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Who is a real fan? Try little girls with wash-off tattoos (and player stats at the ready)

April 27, 2010 – 9:37 AM

By Lindsay Rico

The game was over. Tied. But the excitement was just beginning. About 100 fans (and parents) leaned over steel barriers holding out soccer balls, jerseys, t-shirts—anything that would take ink —eager for the Boston Breakers and Philadelphia Independence players to plant their sharpies.

Leslie Osborne, Breakers co-captain, remembers being that young girl starting her soccer career at ten years old. Is she is ever too tired after a game to sign autographs? “No,” she says. “No matter how tired I am, I always remind myself of how much it would mean to me if I were that little girl to meet the players I look up to and get that autograph.”

Squeezed in among fans in “autograph alley,” I saw a girl clutching a Leslie Osborne poster with a smile on her face. Her dad struggled to find room on a child-sized Breakers shirt that was already covered in signatures. “How important is it that the Breakers come and meet their fans?” I asked. Dan, 44, didn’t pause: “My ten year old daughter is inspired by this. It’s great for her to come here and meet her role models.”

Further down autograph alley, I met Payton, 11, bundled up in soccer gear and ear muffs ( it was super cold!).  She turned to her friend and breathed, “Oh my god! It’s Kristine Lilly!”

Like guys who pride themselves on memorizing baseball stats, Payton rattled off the number of medals and world championships Lilly has won — along with the number of shots she’s taken so far this season.

“It’s really important!” she said when I asked her about post-game autographs. “Then we know that they really do care about their fans!” She turned away to chat up the players who were  signing her hoodie, offering them her take on their play that night, and calling out certain saves and shots for special praise.

Who says little girls with wash-off tattoos on their cheeks aren’t serious and committed fans?!

After spending 40 minutes in 40-degree wet New England weather surrounded mostly by young girls waiting to meet their sports heroes, three things struck me:

1)     Mainstream sports media — and even organizations — may be dismissive about young female fans. But these kids know more about the game than you think.

2)     These athletes actually do care about building relationships with fans (and it’s not just ticket sales or the ego rush of seeing a kid wearing your number).

3)     This is what professional sports should look like.

What is a real fan? What does that person look like? Is it the barrel-chested guy that begs to be the exclamation point at the end of “GO PATS!” when he and his buddies paint their tummies before kick off?

On this rainy and unpleasantly cold night at Harvard Stadium — when any sane person would have just gone home after the final whistle was blown — I saw something different. I saw big-time, serious, dedicated fans. This wasn’t about the guy with a beer-soaked voice and colorful wig, living vicariously through Tom Brady or Kobe Bryant.

It was about an 11-year-old girl loving how well her team played, about understanding the game, about appreciating the chance to talk about a sport she loves with players who share her passion. And yeah, as it is for every kid who goes to watch a sport they play,  it’s about her thinking, “I could be her someday.”

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