Women make up nearly half of the NFL's fan base with 86 million cheering on their teams last season. Women also are occupying more executive offices in the NFL.

Now, they are closer to the game than ever with a small number of female trailblazers working on the field. Some are trainers and assistant coaches; one is a sideline referee.

CBS and ESPN sportscaster Beth Mowins made history this season when she called play-by-play for an NFL "Monday Night Football" game.

The NFL In the Huddle Women's Summit on Friday at the Pantages Theatre highlighted those gains and the growing professional opportunities for women in sports. The NFL, the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee and the Vikings invited 300 Minneapolis-area female college and graduate students to the event, which was also attended by more than 200 women associated with the NFL.

"There are a lot of career opportunities for women in sports," said the NFL's chief marketing officer Dawn Hudson, whose team started the annual summit three years ago. "How do you go about developing those careers?"

The NFL and its 32 teams have more than 100 women working at the executive vice president level or above. <URL destination="http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-vikings-hire-blue-cross-veteran-as-chief-of-staff-strategic-adviser/421636033/">

Tina Holmes, the Vikings' chief of staff</URL>, and three of the team's vice presidents are women. Still, league executives say, more work needs to be done to move more women into leadership roles.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Minnesota Vikings owner and President Mark Wilf spoke at the summit. Goodell, the father of 16-year-old twin daughters, said he takes the efforts to diversify the NFL personally.

"I always want my girls to understand that anything is possible," Goodell said.

Mowins, the first woman to call an NFL game from the broadcast booth in three decades, offered some career counsel: "It's OK for women to be ambitious. Have a dream and go chase it."

Last year's summit in Houston focused on middle school and high school girls, but Minnesota organizers invited young women. Karin Nelsen, the Vikings' vice president of legal and human resources, joined the team two years ago from Cargill and wants more women to see there are career opportunities in sports.

"If they have that interest, there is a path. There are great jobs in college or professional sports," she said.

Anne Doepner joined the Vikings in 2006 and is now the team's director of football administration.

She manages the player salary cap, negotiates player contracts and ensures the Vikings are in compliance with the players' collective bargaining agreement. The team also recently hired its first female trainer, Doepner said.

"I've seen a lot of change and growth since I've been here — remarkably so," Doepner said, noting the NFL's decision a few years ago to hire a Canadian women's football player to develop a candidate pool of women for football operations jobs.

"There was a real show of support from the league," she said. "They realized they needed more women in those roles."

The NFL has also worked hard in recent years to court female fans, especially as the league has struggled with declining ratings. Women make up 46 percent of the NFL fan base, according to league stats.

"Football is very much a campfire sport — you gather around and enjoy," Hudson, the NFL's chief marketing officer, said. "Women place a high value on things that bring friends and family together."

As for the negative headlines around some players and domestic violence that could turn off female fans, Hudson said: "Football has 1,800 players. It's a big, broad sport. Whatever happens in society happens in football. Part of what our fans expect in the NFL is we are trying to not hide from things that happen in life and use our platform off the field to make things better."

Nelsen said the Vikings have added events and amenities for women, including stations for nursing mothers at home games and boot camps for women interested in learning about football.

"The Vikings have recognized for a long time the power of the female fan," Nelsen said. "These are not just women being drug along as girlfriends or spouses. They are die-hard fans."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804