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The Thing That Still Happened

airstream-trailerWithout a doubt, life has changed significantly for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes to the patterns of our lives included taking up new hobbies, taking part in political actions for the first time, becoming Zoom experts, binging shows we never thought we’d watch, and transitioning from mile-a-minute schedules to trying to do everything without leaving our homes. Countless scheduled events were cancelled during the year from family vacations to festivals and concerts to annual celebrations. Or, our much-anticipated events were scaled down or held virtually instead.

One thing that wasn’t cancelled? The National Football League. In the vacuum left by so many events that couldn’t be held in 2020, the NFL was our shining “thing that still happened.” And, starved of nearly all the other things I would normally look forward to during the year, I devoured as much football as I could watch.

I didn’t come into the 2020 season a total noob. I was already a Patriots fan on the scale of, “Oh that’s right, the Patriots are playing Sunday, are they the early game this week? Yeah I’ll watch, hope it’s a good game.” The pump was primed, so to speak. However, all my disappointed anticipation for everything else that was cancelled in 2020 was redirected to this national pastime that actually went ahead as planned. The pandemic-induced side effect was that I became the sort of fan that says, “Oh yeah, with Edelman out Cam has no targets. Who’s he going to throw to – Harry?? Their running game is going to be a tough slog against that Kansas City defense, and Cam hasn’t been the mobile quarterback he used to be since that injury. The really interesting game will be the day before though, Chargers v. Buccaneers. The Buccs really loaded their roster with superstars but the Chargers are such an underdog heartbreak team, have you seen their quarterback?” This, delivered with fervent intensity and at volume to an increasingly alarmed-looking coworker.

If that wasn’t bad enough, for the first time in my life I started watching college football. On purpose. Because those college players will soon be entering the NFL draft and the Patriots desperately need a new quarterback (because seriously, Stidham??) and wide receivers, and there’s some dynamite talent graduating this year (fingers crossed for Trevor Lawrence even though I know he’ll be snapped up by the Jaguars or the Jets). See what I mean? Nevertheless I think it finally clicked for me that I was becoming a serious fan when my family said, “Well we won’t call you Sunday because we know you’ll be watching football.” Yikes!

But to put things in perspective, in a year of extreme upheaval in nearly every part of our lives, the NFL did not miss a single game. True, the pre-season was shortened to almost nothing so the first couple months involved a lot of working out the kinks and team cohesion, and we were treated to a few rare Tuesday night games so that matches could be rescheduled, but they managed to squeeze in every single regular season game. Most stadiums did not allow in-person crowds, and those that did were greatly reduced in size, plus all teams and staff followed strict COVID protocols. When you think about all the people, travel, and other moving parts that go into a season of professional football, that’s really pretty amazing.

I’m in good company with my newfound superfandom. Female viewership has been increasing dramatically in the past decade, and as of March 2020 women fans made up 47% of professional football’s fanbase, or about 88 million fans, according to the NFL. Superbowl LIV, played in early February 2020, drew more women viewers than did the Grammy’s, Oscars, and Emmys combined. I’ll be fascinated to see how the numbers shake out after the year we’ve had.

According to Melissa Jacobs of The Football Girl website, this increase in women NFL fans is no accident. The NFL is heavily invested in creating more consumers of football, with their female apparel lines being the NFL’s fastest growing ancillary business over the past few years. It helps that their marketers have awoken to the idea that simply making apparel smaller and pinker doesn’t appeal to many women fans, nor does being patronized with “Football 101” classes targeted specifically at women. Women have been earning their chops in the world of football, from playing on college teams to coaching and scouting in the NFL, not to mention women shining in sports broadcasting and analytics.

Women, myself included, were flocking to football before the pandemic and given the thirst for entertainment, distractions, and regularly scheduled programming this year, I can only imagine we now make up an even higher percentage of the fanbase. If you’re curious about the history of the game, the Morrill Memorial Library has lots of books about how the game is played and highlights and lowlights from football’s past (all found on the second floor in the 796 section), plus biographies of players and coaches, not least of which is Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time.

So, is Tom Brady still the G.O.A.T.? Or are the Chiefs (boo, the hated Kansas City Chiefs, hiss) still the unstoppable force they were last year? Join me for Superbowl Sunday and we’ll find out!

Liz Reed is the Adult and Information Services Department Head at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the February 4, 2021 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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