On an overcast afternoon in November, the lines between student and student-athlete blurred on the turf of Franklin Field. With its 34-21 victory over Cornell — an outcome that seemed like a foregone conclusion from the second the ball left the tee for the opening kickoff at 1:00 p.m. — Penn football had just won a share of the Ivy title. In celebration, streams of giddy students poured over the brick barrier onto the turf forming a human swarm around midfield.
The Penn band erupted with its usual rumpled aplomb in a chorus of “Hurrah for the Red and Blue.” The brass reached the final verse and arms of students and football players alike extended proudly with each repetition of “Hurrah!”
While that moment would not have been possible without a stellar season from first year coach Ray Priore’s team, it was exactly the moment that Penn Athletics had been hoping for. The University of Pennsylvania might not ever be known as a sports school in the same way that its Division I brethren at Power Five conferences are, but that mix of fans and student-athletes united in song was the image of what Penn Athletics knew it could be. With the right tact, sports could matter here, at an Ivy League school, too.
“I think for non-student-athletes to get involved in sharing that excitement, it’s just a win-win,” Roger Reina said of the title-clinching celebration. Reina, a 1984 Penn graduate and Quakers’ wrestling coach from 1986-2005, was recently hired by Athletic Director Grace Calhoun as senior associate athletic director of external affairs. In his new role for the Red and Blue he focuses primarily on sports marketing – essentially making sports matter in University City.
That goal seems daunting, but not when you consider how Reina created a fan base for his wrestling squad back in the nineties. During the first years of his tenure, “when we didn’t charge [admission] for wrestling we had a couple of parents and the janitors might watch the match,” recalled Reina. By his final season as coach there were “thousands of people coming in regularly.”
“I know we can build fanbases,” he said. “We’ve done it in the past and we’re in the process of doing it again.”
During the 2015 football campaign, Reina’s department sought new channels for game promotion, such as social media and the undergraduate class boards. On game days, for instance, nearly all of the content on the Penn Athletics-run Twitter and Instagram pages urged students to attend that weekend’s home game and class presidents sent out emails to their constituencies reminding them to make their way to the stands.
This complements the work done through the Penn Rewards app, which the marketing department has pushed out over the last several years. One of the first schools in the country to utilize a fan loyalty program, Penn has just under 5,000 students actively using the app, according to Director of Marketing and New Media Josh Craggs.
“We want to be innovative,” he said. “And we talk about how innovative Franklin Field was back in the day — all the different firsts it encompasses: first scoreboard, first video board, first night game, first TV game and all that stuff. So we just want to continue along that trend.”
Several new events designed for fans were also added to the calendar. To generate hype for the first nationally televised game at Franklin Field, Penn’s Oct. 23 Friday night date with Yale, Penn Athletics hosted a “Red and Blue BBQ” on Shoemaker Green designed for undergraduates and relatives visiting for family weekend and a block party in conjunction with restaurants in University City for students over 21, dubbed “Quaker Fan Fest.”
Although game attendance always receives a boost for tilts coinciding with family weekend, the 5,849 people at Penn’s 34-20 victory over Yale was the high water mark for the season until 11,017 filed into the Frank’s stands two weeks later to watch the Quakers dispatch Princeton 26-23 in overtime on Homecoming.
At the risk of mistaking correlation for causality, early numbers indicate that the athletic department’s efforts were fruitful. Year-over-year attendance for home games was up 65 percent in 2015 and many autumns have come and gone since the buzz in Franklin Field was this tangible. It’s unclear, though, how much that data is affected by favorable weather or the team’s increased success on the field.
“We always have this debate in athletics administration: Do you need winning teams before you get student attendance or can student attendance help build winning teams?” said Calhoun. “I think it’s probably both. ... Winning does a lot toward making people feel like it’s going to be a fun place to go and to be.”
During the winter seasons, the athletic department has been concentrating its efforts on the programs that call the Palestra home. Men’s basketball — another one of Penn’s traditionally dominant programs with a first-year coach — is a primary focus for these efforts to combat fan apathy on campus. The team may be winless in three games in the conference, but attendance thus far in 2015-16 is up from previous seasons. The same can be said for the numbers on the women’s side. Coach Mike McLaughlin’s squad is the hottest team in the Ancient Eight, with a 3-0 start and a win over last year’s champions already in the bag.
“Both coaches are committed to engaging with the community both on campus as well as the youth teams in the surrounding area and doing the right thing to build those relationships,” Reina said of Donahue and McLaughlin.
According to Calhoun, a primary goal — and not just for basketball games — is increasing entertainment value for fans.
“Can we be more strategic about how we use the timeouts, the halftimes, getting more people involved and doing something at the event instead of just coming there to passively sit and watch?” she asked.
For instance, during the Big 5 doubleheader at the Palestra on Jan. 20, star players and Big 5 Hall of Famers from each of the last six decades were honored during breaks throughout the night. Other games have featured more trivial content, such as fan hula-hooping or free throw contests.
The efforts may seem small for now, but Calhoun and Reina hope that they will accumulate over time and help reverse the tide of sports disinterest on campus.
“A part of Penn’s culture has been one of sport and the shared experiences and community building that’s happened through sports,” Calhoun said.
For now the question remains exactly what it will take to make that facet of Penn’s culture as vibrant as it once was. Or, as Calhoun phrases it, “Can we help expose these new generations of students to that and have them feel that it’s not just part of our heritage, but that it becomes part of their living, breathing traditions and memories of being a student at Penn?”
Before long, the athletic department hopes the answer will be a resounding “yes.”
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