Across the country, the phrase “college sports” conjures images of parking lots full of tailgaters as far as the eye can see and waves of students dressed in the same color screaming as a member of the opposing team lines up for a foul shot.
Brown students are generally an athletic bunch that rally around their home teams and sometimes foreign leagues – as evidenced by the presence of NFL jerseys on a fall Sunday in the Ratty. But there appears to be a disconnect between non-athletes and the Bears.
Though Brown has 37 teams competing in Division I of the NCAA with recent alums who have won Super Bowl rings and Olympic medals, attendance at games can be spotty, and only a select few students might be likely to know the records of any of the teams. Brunonians are proud of their institution, but passion for University sports rarely figures into that pride.
A unified student body
“We just don’t have a sports culture here – and I wish we did,” said Mariah Gonzales ’13, who said she considered going to the University of Notre Dame because of the school spirit and camaraderie centered on its athletics.
At Brown sporting events, the student fans in attendance are most often members of other athletic teams who come out to support their peers or other friends of athletes.
“If you’re not on a team or dating someone on the team, you are not part of the culture,” Gonzales said.
Dan Stump ’14 said he does not feel a connection to any of the sports teams because he does not have many friends in the athletic community and is therefore not as interested in attending games.
“I’m not rooting for my team,” Stump said. “I’m rooting for people that won’t let me into their parties,” he said, adding that seating at the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall is clearly divided between athletes and non-athletes, furthering the disconnect.
Ana Olson ’14 said she feels people like herself who are “on the fence” about attending sporting events can be persuaded by personal investment. If a basketball player personally came up to her and asked her to attend that night’s game, she would go, she said.
Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said during his time at Brown, he has seen a shift in the sports culture at the University, which he attributes to the increase in number of teams and non-athletic opportunities.
“I think it was more part of the University culture back in the ’70s,” Goldberger said. “Homecoming would always be centered around the football game. There would always be a sense of, ‘let’s play the soccer game before the football game so everybody can go to both.’ Now, you have ten events going on in a fall weekend and not two.”
Ryan McDuff ’13, co-captain of the men’s soccer team and co-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said athletes sometimes develop a distance from their non-athletic peers, which can be natural given their practice schedules.
“I think student-athletes haven’t done a great job of reaching out and befriending a wide variety of students here,” McDuff said. “But I think how we resolve that and get past the facilities being at the far north of campus is you engage with other students at a friend basis. I think student-athletes just have a ways to go in being more friendly and meeting people outside of their sport, and they’re starting to do that.”
McDuff added that better integrating athletics with the rest of campus life is a two-way street.
“I’m wondering how many student-athletes you’ll see if you go to a theater production or a musical or an economics lecture,” McDuff said. “You might not see student-athletes there.” McDuff said he and SAAC co-president Erika Mueller ’13, a former Herald sports staff writer, are working toward not just increasing attendance at athletic events, but also improving student-athlete presence at performances and campus events organized by other student groups.
Making time for the trek north
The distance from most athletic buildings to main campus is a major deterrent for students – the Brown football stadium is nearly one and a half miles from the Main Green. Many students don’t even know where the stadium is, Gonzales said.
Olson said her mother’s dorm at Brigham Young University was right next to the football stadium, which allowed for easier access to sporting events, a convenience lacking at the University.
“It’s tough for students to want to make that walk,” McDuff said. “It’s easier to just stay in your room and hang out with your friends.”
He also said the popularity of fall sports is related to the “try everything” attitude of freshmen in their first semesters, but that this can die down in the winter and spring.
“In the fall, it’s a little bit different because the freshmen are very active and they do their best in attending various games,” he said. But eventually, students become comfortable in certain areas of campus, and “it can be hard to break out,” he said.
The University attempts to use a shuttle system to and from games, but Mia Zachary ’13 said it sometimes arrives late or not at all. Zachary also said the times of games – usually around noon – often conflict with other activities and are not conducive to a student-fan friendly atmosphere.
“Tailgating for a football game is not fun at 10 a.m.,” Zachary said.
When a lot of students choose to attend a football game – the homecoming game against Harvard last year, for example – students drunkenly follow the crowds rather than trekking to the stadium themselves, she said. This is a sports atmosphere that appealed to Stump.
More students might turn out to games “if we acted less like the Ivy League and more like drunk, belligerent dads,” he said.
Stump added that he would go to Brown games “if it was a really undignified, boozy affair, where we took great pride in antagonizing (the opponent).”
Oliver Doren ’14 said that for the sports fans on campus, it is easier to follow hometown teams than the Bears. For instance, he said he can watch a professional game online in his dorm room, which is not possible for Brown sports, he said. Brown athletics offers free audio broadcasts of select games, but live streaming video feed can cost $8 for a single gameor $75 for a season pass for
hockey, basketball, soccer and lacrosse.
