It’s 3:14 am, and my sister is cranky. We drove through the night to get from Lake Worth to Ocala, Florida, our annual University of Florida football weekend hotel spot. My dad and I will spend the next morning buying last minute tailgate supplies, before the three of us head to UF’s campus in Gainesville. My aunt, uncle and cousins will then join us for a family tailgate, then we’ll all break up to go join our high school friends, before my generation reconvenes at my cousin’s frat. My sister and I will join our father at our seats in the Northwest corner of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The band takes the field; I sing along with all the fight songs, even the alma mater. As my Gators pour out onto the field to thunderous applause underneath blinding lights, I shed a tear. I have never attended this institution of higher education. Instead, I go to Penn, where things like this do not, and maybe never will, happen.
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Large state schools make events out of their college athletics, and yet Penn, despite its prolific athletic history, is just starting to tap into sports culture. “If Penn doesn’t allow you to set up a barbecue on Shoemaker Green before a football or basketball game, and when you think of these policies which limit what students can do, students opt to do different things,” says Jesus Perez, C’16, senior class president.
And it’s not just that Penn doesn’t tailgate as hard as Penn State. “When you look at our peers– Harvard, Yale–they allow tailgating, and Penn is behind in that area.”
Lack of camaraderie begins with the Greek community. While fraternities are the highlight of the Saturday scene at state schools and drive attendance at peer institutions, Penn frats are unwilling to devote resources to activities which they feel have little baked–in interest. “We were going to have a pregame for the football game on October 23, but then we remembered we went to Penn and no one gives a shit,” says Kyle Bigley (C’17), SAE’s social chair. He says his “organization could get students more involved, but it's costly and people are generally busy when games are going on.”
Penn Athletics said in a statement, “We are active in an ongoing manner regarding outreach to and communication with the Greek groups on campus.” Yet none of the Greek affiliates I spoke with mentioned outreach from the Athletics Department. When asked to describe the relationship between his fraternity and Penn Athletics, Bigley labeled it “strained.”
When the Greek community does host events ostensibly related to athletics, it’s understood that sports will take a backseat to day drinking. A different fraternity’s social chair, who wished to remain anonymous, believes there’s very little enthusiasm for the actual Homecoming football game: “It's something alumni go to if the weather's nice for a few quarters.” Moreover, the game between Penn and Princeton is a sideshow to the main event. “for Penn–Princeton nobody cares about the game itself, just the social experience.” It’s hard to imagine Harvard and Yale students saying the same thing, let alone Michigan and Ohio State students.
Similarly, Penn traditions such as The Line have been neglected. Every fall, students would camp out in front of the Palestra, sometimes for days, for men’s basketball season tickets. After years of shaky attendance following men’s basketball’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2007, the Athletics Department gave control of The Line to the Red and Blue Crew in 2012; the event has not been held since 2013.
The viewing experience at Franklin Field for the October 23rd win against Yale was an odd one for me. I spent most of the game with a friend who complained about football’s complicated rules and lamented the low quality of play. But I also spent the fourth quarter in the student section, where students like Joe Maher, W’17, tried to cajole the crowd into irreverent, and sometimes riotous, chants.“Cheering on Penn Athletics lets me feel like I'm part of the broader Penn community. I really value the community experience this gives me,” Joe says.
Athletes want to feel the school spirit lacking on Penn’s campus. Christian Pearson, C’19, a wide receiver, describes the campus attitude toward athletics as “indifferent,” but hopes that will soon change. Fans “make the team feel like they have a good support system, and really helps them feel like they’re playing for school pride.”
And, if anything, this effect is larger for less popular sports, like field hockey. Gina Guccione, W’18, a Penn Field Hockey midfielder, explains, “We always want more fans. It makes playing more fun and gets everyone more energetic when you can see people on the side rooting for you throughout the game.”
Yet, so far, the institutions tasked with building the sports atmosphere which would drive attendance have failed to do so.
Maybe the problem isn’t systemic, but cultural. Penn students value other things. I knew when I chose Penn over the University of Florida that I wouldn’t be waking up at 6 am for day drinking and tailgates every Saturday, but I didn’t think Penn students would, actively ignore our athletics programs. Yet, as Kyle joked, “We didn't come here to play sports. We came here to play school.”
This is, in part, Penn field hockey coach Colleen Fink’s perspective. “I think the students here are really busy. The young adults here are spread pretty thin with their own interests. I don’t think it’s necessarily apathy, I think it’s more a matter of time and not knowing what they’re missing.”
Men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue describes this as a “disconnect.” He, like Fink, thinks that the main way to drive attendance is to make the sports culture much more social. But he also thinks the product on the court has to drive demand.
