's fan base. Fanatics, the largest online retailer of licensed team merchandise, says sales of female apparel accessories have risen 300 percent since 2010. Nielsen says female viewership of regular-season games has grown from 5.5 million a game to 6.1 million in the past five years. And academics point toward the buying power and influence women wield in their homes.
Marty Conway, a former vice president of marketing with the Orioles who teaches sports management at Georgetown University, said the condemnation of the penalty imposed on Rice by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — a two-game suspension that will cost him $529,000 in pay, less than some players have received for testing positive for marijuana — revealed a "hole in the ecosystem."
Goodell announced this week a new policy on domestic violence, which for the first time will spell out consistent penalties levied against players accused of abusing their partners. The move came a month after the commissioner announced Rice's punishment, and on the same day the Ravens revealed a new partnership with House of Ruth Maryland, a nonprofit organization that serves battered women and children.
Goodell said he "didn't get it right" when determining the sanctions against Rice. The new penalties include a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second. A banned player could re-apply for reinstatement.
"I believe they completely misjudged the backlash," Conway said. "They do realize their audience is at risk and all the work they have done in the last five years could be for naught."
If the NFL had more women executives, some academics and marketing professionals say, it might have come up with a more widely acceptable response to the incident involving Rice. The league scores lowest among the major men's professional sports leagueson the annual Racial and Gender Report Card produced by Richard Lapchick at the University of Central Florida.
The most recent round of Lapchick reports gave the NFL a C for its gender hiring practices. The NBA earned a B-plus; Major League Baseball got a C-plus.
In the NFL, women make up 20 percent of the senior administration in the league office and among the 32 teams.
The league says women are involved in all elements of the NFL. Nearly 70 hold positions of vice president or higher with the league or with a team.
Marie Hardin, dean of the College of Communications at the Pennsylvania State University, said hiring more women into decision-making positions would likely attract more interest in the game.
"It makes a difference for female fans, for young women and girls, if they see a league in which they can see themselves having the potential to have some kind of role beyond cheerleader on the sideline," she said.
After Ray Rice, Hardin sees another benefit: "If you've got an organization that's traditionally been run by men, bringing women into decision-making ranks opens up new ways of doing things."
The Ravens employ several women in key positions. They include Reba Koppelman, the team's finance director, and Jessica Markison, its football operations director.
League officials say 63 percent of women and girls age 12 and older consider themselves fans of the game.
"Some of our most passionate fans are women, and some know the game better than the guys do," NFL spokeswoman Clare Graff wrote in an email. "They love the strategy of the game as well as the stories of the players and teams. Women play Fantasy Football, QB from the couch and break down the game."
Anne C. Osborne, co-author of the forthcoming book "Female Fans of the NFL: Taking Their Place in the Stands," said football provides women a way to bond with their families and connect with their larger communities, just as it does for men.
"I think that there's this negative stereotype of the female fan that she's just in it for socializing," said Osborne, who teaches communications at Syracuse University. "This is about a real emotional attachment."
But Osborne sees barriers to women's career and social advancement in the prevailing assumptions about gender as they apply to sports. She said female football fans can have difficulty joining men in water-cooler debates about Sunday matchups or engaging in small talk in the boardroom before a meeting. Women are more often challenged about their sports knowledge than men.
"Sports has a major cultural impact, so removing women from something that has that much significance is problematic," she said.
She said the NFL can do more to market to women, beyond modeling the latest in team gear or sharing tips on how to throw a good tailgate party. Women love the league's commitment to breast cancer research, she said, but some still cringe at the league's now-abandoned "pink it and shrink it" approach to selling team gear.
She wonders how much impact the league's response to Ray Rice will have on female fans.
"Certainly it is something women took note of," she said."How much is it going to have a material impact? I don't know.
"Women who love football, love football. Are you going to stop going to games because of something like that? It's almost like punishing yourself for the league's bad behaviors."
Hardin, of Penn State, said the league faces a bigger problem when it comes to cultivating female fans: the dangers associated with concussions.
"If I am a mom and I have son and I am thinking I don't want my son to play the game, how willing am I to become emotionally invested as a fan?" she asked.
Andrea DiMayo doesn't want the league to do anything differently to accommodate female fans.
"They don't do it for the boys, so why should they do it for the girls?" asked DiMayo, 18, of Monkton. We're just fans, just like the boys are."
DiMayo delayed her move to the University of Central Florida this month so she could attend the Ravens' preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
Her father, Mike DiMayo, 56, said he is glad the Ravens show their appreciation of female fans. Each year, the team invites women to M&T Bank Stadium for "A Purple Evening," with on-field drills, music, Football 101 sessions and player appearances.
He doesn't think the league's handling of the Rice incident belongs in the same discussion.
"The whole Ray Rice thing is disturbing, but you can only hear one part of it," Mike DiMayo said. "It seems like there was a lot we were not privy to. … Really you don't know what happened."
On Thursday, the Ravens announced a three-year collaboration with House of Ruth, with a $600,000 donation, player and staff training and player appearances for the "Man Up!" campaign to educate men about domestic violence.
Heather Blocher, a Ravens senior manager for advertising and marketing, said the Ravens were the first NFL team to develop a fan club for women.
The club, called "Purple," claims more than 27,000 members. They travel to road games, attend happy hours and bingo nights, and work with the American Cancer Society on an annual walk that raised $17,000 last year.
"We have a really active, avid fan base here in Baltimore," Blocher said. "Our women are something special."
Howe Burch, president of the Baltimore-based advertising firm TBC, said the foundation the NFL has established with its female fans is strong enough to endure any controversy over Rice.
He said women are interested in rooting for their teams. An incident involving a single player isn't enough to deter most fans.
"The NFL is head and shoulders above every league, among every demographic — men, women, African-Americans, Hispanics," Burch said. "The league and the teams have done remarkably well in appealing to women."
Outside M&T Bank Stadium before a preseason game,Allen Schiff of Pikesville sprinkled lemon pepper on burgers that were cooking on a purple tailgate grill. Fresh fruit, beer and wine,and popcorn were spread out on a lavender tablecloth. Family and friends were gathered around.
Schiff's wife, Cindy, professed her love for the team.
"I have been counting down since the end of last season," Cindy Schiff said. "I am excited about this year, because we have a lot of new players, and a positive attitude. The team is much better off this year."
Jordan Schiff, 19, said he's seen the sport bring his family together. He said he wants the league to take a strong position on domestic violence so no one is alienated.
"It's not just a man's sport that men go to on Sundays," said Jordan Schiff, a freshman at Towson University. "If you're going to have women football fans, you need to respect them and their rights."