January 21, 2005

If you sell it, we will come

If you've ever been to a University of Chicago sporting event, you might have noticed something: Practically no one is there. Go ahead, look around. There might be a few other athletes or parents, but the stands are mostly empty. Despite the fact that the U of C has some great teams, few people bother to attend. Why is this?

A lot of students like to attribute the lack of attendance by saying things like, "Oh, U of C people don't like sports," or something to that effect. These people essentially argue that the intellectual nature of most Chicago students excludes them from enjoying sports. I fundamentally disagree with this statement.

There is absolutely no proof that smart kids don't like sports. Just look at schools like Duke, Stanford, Harvard, or Yale, all of which have thriving sporting communities on their campuses. Or if you would rather focus on small Division III schools, Middlebury, Williams, and even Wash U all have involved and dedicated fan bases. These schools successfully get their student bodies fired up about their teams.

I think there is a much simpler reason for lack of attendance at Chicago games: Our athletic department has failed at creating an environment conducive to supporting our sports. It is the responsibility of the department, particularly in D-III sports, to get students thinking about athletics, and this school has not done that.

Athletics is an integral part of college. Despite what Robert Hutchins might have told you, sports have always been deeply rooted in the American undergraduate experience. They can be a great benefit not just to a university, but also to all the students attending. If Chicago had a thriving sports program, maybe we would have a collective identity other than "Where Fun Comes to Die."

The responsibility of providing this excitement lies squarely on the shoulders of the athletic department, a task that they seem to have shirked in the three years I've been here. College sports aren't just for athletes; they are for everyone at the school.

The department needs to start building fan support. There are several ways in which they could do this. First and foremost, they need to do a much better job informing the student body when teams are playing home games. That flat screen TV in Ratner isn't going to cut it for promoting sports. Why aren't there flyers around campus announcing games? What about banners in busy places like Cobb or Bartlett? For goodness sake, home games aren't even included in the weekly ORSCA e-mail. For the aptly titled "Pack the Place" I saw about three unprofessional flyers. Students can't attend games if they don't knows about them. It's almost as if the department is trying to keep a secret.

Second, Chicago needs to promote games as a social option for students. There are only so many die-hard fans on campus, but plenty of people who will go to a game if it's a social scene. The basketball program seems to be the only one that has caught onto this. If you schedule games for Fridays at 8 p.m., people will attend. Students are always looking for new things to do, particularly on weekends. Why hasn't the athletic department offered Chicago sports as an option?

A successful athletic department will provide teams with the facilities to start scheduling games in "prime time." Was anyone else puzzled that we didn't put lights on the football, baseball, and soccer fields during the Ratner construction? This would open up huge opportunities for teams to hold nighttime games during warm weather. You absolutely cannot convince me that more students won't attend a Saturday night baseball or football game.

Chicago has certainly upgraded its facilities in my time here. The athletic department needs to continue improving, translating new facilities into increased attendance.

Finally, when a U of C team goes on a hot streakĀ—like those of men's swimming and women's basketballĀ—the department has to step up its promotion. Nothing excites fans more than rooting for a good team, and Chicago should capitalize on this. The department is making efforts, handing out Nalgene bottles and free pizza at the Midway Classic, but if few students know about the giveaways, the effect is lost.

Maroon sports should be a great thing for the student body. Instead of the seemingly exclusive club that exists now, they could be a chance for the community to gather and cheer together. I want us to have a lot of fans. I want the games to be loud. Right now our athletic department needs to up the ante and begin spreading the word about the Maroons. They are doing us all a disservice if they don't.