All-female fan organization reaches 20th year of supporting Northwestern sports


Courtesy: Cathy Dunlap

Attendees pose at a CatBackers event about the NFL draft Tuesday. CatBackers was founded in 1997 as an all-women’s NU sports fan organization.

Ally Mauch, Reporter

After 20 years of cheering on Northwestern sports teams, all-female group CatBackers is still going strong.

The group was founded in 1997 to educate members about NU sports and help them be more involved in athletic events. It held an event Tuesday discussing the NFL draft with several football players for members to learn more about the process. Cathy Dunlap (Weinberg ’77), a CatBackers board member, co-chaired the event and said she got the idea when she was watching last year’s draft and wanted to know more about how it works.

As part of its education initiative, the group holds several events throughout the year, many of which host various team coaches and their players to help members learn more about specific sports and get to know the players.

“Everything we do is educational,” said Liz Kerr, president of CatBackers. “The more you know about a sport, the more likely you are to support them.”

The original idea for the group came from Mary Barnett and Jean Yale, who gathered about 20 of their friends to start CatBackers — at first focused solely on football. The two had already been involved with NU sports at the time; Barnett was married to the then-football coach, and Yale served as the special events coordinator for NU Sports.

Among the roughly 20 founding members was Kerr (Kellogg ’81), who said she got involved because of her passion for sports and desire to stay connected to her alma mater.

Since its founding, CatBackers has expanded from its initial focus on football and now puts a particular emphasis on women’s sports teams.

“Our goal was to make sure women understood the game better, could enjoy it better and could become better fans,” Kerr said.

Dunlap dismissed the idea that football and basketball are the only “revenue earning” sports and said she has women’s basketball season tickets and also tries to attend as many other women’s sports games as possible.

“There are women’s sports at NU that we need to pay attention to,” Dunlap said.

Nancy Lee, a founding member and current board member, said the most unique thing about CatBackers compared to other fan organizations is its focus on education, which gives members the opportunity to know players beyond their performance during games. Lee, whose husband is a Northwestern alumnus, got involved in CatBackers after attending sports games with him.

In addition to its events, CatBackers has raised money for NU athletics in the past and strives to support the teams in any way the group can.

“We want to let the coaches know that we are here for them and we are passionate about Northwestern sports,” Lee said.

Although it still includes some founding members, Kerr said CatBackers is looking for more ways to keep the community involved in NU sports. Although CatBackers invites anyone to its events, the group maintains its all-female membership.

Dunlap said this is important because it defies the notion that sports audiences are male-dominated.

“If you’re looking … to grow your audience, you have to look at women as an audience,” Dunlap said. “You have to stop thinking of sports as a gendered thing and think about sports as an athletic thing.”

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