The University of Chicago Athletics teams have had a hard run since back in the '30s. That's a long dry spell.
Although the College attracts many of the most prestigious and promising intellectual talents, its draw for potential athletes is considerably weaker. Despite relying on just a few recruits and many walk-ons, the Maroons have this year exceeded expectations when it comes to performing at game-time. The cross-country teams, and especially the women's soccer team, which narrowly lost in the national championship game, have been better this year than ever before in the university's history. Yet, even so, such success has drawn relatively little student interest.
In light of the seemingly obligatory passion of Chicagoans for city sports, and the ability of Sammy Sosa and Mark Prior to impassion the entire area with a terminal case of baseball fever, the majority of students on campus do not attend University athletics matches. The University does not field a single team that has created a rallying point for school spirit. The men's basketball team is currently rebuilding the strength of its offense after losing its central figure, Derek Reich, to the glamour of the Norwegian Basketball League's Ulriken Eagles. Still, a devout following is found at most Maroon basketball games. The fans usually group into small, self-contained pockets, distinctly representing other varsity sports, frats, and other non-aligned groups.
In an effort to attract a more diverse audience, the University put its poorly advertised "Pack-the-Place Night" into action last Friday and offered free pizza for all that attended. Some of the students who knew about the event worried that they would be fighting for even a single slice. Sadly or happily, depending on how one looks at it, no one had any trouble finding a slice. Some, including my editor (please don't censor this, Dan), even had no shame in securing a whole pizza for themselves and a couple friends.
"Pack-the-Place" is a key event in the Athletic department's ongoing campaign to bring in students to Maroon games. Last winter, when the basketball teams were still playing in the Henry Crown Field House, the department gave away a DVD player to the house with the greatest percentage of its members attending. After the winner was announced, nearly the entire place emptied out before it was even clear who would win the game.
The University did successfully fill Ratner (affectionately known by some as "the Rat") during the season-opening Midway Classic but could not inspire the students to return in the same numbers on Friday.
In all fairness to the University, there were a good number of enthusiastic fans; plenty of tension and a even a not-so-small amount of (dare I say it?) school spirit, were evident throughout the night as the men's team barely held on to its slight lead in the last few minutes of play.
Not only did the word of the special night not get around, but, shamefully, the University of Chicago Lab Schools' simultaneous varsity basketball show-down against rival Latin was much better attended.
There are a number of people on campus who will never care about the Maroons, no matter how well they do or how well the games are publicized. Those people are idiots. However, the Athletic department needs to seriously consider the kind of publicity blitz that will ensure students keep a chance to see our teams on their short list of things to do over the course of a weekend. Perhaps getting athletes to infiltrate house meetings, flyering dining hall tables, and even advertising on WHPK or in the Maroon would help. At the U of C, there's a sports fan in most of us; we just need a little push to bring it out.