It's never good to generalize about women. I'm one, and trust me, we don't like to be stereotyped - at least, most of us don't like it. (Maybe some do. Wouldn't want to generalize.) But when it comes to women who attend men's pro sports here in Philly, there's one inevitable truth about us females. Lady game-goers are the minority.
No surprise there. At least, not if you've been to see the Phils, Flyers, Birds, Sixers or Union and taken a quick look around. Stand outside one of the gates at Lincoln Financial Field 15 minutes before game time. Notice the lines are separated by gender; see the women cruising right in; see the guys shuffle in baby steps and take 10 minutes to pass through security; same deal at halftime, when the uncomfortable delay to enter a restroom can make a fella consider investing in a Stadium Pal, but the queues for women's loos move with relieving swiftness. (Again, not to stereotype, but I believe I represent my gender when I say we consider the no-waiting-to-pee aspect of our minorityness nothing if not a perk.)
Not that we're not at the games, because we are, more than ever. According to ticket offices for all five teams, attendance and season-ticket sales are getting more and more female. The Phillies' ticket sellers, for one, say season-ticket sales to women have increased 30 percent since the team's move to Citizens Bank Park. (The game with the highest attendance by ladies: Mother's Day.) The Flyers report about 30 percent of their seasonal subscribers are women, and the team's front office estimates that the gender mix at games is now roughly 60 percent men, 40 percent women. Similar stuff at the Sixers, where the average attendance of females (12 and older) is about 40 percent, which squares with the NBA's overall numbers. The Union sells 15 percent of its season tickets to women, but says the percentage of women at its games trends much higher. And although the Eagles tend to be inscrutable about these things, longtime ticket-sales dude Leo Carlin - he's been doing his job for 52 seasons - says it's much different than it used to be. At Veterans Stadium, he guesses the ratio was 9-to-1 men to women. The breakdown isn't exactly 1-to-1 today, but the shift toward more women in the stands has been "dramatic."
(I'd like to think, as more than just a woman sports fan - as a Philly sports fan - that my lady colleagues aren't just more numerous, but are also vastly cooler than our counterparts in, say, Miami, New York, Boston or Green Bay. But maybe that's just me, just another chick who fantasizes about naming her firstborn "Chooch," or, perhaps, "Doop?" On the other hand, people not from around here - the ones who still believe in the every-Philly-fan-is-a-goon stereotype - might argue that women, being the gentler sex and all, are inherently less fearsome than the average Y-chromosomed butthead, the sort of unforgettable butthead who throws snowballs at Santa. Thank goodness you and I know better, and don't need to pay attention to such slightly sexist out-of-towners.)
Still, a gaping gap remains, because dudes go to games played by dudes. Inside the arena, on ESPN, in Sports Illustrated, even in game-time commercials for avocados, it's a man's world - always has been. Which makes you think: Are chicks with tix any different from the guys? Who were those few, brave pioneers who, back in the day, proudly occupied seats on the 700 level at the Vet? To what lengths have die-hard female fans gone to score tickets - or not to miss a match? Why do they go, and what keeps them coming back?
Turns out, women and men are as different in the stadium as they are anywhere else. (By which I mean, they're not that different.) Yet when it comes to dedication, some of these super-fans can kick any guy's butt - with one jersey-clad arm tied behind her back.
Take the Fean sisters. Eileen, 74, and Dottie, 85, started going to Flyers games with their mom decades ago. They've had their season tickets for 33 years - "2 years with a scalper," said Dottie. "Then our mother finally got them through the Flyers. My mother lived until she was 91, and the Flyers were the only thing she was ever on time for. She really liked the fights."
Originally from Lansdowne, the sisters now live together on the bay in Sea Isle City. In the summer, they work as chambermaids at a beach motel so they can afford the game-night rituals they resume each fall. A typical trip to the Wells Fargo Center goes like this: Still at home, the sisters dress in four layers (their prized Pelle Lindbergh jerseys remain safe in their closets). They don their Flyers necklaces - the team logo and a stick on chains - they bought from Joe Watson's old concession stand. They pack blankets. They make sure the overnight case is in the car's trunk. ("One night it was just sheer ice, and we slid over to the Hilton. Since then, we always have a change of underwear, nightgowns and toiletries in the car," Dottie explains.)
