T here are only about four times a year that you can actually expect people to show up for an event at Franklin Field: Homecoming, Spring Fling (if Girl Talk isn’t the headliner), Penn Relays and Graduation.
And while the Eagles holding a practice there in early August (a must-see if you are on campus) will be sure to add to that miniscule list, it doesn’t address the underlying problem.
Sure, the homecoming football game was on the above list, and yes, you’ll see a few of your friends make the cold trek to the men’s basketball game vs. Princeton during the winter.
But for the most part, there isn’t any team or teams that Penn students rally behind.
It isn’t for lack of success. Men’s soccer, women’s basketball, and both men’s and women’s lacrosse took home Ivy League titles, while both football and basketball have histories of success despite losing 2013-14 campaigns.
Quite frankly, the problem is one that every major university faces, even ones with sports traditions that far outpace the Red and Blue in championships and prestige.
All you need to do is look at last week’s Wall Street Journal article.
Florida, a school that won a National Title in football just six years ago, reached out for help by following how Sporting Kansas City – an MLS team – has captivated its local fanbase. Other major conferences and schools have hired Sporting Innovations, the team’s consulting firm that uses technology and other factors to help rally local fans.
Yet Penn isn’t a big revenue school (not to mention that the Quakers can’t even compete in the Division I-AA Playoffs for football) that is likely to hire outside firms to help attract students to games.
But it doesn’t take an outside firm or a ton of a data to find what Penn needs to change and how it needs to do it.
To the contrary, real and effective change will have to come from within, something that new Athletic Director Grace Calhoun fully realizes.
“I know the department has worked hard in the past to get students out,” she told the DP. “So we’re not talking about things that haven’t been done, but perhaps it’s just that fresh approach of really doing all we can to reach out and invite people in.”
Ultimately, Penn needs to make athletics fun, make it not just another activity in which some of your classmates are participating but you can readily ignore. Instead, Penn Athletics needs to become part of the weekly routine with a trip to Franklin Field here or a quick peek in the Palestra there.
University City simply isn’t going to be home to the larger-than-life superheroes that big-time revenue sports at state universities produce year after year. And like a minor league baseball team, Penn athletes shuffle in and out, making it less than ideal to advertise specific athletes to the community as an athlete would be gone soon after they gained traction.
But there is no reason that Penn can’t make Friday night basketball or Saturday football games a community event. While other schools have football tailgates every weekend in preparation for the game, there is little to no presence from Penn Athletics on the days or hours prior to a game, plus or minus a Penn Athletics table that people walk by on Locust.
While Penn won’t be able to draw out enough fans to ever make Franklin Field look anything close to full, a tailgate would be something could draw people in and make them feel like they’re a part of something. And honestly, what better excuse do Penn students have for day drinking in the fall?
“A lot of it too is what you do surrounding an athletics event to get people interested in coming and the offshoot is they see the game and say, ‘I had a good time’ or ‘I really enjoyed that now I’m going to come back,’” Calhoun said.
Seriously though, a tailgate or more extensive advertising would be just part of the solution. Calhoun has already talked about bringing in more student groups to sporting events and that would be great to see.
Yet you also need to keep students interested once you draw them in.
Winning would solve part of that issue of retention since ‘everybody loves a winner.’ But even if Penn teams aren’t competing at the top of the NCAAs, the athletic department will need to be able to find other ways to get students in the seats and cheering on their classmates.
In the short term, there is no viable solution.
But as we march towards a future with dwindling attendance and a steadily aging donor base, Penn Athletics needs to figure out how it can once again be part of the culture, part of the true Penn experience.
And with a new AD in place and renewed energy around the department, the time is now.
STEVEN TYDINGS is a rising Wharton junior from Hopewell, N.J., and is a senior sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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