“We’ve gotta build excitement by playing a brand of basketball that they want to see. We have to make sure that it’s an event at the Palestra. That’s the bottom line, is that they want to support a winner. And that’s our job: to be successful.”
But are Penn athletics good enough to attract our attention? Donahue would admit that men’s basketball hasn’t been, at least in recent years. As he frankly put it, “That’s why I’m here.”
Since the 2010-11 season, men’s basketball highest average home game attendance was five years ago, at 4,452 fans. As the team’s record has fallen, so has attendance, with a five–year low occurring during the most recent season: 2,726 fans during 2014–15.
Football is more difficult to explain. Over the last five years, average home game attendance peaked in 2013 at 11,936 fans, which was the year after, and higher than, the season Penn won an Ivy League title. This high water mark also came despite a losing 4–6 record. But the same decreasing trend in basketball is present in football. Attendance fell to 8,730 and 4,405 fans per game in 2014 and 2015, respectively, representing a 63% decrease over the last 3 years, according to statistics from the Penn Athletics website.
Donahue also points to in–game experience. “Are we doing a good enough job in terms of the event itself so kids come and say, ‘this is awesome’? They’re giving out this and that, at halftime there’s this. Somehow, you gotta be the ‘it’ thing to do.”
My in–game experience was not what I expected. Before I left for the student section, I sat with three students, two of whom had very little interest in the game itself. The third knew enough about football to follow along, but was more interested in critiquing the performance of the Penn Band. (He says they’re much improved.)
Joe says, “Penn is known as the ‘Social Ivy.’ People go out at night. There should be more incentive for them to go out before big games, tailgate, and have fun.” Maybe the lack of attendance is simple: we have other things to do.
There have definitely been some visible attempts to improve Penn’s sports culture. The Athletics Department has teamed up with the class boards to host events that will hopefully funnel students to games. Jesus says that the Athletics Marketing Department reached out to the class boards and graduate student representatives to organize Fan Fest and the Red and Blue BBQ. This was a consultative relationship; the Athletics Marketing Department was mostly seeking student insight on how to best cater the events toward students.
Roger Reina, the Athletic Department's Senior Associate of Athletic Affairs, says the event was a success. The Athletics Department believes about 600 attended each of the Fan Fest and the Red and Blue BBQ. There will be another round of tailgates on November 7, for the Homecoming game against Princeton.
Players definitely notice the improvement. Taylor Hendrickson, W'18, sees these efforts working and approves. “It seems more and more kids are coming to the games, with more and more effort from the Athletics Department to make games student–friendly.”
But it’s not just the Athletics Department driving attendance. Everyone I spoke to affiliated with Penn Athletics insisted that there is a newfound familial attitude amongst Penn sports teams, which they hope will spread to the rest of campus.
Coach Fink thinks boosting attendance is a process. “The first step is getting each other’s teams to support one another. Supporting our own fellow student–athletes is issue number one which needs to be tackled.” Her team might be the most active in terms of players reaching out to classmates and bringing them to games.
Gina says, “A lot of us live with different athletes, so we’ll tell them and they’ll get people from their team to come.”
The team also actively uses its Twitter account to interact with other teams.
More than this, some teams are taking marketing in their own hands. “Do I think people are coming to our games because of that? No, but I think it gets people talking about the field hockey team, and if it’s generating a positive buzz, then that’s just as important to me. You’re also making the team a little bit more real and more accessible– that you get to meet some of the girls on the team that you might otherwise not have met.”
Gina likes that her team is spreading awareness. “Coach thought it would be a good idea, to have an incentive to bring people out to the games. It makes things exciting, we have a selling point.” It’s hard to empirically tell if this is working, but it feels like it is. And if the goal is to change campus culture, that might be enough.
It’s 4:34 pm, and I’m carrying a full tailgate’s worth of food to the Editor–in–Chief of Street's house. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a group that had more apathy for sports than Street: if I could get the Street staff to tailgate, then the Athletics Department could reasonably get Penn students to tailgate as well. There are some mishaps: the beer comes late, I forget to buy plates, the brownies aren't quite as good as they should have been. Maybe ten or fifteen people show up. The burgers I make are obviously delicious. The Yuengling is room temperature. It's lovely.
The game itself is a lot of fun, especially when I got to the student section. Down there, I yell things like “Interception,” “nineteen sucks,” and “nineteen chokes,” at Yale’s quarterback, number nineteen. Every Yale penalty is met with chants of “You can’t do that” or “Cheaters.” The band is feeling itself: a really well–timed rendition of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” makes me start dancing on the bleachers. But none of Street comes. One editor is sick, another just wants to watch Netflix with her boyfriend. The host of the tailgate is barely able to attend at all: she has a midterm paper due at midnight.