In 2000, Baltimore's Li Na Goins fit the stereotype when it came to women and football. She never watched games and complained that her husband watched too many. She had neither the knowledge nor interest to become fully invested in the sport. But sometime in 2001, between the start of the playoffs and then-coach Brian Billick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the Baltimore Ravens, Goins, a human resources director, became infected by the electricity that overtook the Baltimore region. She purchased season tickets and set on a course to learn more about football.
"I realized there was a lot more to it than just hitting each other," Goins said. "I wanted to learn the rules and why each play call was what it was."
Luckily for Goins, the Ravens organization is a trailblazer when it comes to helping female fans learn, and revel in, NFL football. Goins started by attending the Ravens' Football 101 for Women clinic, an educational series conceived by the league as a way to capitalize on the sport's growing popularity among women. Women attending the clinic were grouped into classes of 30-50 and given a crash course in football basics and beyond.
Goins was surprised at the level of education she received.
"They had us throwing the ball around, learning the rules with coaches, and I got to do it all while talking to fellow lady fans," she said.
The Football 101 events were such a hit in Baltimore that Gabrielle Dow, then the Ravens' marketing director, decided that a women's fan club was the next step.
"I thought about all other clubs here -- kids' clubs, tailgating clubs -- and wondered why we're not talking to the female fans," Dow said.
Thus, in 2007, Purple was born. Purple is the first and largest team-sanctioned female fan club in the NFL, boasting a membership of more than 22,000 women. Through email updates, events and special offers, Purple club members stay connected to the Ravens year-round. From the Ravens perspective, Dow, now the Ravens' vice president of marketing, noted that female game attendance generally drops by 50 percent during the colder months, and Purple allows the team to stay connected to its female fans, even when they're not in the stands.
While there is no cost to join Purple, its signature event, "A Purple Evening," does require a $35 ticket. The event is held each Columbus Day at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens play their home games. This year's event was attended by roughly 6,000 female Ravens fans, most of whom donned purple attire (Ray Lewis jerseys could be spotted at every turn). The evening featured on-the-field drills, tours of the players' locker room, lectures on formations and plays from Ravens coaches, autograph-signing sessions with players, and, of course, face time with the real live raven brought to the event. There was also a wine-tasting station and a cupcake station, with long lines at each.
In the stadium's luxury suites that evening were 125 of the Ravens' most dedicated fans. These are the Lavender Ladies, the exclusive VIP club within Purple. The $250 annual membership fee Lavender Ladies pay gets them access to additional special events, such as a Purple Day at training camp and tickets to the Ravens' spring football festival. These women are a community unto themselves, true students of the game and passionate fans of their team.
Goins is a Lavender Lady. So is Melissa Thomas, a lifelong football fan and a single mother of two working two jobs. She is also the founder of Youth of the Rainbow, a non-profit organization aiding LGBTQ teens, which Thomas founded after her son came out at age 14.
Thomas, who grew up as a Colts fan, knew the Ravens could fill the void created when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984."Something about Baltimore died, something dissipated when Colts moved away," Thomas said. "Some wanted to blame the city. But the Ravens restored that divide. We needed to uplift."
While Thomas can't afford Ravens season tickets, she is proud of the energy she brings to every game, whether she's watching at a bar or a friend's house.
"[Everyone] knows we're going to have a blast," Thomas said. "I'm going to hoot and holler and bring the fun. And when things go wrong, they say I should have a red phone, like the President has, to call John Harbaugh and provide some words of wisdom."
Lavender Ladies membership is capped at 125 women, and there's a long waiting list. Thomas had to wait close to a year to get into the club. The Ladies' most famous member is Cindy Pierce, also known as "The Purple Dame." Pierce is the unquestioned ringleader of Purple, and is seldom seen without her signature look: a purple boa, purple beads and streaks of purple in her hair.
Pierce, who hasn't missed a home game in 10 years, is the first female Ravens fan inducted into the Hall of Fans in Canton, Ohio. On A Purple Evening and during games, she walks around with a "Purple Dame" card, similar to a baseball card, and is bombarded with picture requests at every turn.
While she loves leading hundreds of fans at a time in bombastic cheers of "Let's Go Ravens," Pierce also takes her duties seriously.
"There's an image you have to maintain," Pierce said. "It's a family show. You always keep it clean. It is like work, but it's the best job in the world."
Through this Ravens role, the Purple Dame has supported charitable causes like the Special Olympics, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. She estimates she "works" for the Ravens a staggering 100 days per year.
Pierce shares a bond with Purple's other members, whether they are just learning about football, or have been die-hards since the club was relocated to Baltimore in 1996.
"We're not just fans," Pierce said. "We are a nation. We are hundreds and thousands of people strong. You can't contain us. You can't control us. We breathe and live Ravens football to every inch of our soul. Every day we become the 12th man, bringing the energy that lights the fire under the players and makes it smash-mouth football."
Not surprisingly, other teams have begun imitating Purple's success. The Redskins' WOW (Women of the Washington Redskins) club launched in August, and already has more than 12,000 members. The 49ers are in the process of launching their own fan club for women.
But the Ravens and Purple are the trailblazers.