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Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Windy City boasts the most die-hard female fans

By Sarah Spain

espnW's resident Chicago superfan, Sarah Spain, says the Windy City deserves a spot alongside Beantown and New York in the battle for the best female sports fans.

ESPN The Magazine recently devoted a whole issue to Boston sports, complete with a striking cover photo of a hand rocking four of the championship rings won in Beantown in the past decade.

The issue inspired espnW to ask: Which city has the most devoted female fans?

Boston's Kaitee Daley argued that Titletown houses not only the most dominant teams, but the most passionate supporters. Amanda Rykoff claimed New York is, in fact, home to the most passionate and energetic female fans.

Both cities certainly have reason to boast. Their fans show up in droves to support their teams, many donning Yankees hats, Brady jerseys, Knicks jackets or ill-advised Belichickian cut-off sweatshirts. They're loud, they're passionate and they're loyal.

But really, how tough is it to root for perennial winners in Boston? How hard is it to find a team worth supporting in New York?

Seems pretty easy to me to show up on Sunday and cheer on that chin-dimpled, Ugg-wearing, supermodel-impregnating pretty boy of a quarterback, Tom Brady. Not too tough to get behind the NHL's second-winningest franchise, the Boston Bruins, and their ageless, Vezina Trophy-winning netminder, Tim Thomas, one of hockey's all-time feel-good stories.

Celtics fans need more than two hands to display all their championship rings, and those sad-faced Red Sox fans who used to believe they were forever cursed now have become greedy and title-hungry.

As for the city that never sleeps, it seems the Big Apple has four or five of every darn sports team. One of 'em is bound to be winning at any given time, right?

Sure, the Isiah Thomas years were humbling and the Rangers' franchise is bumbling, but New Yorkers can just as easily lay claim to the Islanders or Nets instead. (And with the incomparably cool Jay-Z as an owner in Brooklyn, why wouldn't you?)

The Giants and the Jets have a brand-new stadium, and the Yankees are so dominant, if you're a 17-year-old fan, your team has missed the postseason only once in your lifetime.

You want real, die-hard, win-or-lose, come-rain-or-shine fans? Head to Chicago.

You gotta be tough to hack it as a fan in the Windy City. We start and finish our baseball season in gloves and a hat, and tailgate for hours by the lakefront in freezing temperatures. We cheer on a baseball team that has given us nothing but a century of heartache, and we put our faith in a quarterback who leads the league in smirks.

We get to the stadium well before puck drop to rise together and cheer right through the anthem, and we take to the streets in the millions to celebrate the return of the Cup after half a century. We follow our teams all the way to Helsinki and London, turn opponents' stadiums into our home turf, and honor our heroes long past their days in the spotlight.

Stephanie Ballard
Stephanie Ballard relaxes in her Blackhawks fan cave.

In Chicago, Mike Ditka gets the screams women in other cities reserve for Ryans Gosling and Reynolds. The crowds that gather for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane display as much fervor as those awaiting a concert from The Biebs. Derrick Rose is a homegrown god come back to revive a Bulls team that seemed destined to languish in the shadow of the greatest of all time.

We like our stars to be like us -- no fluff, no flash, just big hearts and a willingness to do anything for a win. We don't want a 100-foot scoreboard screen or stadium sushi. An Old Style, a scorecard and a hundred years of memories will do.

For millions (yes, millions!) of women in Chicago, time spent watching, playing and debating sports is time well spent. Just check out a few of the dozens of women who wanted to share their stories with me.

Superfan Lena Duda spends every home Bears game with her second family, a group of fans who tailgate at Da Bears' Bus, a renovated 1970s school bus carpeted with artificial turf and signed by dozens of former Bears players. Fellow Bears fan Peggy Gubbins has her own tradition before heading into the stadium: She and her friends take a shot, sing "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" and then chug a beer.

Baseball fan Carrie Williams was an altar server for three years at her Catholic grammar school because volunteers were rewarded with trips to White Sox games. In high school she met some of her heroes while working at a baseball card shop, and now date nights with her boyfriend are a beer and a Blackhawks game.

Even though the 2000 White Sox got swept in the playoffs, Kathy McCabe wanted to thank them for a great year, so she drove out to the airport to welcome them home. They ended up waiting a day before flying back, so she drove all the way back out the next morning to cheer them upon their return.

Even though she now lives in San Francisco, Anduena Zhubi never misses an Opening Day at Wrigley Field and is even considering getting a time share in Bourbonnais, Ill., just so she can attend Bears training camps.

Stephanie Ballard works at a hockey rink, lives for the chance to meet her idols on the Blackhawks and wears only hockey laces in her Chuck Taylors, no matter how hard it is to get them through the holes. Fellow hockey fan Candice Martens was willing to lose her job in order to attend the Stanley Cup parade, until her boss finally relented and gave her the day off.

When Jen Obirik was a personal assistant to actress Jenny McCarthy and "Dancing With The Stars" pro Cheryl Burke out in Los Angeles, the two stars shocked her with a makeover on the TLC show "What Not To Wear." When faced with the sight of her Blackhawks, Sox and Bears jerseys dangling above a trash can, deemed to be "fashion mistakes," she put her foot down on national television and refused to rid them from her closet.

Ramona Arce's family couldn't afford cable in the early 1990s, so she "watched" Michael Jordan's 55-point game at MSG via commentary from her uncle, who gave her play by play of the last three quarters over the phone from New York.

And while I spend most of my waking hours watching or writing or talking about sports for work, they're a big part of life off the job, too. I met my boyfriend at a Blackhawks charity event, our first date was at a Cubs game, and we spend at least two days a week playing softball, flag football or volleyball together in one of Chicago's many rec leagues. (That is, if we don't have a game to attend.)

For many of us, the only way to survive six months of winter is to bathe in the warming glow of the United Center lights, load up on hand warmers at Soldier Field or huddle by the fire with a Blackhawks game on. In a town that is full of restaurants, culture and nightlife, sports still rule.

Of course, no matter how proud I am of my fellow Chicago fans for sticking with their teams in times both lean and booming, I'd never turn down a few more rings. You never know, with the ladies of the Second City behind them, our teams might just earn themselves an ESPN The Mag Chicago Issue.