The air was damp and the breeze was cool, but the Monday night skies stayed dry enough for a legion of women to spread out across Investors Group Field.
It was a robust turnout for the Bombers' annual women's football clinic and organizers were pleased. For $25, almost 120 women showed up to hear some in-depth roster talk with GM Kyle Walters, to try their hand at threading a pass, to try their feet at kicking a convert. It was an eclectic group. Some of the attendees were young, and gloriously tattooed. Others wore their silver hair tucked into a battered Bombers cap.
They came for the clinic, almost a decade into its existence. Now, they are also part of something bigger: This season, the Bombers are debuting their new Blue & Gold Women's Club, a season-long event series targeted at women. There will be an away-game party at Danny & Buck's, a tailgate soiree, a bingo night with players calling numbers. Think of it like a women-only gym, Bombers communications co-ordinator Kim Babij-Gesell said, but with more laughter.
"We wanted to make something where (women) could enjoy the experience of football, without having to feel like they were being watched, or intimidated, or judged," she added, and there's something sororal in her vision. "There's not a lot like this in the city. We want to make this something that stands the test of time, where you come to events year after year, and you network, and make friends. And it becomes a community."
Like so many things around Investors Group Field these days -- Bombers brand Ontario VQA wine, smartphone charging stations -- the women's club was Wade Miller's idea. The Bombers CEO had inspiration: In 2007, the Baltimore Ravens launched their women's club, called simply Purple. It was unique in the NFL, and the team boasts it has swelled to 22,000 members. The club's paid VIP arm is capped at 125 "Lavender Ladies," and the wait-list is long.
'As long as I have anything to do with the women's club, we will not be pinking or shrinking anything. Because you know what? The Bombers' colours are blue and gold'
No surprise, then, the idea caught on. The Washington Capitals became the first NHL team to try it out, when they launched the Scarlet Caps in 2009: By 2013, seven NFL teams had their own version of a women's fan club. "I think events like this are really important for getting women exposure in football," said Jennifer Keith, who plays for the North Winnipeg Nomads Wolfpack women's football team, after the Bombers clinic on Monday night. "As a woman, it's really empowering. It's such an athletic game, it's such a strategic game, that girls need to come out and play."
To be blunt, football culture has long had a gender problem, though it is hardly alone amongst pro sports. Just consider the most popular jokes on Super Bowl Sunday -- or, as comedian Kevin Hart announced to his 10 million Twitter followers this year, "NATIONAL SHUT THE HELL UP DAY FOR WOMEN." The joke is hardly new: it belongs to a long tradition of sports barbs aimed straight at women.
These jokes are even gently rounded into reflexive common wisdom, as when pundits call the Academy Awards the "Super Bowl for women." This despite the fact for a number of seasons, more women have cheered on football's greatest contest than anyone watches the Oscars. But the cultural understanding of the sport is so aggressively gendered, it's hard to snap the idea that football fans fall neatly into one of two camps.
Even the Wolfpack, about 40 ferocious football-playin' women, wrestle with the stereotypes. Sometimes, it's been hard for the growing team to find coaches who take their club seriously. Sometimes, people express surprise they understand the sport, let alone grapple out a gridiron fight. "I had all these people who were like, 'do you really hit each other?' " Keith laughed. "We definitely hit each other, hard. There's no holding back."
But those are the myths Babij-Gesell thinks a women's club can help counteract. "There are still old-school people who don't think women belong anywhere near sports," said Babij-Gesell, who experienced plenty of that first-hand when she was a sports reporter for Shaw TV. "No matter how much you know, they will discredit you. There's just some old-school mentalities that exist. I hope we can break that with this."
'Those girls weren't playing around. One of them almost killed me'
Because let's be clear: this is about gender, yes. But it is also about good business. Though sports culture has a long and spotty history of how it navigates gender ("you throw like a girl," anyone?) women comprise a powerful fan bloc across North America's four major professional leagues. Depending on what poll you look at, women account for somewhere between 35 to 45 per cent of fans in each. (The Bombers don't have demographics for their own fanbase, though given the CFL's rich tradition of face-painted die-hard women, a reasonable guess would be in the upper part of that range.)
Teams are smart to bet these figures could grow if they could chip away at the messages that discourage women from engaging with their sport.
Case in point: in 2010, the NFL debuted a new clothing line designed more consciously for women's diverse bodies. Almost immediately, merchandise sales skyrocketed, and a year later the league expanded its selection and launched a new online store targeted to women. The result: In January 2012, ESPN.com reported sales of women's clothing were up 125 per cent over the previous year.
Not all attempts to connect with women go so well. In marketing, there's a term called "shrink it and pink it," a biting comment on the lazy way in which some brands market themselves to women. The term doesn't need to refer to clothes: last year, the Houston Astros tweeted they would hold a "ladies night," so that "ladies can learn about baseball." They themed the event "Diamond, Bling and Glittery Things," and promised cocktails.
For fans who have long battled the assumption they need to "learn about" the game, or that their interest is superficial, the phrasing and sparkly packaging stung. While social media mocked, the Astros deleted the tweet and sent out a new one, promising "behind-the-scenes insights" instead of a gendered Baseball 101. But the damage was done: "The Houston Astros are proving to be losers in more ways than one," chirped Houston media outlet The Online Dish.
Full disclosure: This reporter critiqued the Astros' approach in an interview with The Sporting News. I believed then, as I do now, that slapping stereotypes on events targeted to women reinforces the negative messages that undermine women's confidence in sport, that I feel keenly cutting at my own. Professional teams should evolve how they include women -- because it's good for business, because it's the right thing to do -- but please, hold the "bling."
'There are still old-school people who don't think women belong anywhere near sports. No matter how much you know, they will discredit you. There's just some old-school mentalities that exist. I hope we can break that with this'
Back at Investors Group Field, Babij-Gesell is wary of the same trap. "As long as I have anything to do with the women's club, we will not be pinking or shrinking anything," she said. "Because you know what? The Bombers' colours are blue and gold. 'Oh, it's gotta be pink, so I want it?' Absolutely not. I want the bluest shirt you can give me, because that's the colours of the team that I love."
And this is the shape of the game she loves: Near the end of the Monday night clinic, during a tackle drill, Wolfpack fullback Jennifer Rands barrelled forward and slammed and training dummy into the turf. Bombers defensive back Alex Suber, who was leading the drill, let out a delighted whoop. It had been a few weeks since Rands had seen game action -- yeah, she grinned, maybe there was some pent-up aggression, a craving for contact that demanded an answer.
The Wolfpack's efforts, and those of their crosstown rival Manitoba Fearless tackle team who also turned out to the clinic, didn't go unnoticed. "Those girls weren't playing around," Suber said later, maybe a little surprised. "One of them almost killed me."
When those drills were done, there was wine in the Bombers' press box. Wade Miller mingled with the crowd, and in one corner a boisterous crew of Bombers starters Drew Willy, Cory Watson, Jason Vega and Will Ford held court over a mobile photo booth, throwing wacky poses as women crowded around. If the CFL prides itself on being a fan-accessible league, well, there you go.
"We brought out the best players, because women deserve the best players," Babij-Gesell said. "Offering those opportunities, and showing that we take it seriously, allows other people to take it seriously."
How can professional sports teams better engage the women in their fanbase? Join the conversation in the comments below.