They leave early. Eileen drives. They take the Black Horse Pike. Stop at Arby's. Park in the stadium lot. Eat the Arby's. Set Eileen's cellphone alarm. Take a nap. Wake up. Be first to enter. Head to section 118. Have usher put Dottie's HC Rollator (like a walker, only with four wheels) under her seat. Watch 'em play. Leave Wells Fargo Center. Be last out of the parking lot. Get home about midnight.
Despite Dottie's recent health troubles, the women rarely miss a game. They had to skip one last year because of snow, and another this year when a 3-foot seasonal high tide surrounded their house. They missed another in 1999, when their brother died. They plan to attend the Winter Classic's alumni matchup, after which they hope to see Kenny "The Rat" Linseman, to give him their homemade monkey bread. (It's his favorite.) They know if Bernie Parent, Gary Dornhoefer or Bob Kelly spot them, the guys will surely yell out, "It's the twins from Sea Isle!" (Since she's a decade older than her sister, Dottie says, "It's a compliment to me, not to her.")
"Everyone knows the Fean sisters," says Emily Sullivan, who sits in their section. "They're very distinctive: white hair, and one pulls it back in a bun." Not that Sullivan, 68, of Mays Landing, doesn't stand out on her own. Most home games, she wears the "#1 Grandma" jersey her grandkids gave her for Christmas. Sullivan has six children and 13 grandchildren. She takes the latter to games on a rotating basis. "The 7-year-old is the biggest fan of all. She'll say, 'Please don't talk, Grandma! I'm trying to watch the game.' Her favorite part is when they announce the opposing teams. When we're in the car, she'll say, 'Please, Grandma, get us there in time to do the "Sucks!" ' "
Last June, Sullivan scheduled her knee-replacement surgery so she wouldn't miss a game. She says it isn't just the play that keeps her coming back: It's the players themselves. "I don't think in any other sport the players are as available to their fans," she says. She'll take the kids to the SkateZone [in Voorhees, where the Flyers practice] to meet the guys and get autographs - both for them, and for her. The entire roster has signed that #1 Grandma sweater.
Turns out, chicks with tix collect as many souvenirs as the next guy. They have the ticket stubs, the used shin guards, the game-day giveaways and logoed sweats galore. Devoted Union fan and Sons of Ben board member Kelly Christine Delaney prizes her Amobi Okugo game-worn jersey, which the player gave her after losing a bet over who could get more Twitter followers. (He also had to sing her "Happy Birthday.") Rosemarie Smith, who's had Phillies season tickets since 1975, still rues the day when her mom tossed her Whiz Kids baseball-card collection. To die-hards like these, such prized possessions are more than souvenirs. They're good-luck charms. After all, we ladies are just as superstitious as the next guy.
Smith remembers her first years in the first row. She sat across from the visitors' dugout. "I was 29, 30, working full time for the Navy. We had a group of people that were also full-season right down where we sat. One lady, Shirley, sat on the end of our row. She was a teeny, little, rotund woman. It was the playoffs with Los Angeles, Tommy Lasorda was managing, and Shirley knew he was superstitious. There's an old Italian thing about the overlooks - the "malocchios," we call it. The symbol was the horn, the hand and the pinkie, or the red pepper. Shirley came to the playoff game with a bunch of red peppers hanging on a stick, and Lasorda must have seen it, because he actually left the dugout."
Cherry Hill native Lorianne Lowry has season-ticket packages with the Flyers, Eagles and Sixers - and not a few game-day good-luck rituals. "If [the Flyers] win when I'm wearing my James van Riemsdyk jersey, I'll wear it to the next game. If they lose, maybe I'll wear a different shirt under the jersey, or different socks or something. Or, if they win, I'll eat the same food again . . . or park in the same space . . . You gotta figure out what it is you're doing if you gonna win or lose."