Simply having time to attend games is also a challenge. As Ivy League students, days are “economized by the hour in terms of scheduling,” Stump said. Because of the need to fit everything into neat blocks of time, many students cannot take the time out of their days to attend a sporting event, he said.
He added that it is hard to make time for any of the various events on campus, so there’s less motivation to attend something with no personal investment. “How can I make a two-hour sports games if I can’t make a 15-minute reading?” Stump said.
Reaching out to Providence
While generating more student interest in Brown athletics is one concern, engaging the Providence community is another. Goldberger and McDuff said they hope to strengthen partnerships between Brown athletics and the local community. At many games, a local youth sports team with their coach or families with children out to enjoy the competition are a common sight.
Teams have reached out to the surrounding areas by hosting clinics, inviting groups to games and performing community service. Goldberger specifically pointed to related SAAC-coordinated activities, such as the Providence Plays event held April 15 at the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center, in which local students had the opportunity to try various sports with Brown athletes. He said he believes this type of work will not only benefit community members but also “build some name recognition, and hopefully those benefits would come in increased attendance at Brown events and increased interest in following Brown.”
McDuff also acknowledged the work of several teams in particular, but said that on the whole he believes branching out to the community is something all student-athletes at Brown should prioritize. McDuff, who was on the search committee for the newly hired director of athletics, said community involvement is one of the priorities for incoming Jack Hayes, who will replace Goldberger in June.
“It’s actually one of the initiatives he was very keen on,” McDuff said. “He’s going to come in and partner Brown athletics with local high school athletics. So I think next year and in the years going forward, you’re going to see more Providence families coming out to games.”
A look forward
In the past two years, a number of Brown athletic events have generated a large student turnout, and for at least four quarters at a time, one might have confused the Brown student section with that of a Big 10 school.
Two such occasions were the night football games at Brown Stadium for which the athletic department brought in temporary lights. At the 6 p.m. kickoff against Ivy rival Harvard two years ago, 17,360 fans turned out to celebrate the Bears’ 29-14 win. Last fall, 10,231 fans watched Brown defeat University of Rhode Island under the lights to capture the Governor’s Cup.
“We tried the initiative to do a night football game a couple of years ago, and it was a great success,” Goldberger said. “Harvard is always a special team for Brown, but with URI, we still had four times the attendance we would usually have because we played it at night.” Goldberger credited the “event-type atmosphere” as a reason behind the games’ popularity.
The success of the men’s soccer team the past two seasons – reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament both years – has also generated large student turnout and pregame tailgates. This fall, the average attendance at games at Stevenson Field was 989, while the average at Brown games elsewhere was 713 fans.
“For men’s soccer, we have the best fans in the Ivy League,” McDuff said. “It’s incredible.”
“We’re very apathetic until it matters,” Gonzales said, pointing to students’ excitement over the team’s run in the NCAA tournament last year.
But Doren said the idea that a winning team draws larger crowds is not “profound” – in order to truly see a rise in popularity, there needs to be “collective interest.”
“There’s no fun in watching your team get beat by everyone,” said Alex Bernson ’12.
The men’s basketball team has suffered down seasons in one of the league’s most exciting eras in recent memory, finishing 2-12 in Ivy play this past season. Two years ago, Cornell reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tourney, and this year, Harvard cracked the national Top 25 rankings at the same time Crimson alum Jeremy Lin was captivating national audiences in the NBA and making a name for Ivy League basketball.
Meanwhile, attendance at the Pizzitola Center for men’s home games averaged half as many fans as the squad saw on the road. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, in a piece describing his experiences visiting most New England Division I basketball programs’ home floors, called the game at the Pizzitola Center “sparsely attended.”
But when Harvard came to town, the Pizzitola Center sold out, bolstered by an enthusiastic student section behind the south basket. Goldberger is confident the young basketball squad, riddled with injuries this year, will undergo a transformation next year and get in on the recent Ivy excitement.
“I think it’s right on the verge,” Goldberger said. “I think our team is going to be fabulous next year. I think we’ll be one of the top teams in the league for sure, and I think we’re going to generate that excitement around here too.”
McDuff also noted the upward trend in recent student support of Brown athletics. He said the decision of the Athletic Review Committee this past fall to retain the four teams up for elimination sent a message that athletics is an important part of the University experience. Now, McDuff said the onus is on student-athletes to do their part.
“I think there is a positive vibe going right now, and I think student-athletes now have to take advantage of this,” McDuff said. “They have to be more competitive on the field, they have to be more engaging off the field, they have to succeed in the classroom … I think you’re going to see athletics be more integrated with the rest of campus life.”