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Profitable in pink

Merchandisers are pushing feminine fashions to tap into a growing base of women sports fans

Are you ready for some football, ladies?

Because the National Football League is courting female fans with a fast-growing array of jerseys, T-shirts, hats, pajamas and other licensed merchandise designed just for women.

"We've learned what women like and what they definitely don't like," said Susan Rothman, vice president of the NFL's apparel business. "No unisex. No oversize guys' T-shirts. Women want color, more form-fitting styles, and smaller graphics."

With women making up more than 40 percent of fans, selling women's licensed apparel seems obvious enough. But past efforts failed, largely because the merchandise was little more than a smaller version of the men's merchandise. This time, however, industry watchers like Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, thinks the business is here to stay.

The reasons? Individual teams are becoming savvier marketers and retailers. The Dallas Cowboys own 20 retail outlets outside the team's stadium. From the NFL to Major League Baseball, pro sports leagues are looking for ways to increase sales in the $12.6 billion merchandising industry. With a large fan base of women who've never been able to buy team merchandise that fit their shapes and styles, the women's business is now among the fastest growing segments of merchandising sales.

And there's still plenty of upside. Major League Baseball began wooing women four years ago and now estimates that 15 percent of its merchandising sales come from women. Since launching NBA for Her in 2003, the National Basketball Association said the collection accounts for nearly 10 percent of the merchandising business.

And since the NFL began its women's push two years ago, the women's business has grown to about 5 percent of its estimated $3 billion in merchandising sales, up from less than 2 percent last year.

"The business is so underdeveloped it's hard to predict where it will be 10 years from now," the NFL's Rothman said. "Will it rival the men's business? That would be very difficult. But wouldn't I like to see that."

Just three years ago, when the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI, female fans like Lynel Leonard were lucky to find NFL jerseys that didn't hang down to their knees. For this year's big game, female fans can find everything from baby-doll Ts to $2,500 helmet-shaped bags covered with Swarovski crystals.

A "huge Pats fan," Leonard has sat through every kind of weather to watch games. But she's not sacrificing style. Grasping a Tom Brady jersey the size of a potato sack yesterday at the Olympia Sports at the CambridgeSide Galleria, she said: "I'm not wearing this. It's way too big. It's just not cute."

Then, picking up a T-shirt with cap sleeves and a fitted cut bearing the Patriots logo on the front and line backer Tedy Bruschi's name and number on the back, she said: "Now, this is cute."

If the NFL and other pro-sports leagues manage to stay in touch with their feminine side, that spells added profit for retailers and major-league licensees like Canton apparel and sneaker maker Reebok International Ltd. Before jerseys were cut for a woman's body, female fans settled for men's sizes. But for the most part, the women's lines are bringing in sales that were lost before.

"When you realize that women make up over 40 percent of the viewership and attendance at games, not focus on merchandising to them would just be ridiculous," said Greg Grauel, Reebok's vice president of apparel.

Nonetheless, when Reebok, which has licensing agreements with the NFL, the NBA and the National Hockey League, first broached the idea with retailers five years ago, the retailers were hesitant. Space was limited, and other merchandising efforts from football jerseys for toddlers to outerwear were competing for space. As women begin asking for the merchandise, however, retailers are deciding to carry more of it.

Matt Heath, manager of Olympia Sporting Goods at CambridgeSide, said the store sold so many pink Red Sox caps and got so many requests for the pink World Series T-shirts, which it didn't carry, that it increased its assortment of women's merchandise for football season.

It brought in pink Patriots T-shirts adorned with glitter, AFC Championship T-shirts cut shorter and tighter for women, and replica jerseys in pink and white instead of the team's blue and red colors.

"We're a lot more prepared now," Heath said.

As for how a Patriots Super Bowl win would score among female fans, Reebok's Grauel said: "It certainly doesn't hurt having Tom Brady as quarterback when you're selling women's product."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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