Time to throw down the gauntlet. Let’s start a gridiron cat fight over which NFL team has the best female fans. My submission, The Buffalo Bills.
My inspiration for this article came as I was enjoying a triple decadent dessert with a friend at the Chocolate Bar in Buffalo’s Theatre District. My friend recently relocated to Buffalo from Chicago.
He observed that there seemed to be more female sports fans in Buffalo than in other towns—especially Bills fans! “And in Buffalo they really seem to know their football.”
When he said that, it was one of those epiphany moments that only happen occasionally, when someone speaks a truth you have known intuitively and subconsciously but haven’t consciously pondered or acknowledged.
Fully convinced in my gut of the truth of his assertion, I set out to collect anecdotal evidence to support the thesis, and explain it.
I interviewed several women I know who are rabid Bills fans to see what their perspective might be. Some still live in Buffalo, some are expats, and one never lived there, but caught Bills fever from her mother in law.
I asked them what they thought. Do the Bills have more female fans than other teams? And are they better fans?
Anne McCooey an executive for a Western New York non-profit thinks so. “I have been a Bills fan since I was 5 and went to my first game when I was 7 and was totally hooked. My sister and I still have season tickets together and even though our children are college age now, and don’t join us we are still die-hard fans. I have noticed that this year at the security gates there are more females intake lines than in previous years, which means the Bills must have some idea of how strong the female fan base really is and have adjusted their security accordingly. I think the interesting thing as you sit in the stands is to watch and see how into it the woman fans really are, they aren’t just accompanying their boyfriends/spouses/colleagues to the game – which I have seen in so many other stadiums- they are there watching and understanding the game.”
It began to become apparent that being a Bills fan is a birthright, for women as much as men. It is as much a part of life in Buffalo as breathing, or—bleeding.
“Like any true Buffalo native,” technical sales consultant, Rachael Slowey declared, “born a BILLS fan… will die a BILLS fan… my blood bleeds red, white n’ blue.”
“When you grow up in Buffalo,” says Jennifer Cox, a marketing director now living in Portland, “the Bills just become part of your life. Even my 81 year old mom, who has never watched a football game in her life, is a Bills fan.”
Jessica Christ, exiled in Tampa for the time being, bragged, “I am a proud fan who will stay a Buffalo fan through thick and thin. I have been a Buffalo fan,… both football and hockey since before I can remember…”
Christ, who moonlights on security detail at the Pirate Ship (Tampa Bay’s stadium) went on to observe, “The views from the fields, the gates, and the stands proves that women are taking over Buffalo sports. Females are taking a big step in becoming the #1 fans in Buffalo. Just look at all the women jerseys being sold,… While working the Bills games, I noticed each year an increasing amount of women entering the gates with fellow female friends and not a male in site. Women’s night out is changing from gossip and wine, to Monday Night Football and 20 oz. beers!!! I couldn’t be more happy!!!”
Kim Gessini, Buffalo native now living down the Thruway in Syracuse agreed, “Devoted fans for sure. I remember going to a Dec. 26th game with wind chill warnings of 32 below 0. I would crack a beer and your second sip was ice. My two sisters were pregnant and wearing blankets around their stomachs. I go home often for a Bills game and it’s a family affair, my whole family; parents, sisters, brother, ex-husband, new husband, ex brother in law, new brother in-law. I also converted my husband and brother in law from a Saints and Raiders fan to Bills fans.”
Another theme that you’ve probably already identified is that of fierce loyalty to the Bills by expats, even though they’ve been gone from Buffalo for decades.
Perhaps it’s because being a Bills fan is something expats can do to stay connected to their hometown. Wherever one is, in the wired world, one can watch the Bills, stay in touch with Buffalonians and what it means to be from Buffalo, and actually participate in the act of being from Buffalo. That would apply for men or women, but it is expressed especially clearly in the words of my female interviewees.
Take Jennifer Cox, for instance. Jennifer left Buffalo 18 years ago, but says the first thing she did each time she relocated was to join the local “Bills Backers Club.” “The team is part of our community identity and has a magical and sometimes odd way of bringing families and people together..much more than snow and chicken wings.”
Aileen Sexton Kopfinger, a real estate attorney, now living in Cleveland, wears her brother’s old Flutie jersey with pride in Browns stadium when the Bills come to play.
And sometimes that expat zeal results in converting the heathen!
Sarah Nowicki, originally from South Texas and now a Dallas resident says football was no big deal in her family growing up. She had no particular commitment to the sport or loyalty to a team until she started dating her husband five years ago. Her husband moved with his parents from Buffalo to Dallas back in the 80’s.
Up to that point, as I was reading her story, I was thinking, “OK, she loved her husband and therefore decided to love his team. A good love story, not so much of a Bills fan story.”
But wait, there’s more. She’s not just what I call a fan by marriage. And it wasn’t her husband who converted her. It was her mother in law, who after being away from Buffalo for 20 years, and after her husband had long since sold out and assimilated as a Cowboy fan, her mother in law kept the faith and passed it on with a vengeance.
“Kathy is true blue along with the other woman in the family (meaning me) and would never, ever wear another team’s colors,” Sarah says of her mother-in-law. “ I absolutely love the intense devotion that Kathy has for the Bills, whether they do well or look dreadful. It’s that unique allegiance that has made it so easy to whole-heartedly jump on that wagon with no departure in sight.”
OK, but inquisitive sports-sociologist that I am, I had to know why. How did these women develop such an interest in and devotion to what is normally relegated to Manworld?
Is it the sheer joy of football, the communal experience, civic pride, all of the above, or something else?
“I would say all of them,” replied Sexton Kopfinger. “Although living in Brownstown (Cleveland) does not offer me much opportunity for the communal experience, but my brother and I have fun texting each other across the country on game day.”
Gessini had a similar answer. “My pride in the Buffalo community and sharing in their ups and downs, as well as the social aspect of getting together with friends and family for games. I began following the Bills in the 80′s and it was a very exciting time…We could be down 30 points with 5 mintes left and win the game, felt like the team was devoted to us.
Nowicki also agreed. “As a Buffalo Bills fan, a large portion has to come from the communal experience and the civic pride and community spirit (even if you weren’t raised there you feel it in your bones). It amazes me how rich of a history and culture the Buffalo Bills franchise has and the bond Bills fans share because of that history. It is something to be envied and cherished. I can’t think of one other city where an NFL team flag is flown alongside the American flag outside places of business and recreation…except in Buffalo. It’s one of the very first things I noticed when I visited the city for the first time and I think it embodies the kind of fans we are.”
So the gauntlet has been thrown. And to be fair, some of my interviewees did say they see similar commitment on the part of women in their current hometowns. That came through especially from our expats in Cleveland. In fact, as an attempt to motivate our enemies on the other side of the Lake, I will close with Aileen Sexton Kopfinger’s description of Browns’ fans:
She observes that female Browns fans must be almost as die-hard as Bills fans because, “(1) as long as I have lived here (19 yrs) they have sucked, (2) their colors are hideous and (3) their mascot is a dog and people go around barking at the stadium – stupid.”
Okay Browns fans—and all others—bring it on!
John Wingspread Howell is a financial consultant, novelist, columnist and sportswriter. He publishes the online sports magazine Underdog Sports (www.underdog.sports.officelive.com) and is a syndicated writer and scribe for Bleacher Report and Sports Then and Now. He writes about underdogs, Buffalo sports, American soccer and women’s sports.