Division One Athletics, Division Three Fans?

Here’s a fun fact: the men’s basketball team currently finds itself in last place in all of big-time college basketball. With more than 300 squads competing in Division-I, that’s a long way down to the cellar. But we’re not talking about wins and losses here. The men are currently a respectable 9-13, good enough for fifth place in the Patriot League. What the Raiders rank dead last in is attendance.

In 2004, Colgate had fewer fans per game (404) than any other school fielding a D-I basketball program. When it comes to attendance, our university trails schools that your guidance counselor never heard of: Coppin State, Bethune Cookman and Lipscomb, to name a few.But wait; there must be some sort of mistake, right? After all, we’re an institution touted in Admissions brochures as “a small school with big school spirit;” a school where seemingly every student owns three t-shirts, two hats and a Nalgene emblazoned with the word “Colgate.” Yet accolades and apparel do not necessarily translate into support for Colgate athletics. Just ask the athletes.

“I don’t really think that there is much school spirit,” said senior Keith Williams, co-captain of the men’s basketball team. “I think it’s sad that a lot of kids don’t come out [and support the teams] because, on a campus like this, the athletes and the students are really one in the same.”

Fellow senior co-captain Andrew Zidar agrees. “I think the only school spirit really lies amongst the athletes,” Zidar said. “I think we’re each other’s biggest supporters and biggest fans because we understand that the regular student doesn’t really support as much.”And it’s not just men’s basketball that suffers from the tepid support of the student body. From women’s hockey to men’s lacrosse, from softball to swimming and diving, Colgate’s athletic teams play in front of lackluster crowds year-round. The women’s basketball team averages a meager 264 fans per home game so far this year. The men’s lacrosse team saw an average of 123 fans at its home games last year, three times fewer support than its opponents. Even men’s hockey, the consensus king of Colgate sports, ranked only 39th out of 58 D-I teams in attendance during their 2003-2004 campaign, a season in which the Raiders went 22-12-5 and won the regular season ECACHL crown. Only the football team, with its undefeated season and National Championship game appearance, had stellar attendance.

Many athletes see Colgate’s sub-par attendance not only as a sign of deflated school spirit, but also as an actual hindrance to the success of the teams. At Colgate, it seems that there is no home-court advantage.According to senior Emily Braseth, co-captain of the women’s basketball team, the crowd can “absolutely” affect the outcome of a game. “When the fans aren’t there,” she said, “you don’t have that extra push.””When you have no crowd and nobody’s cheering, I get bored sometimes,” said senior Natalie Rawson, the reigning Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in volleyball. “When there’s a crowd and you get a kill and the crowd goes crazy, it pumps you up. It really does affect the way you play. I think maybe our sports would be better if people came.”

Rawson, who also stars on the Raider softball team in the spring, is quick to rattle off lists of schools with larger and more enthusiastic crowds than Colgate’s in both of her sports. Other athletes agree: crowds are simply better on the road.

“We just came back from Lafayette and Lehigh and those kids are fired up,” Zidar said of the men’s basketball team’s weekend road trip. “They’ve got their chests painted and they’re heckling us; it’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to hear your own plays, your own teammates, because everyone’s screaming at the top of their lungs. It’s a real school sports environment at the other schools.”

Senior Matt Saxon, co-captain of the men’s lacrosse team, names Hobart and Bucknell as the schools with the best crowds. Senior Darryl McKinnon, co-captain of the men’s hockey team, names Cornell and Harvard. Braseth names Vermont. Nobody names Colgate. “There is a drastic difference between the other Patriot League schools and our school,” Williams said. “The support they get is unbelievable to us.”The obvious question, then, is what is it that keeps Colgate’s student body away from athletic events, while teams at other schools continue to draw fans to their games? Everyone has theories. Some athletes, especially those whose sports compete outside, point to Hamilton’s frigid climate. Others look to Colgate’s relatively tiny student body, the virtual disappearance of COOP sheets as instruments of advertising games or our school’s “drink in your room and go to the Jug” culture for possible answers.

Yet many athletes allocate at least some responsibility to the Athletic Department and the publicity (or lack thereof) that it provides for its teams. “They put flyers up at Cotterell Court, but the only people who see those are the athletes because they’re the only ones down there,” Zidar said regarding the Athletic Department’s advertising efforts. McKinnon also sees flaws in the department’s approach to hyping its events. “I think they make a good effort,” he said. “The problem lies in the fact that they attempt to do a lot of it over email. Many students delete a lot of these mass emails and never know about events that are happening.”

The man in charge of the Athletic Department is Colgate Athletic Director David Roach. Roach, in his first year as AD in Hamilton after holding the position at Brown University for 14 years, takes a more optimistic view of the publicity generated for Raider athletics.

“We’ve got a webpage, we’ve got the newspaper, we’ve got posters that we put up and we’ve got word-of-mouth among our student-athletes,” Roach said. “If any student wants to know when an event is, I think it’s pretty easy to find.”

But Roach does acknowledge that Colgate athletic events are not what they should be. At Colgate, he sees a university that “for a long time has undervalued its athletic events.” He sees free admission for Hamilton residents at virtually every Raider contest as a sign that our school does not give its sports the credit they deserve as highly competitive Division-I games, matches and meets. Although he emphasizes that students will still get in free to all athletic events, Roach has plans to begin charging outsiders to see the Raiders play – not to generate revenue, but to create a sense of “the big time” in small-town Central New York.And a few dollars for a ticket to a football game isn’t all that he has in mind. Roach envisions children’s play areas at various games, season-ticket sales with enticing incentive packages and, perhaps most significantly, the installation of field lights at Andy Kerr Stadium to enable the football team to host night games. “You’ve got to think bigger and better,” Roach says, in order to make more athletic contests into athletic events.

Roach also sees the men’s basketball team’s distinction as The Least-Watched Team in America to be misleading. “A number can be a little bit deceiving,” he said, explaining that many of the men’s games were played over winter break, when students were not around to fill up the stands. Yet in the team’s two home games since the beginning of the spring semester, the average attendance hovered at only 350 – 54 fewer fans than the already dismal average of 404.

When the men’s basketball team takes the court tonight against Navy, the Raiders will more than likely be cheered on by the cheerleaders, a handful of students and some frostbitten Hamilton residents looking to break the monotony of the Hamilton winter. There will be no painted faces. There will certainly be no home court advantage. Williams and Zidar admit that the struggles of their team to put together wins greatly affect the size and quality of their fan base. “It’s about winning,” Williams said. “If we get a championship this year, there’s going to be more people in the stands next year, whether or not the athletic administration does anything.”

But if students are waiting for teams to start winning before they start coming to games, and athletes say that strong fan support is often necessary to win, Colgate’s athletic program finds itself in a sporting version of a catch-22. With an energized crowd comes more wins, and with more wins comes an energized crowd. It seems that the student body should be called upon to make the first move — and not just because they should feel obligated to.

“It all boils down to having fun,” Zidar said. “The fans should just come and have fun, heckle kids and really enjoy it.”

The man has a point, and anyone who’s been to a hockey game against Cornell or last year’s football playoff game against Western Illinois would have to agree. When it comes down to it, watching sports and cheering for a team, especially when that team represents the university so many of us display proudly on our t-shirts, hats and Nalgenes, is indeed a fun way to spend a few hours.

“We’ve got a great program and it’s Division-I,” Roach said. “We should be proud of it. We need to think of it as something that is at a higher level that we’ve thought of it before.”