Lowry has had seats to the Flyers for 25 years, the Sixers for a little fewer than 20, and the Birds for about 15. (She's never missed a kickoff.) During her 92-mile commute from North Jersey, she listens to and sometimes calls WIP. Once in her seats, her favorite thing to shout is, "If you're gonna yell, know the game!"
Knowing the game might be the one aspect of fandom these women value above all else. "It's always shocking to the average guy, when they hear women talking about baseball," said Stephanie Balan, 28, who grew up listening to Harry Kalas, lives in Roxborough, and has a 17-game Phils package. She and her pal Celeste Santiago usually go to games together.
And, although the women I spoke with don't put down other women who, for example, can't tell the difference between a sinker and a slider, female fans definitely respect peers who respect the game. Phoenixville-based ophthalmologist Jamine Shechter is a Buckeye by birth but signed up for Eagles seats when she was in medical school at Penn and "began to experience football withdrawal." Today, a full convert to the green-and-gray, she relishes Monday-morning quarterbacking with two female employees she describes as "rabid Eagles fans."
For her part, Delaney prefers female Union fans to their counterparts at Phils games. "The women that go to the Union have a lot more knowledge of the players and the teams," she said, "They're not wearing pink jerseys, to put it not nicely."
Like millions of dudes who've gone before them, these ladies have found that knowing the game doesn't have mere entertainment value. It also breaks the ice, and, in some cases, the glass ceiling. Nancy Jelen, 50, has gone to Phils games her whole life. Five years ago, she invested in seats "right behind Ryan Howard." It's a great place to see the action, she says, but it's also "really helped me in my later years with business. It's a man's world still, and being able to participate in sports and talk about sports - it's a great way into conversation with men."
Recently, Balan made an impression on a Reds fan by making fun of his team getting swept by the Phillies in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. "I said to him, 'How'd you like that no-hitter?' He was like, 'Who are you?' " The rivals have been dating ever since. He's recently moved to Philly, so we know who won that argument.
Still, not all female fans use their sports wisdom to network - professionally, romantically or otherwise. North Philly native Joan Tittle, a retired phys-ed and health teacher everyone calls "Y.A.," used to walk with her dad to Eagles games at Shibe Park. Now age 75, she's enjoying her 53rd year as a Birds season-ticketholder. (Back in '58, her season ticket cost $15.30.) She attends games with her friend Ina Newman, of Ambler - and leaves her husband at home. Says Tittle: "My husband says, 'Why should I go out in the cold when I can prop my feet up on the cocktail table with a bottle of beer and watch it on television?' The cold doesn't bother me."
Y.A.'s and Newman's seats are in the last row in the upper deck, "at the 40-, 45-yard-line and under the overhang, so we don't have to worry about getting wet. That's why I don't miss any games, unless I'm seriously ill. It's on the sunny side after daylight-savings time. And the biggest thing is, I don't have to worry about drunks spilling beer on me," says Tittle.
Sometimes Elizabeth Keelan, 65, brings her husband on the drives down from Saratoga, N.Y., to see the Eagles play. Sometimes not. Keelan's seats are in the no-alcohol-allowed family section. "I have nothing against drinking. My husband and I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner," she insists, "but I want to watch the game."
Not all women mind sitting amid the rowdy. Shechter spent her first few football seasons in the 700 level, where she says she never had a problem but did attract some attention. She remembers, "One game, someone had been drinking a bit and came up to me and said, 'You're the prettiest girl in the section,' and I was like, 'I'm the only girl in the section!' " Years later, right around those same seats, on Sept. 30, 1996, her husband's birthday, the Eagles played Dallas. "I had just taken a pregnancy test," she recalls. It was positive, and she brought the little plastic stick to the game. "But the Eagles lost, and the stupid test never came out of my coat pocket. I ended up waiting a couple more weeks to tell him."
Like all these rare-but-less-so pioneering women season-ticketholders, Shechter's proud her seats are in her name, and no one else's. "I can mark a lot of life events by Eagles games," she said.
Still, like any true fan, she'd much prefer to mark those events with W's.