Last Wednesday night, I stood crammed in the aisle of a coach bus carrying 50-some members of the swim team nine hours across the state to an invitational meet at Kenyon College. Somehow, every single swimmer neglected to bring DVD’s, so we spent the ride studying and talking amongst ourselves a little more than usual.
Around hour six, my teammate Ellie Grimes started asking the people sitting around her what one thing they wanted to do before graduating college. The ensuing responses were mostly light-hearted and germane to borderline-illegal activities. But the question got me thinking: before I graduated from Penn, what did I want to do as a student, as an athlete, as a friend?
In lieu of my last column of 2016 being a recitation of my resolutions for second semester senior year, I’d like to expand the prompt from Ellie’s initial phrasing to encompass the sports community at Penn. What did I want from Penn Athletics before I graduated, as both a member of a varsity sports team and as a (partially) objective observer as a sports writer?
I want a slightly different PR strategy from the University. Currently, most students are only tangentially aware of what sporting events take place on campus each weekend. Given the current level of sports apathy at Penn, this is equally true for the marquee sports, such as football and men’s and women’s basketball, as it is for non-revenue generating sports like mine.
I would argue, however, that the University has the most fans to gain from the lower profile athletic teams.
Consider last Tuesday’s Penn-Villanova men’s basketball game as a case study. 7,787 fans descended on the Palestra to watch our Quakers take on the defending national champions. For context, just 503 fans were present the previous Tuesday for the women’s basketball team’s Big Five game against St. Joseph’s.
Despite matching red “Beat Nova” t-shirts given out at the pre-game Fan Fest and an electric home atmosphere, Penn got drubbed 82-57. The result was to be expected – the Wildcats currently hold down the top ranking in Division I college hoops while we are battling for fourth in a conference of unranked teams.
It was heartening to see the Palestra so full that night – I haven’t seen it so energized since the Ivy League title playoff between Harvard and Yale in 2015. But how many of those fans that made their first trip down to the Cathedral of Basketball that weeknight will ever come back?
Why not choose to promote a winter program like squash or fencing instead? The bouts and matches tend to be shorter, on average, than an entire basketball game, the courts are the same distance from the heart of campus as the Palestra, and the athletes are some of the best in the nation. Penn’s men’s and women’s squash teams are No. 6 and No. 2, respectively. The men’s fencing team is ranked third and the women are just outside the top ten.
I’m willing to bet that most students here are unaware that we even field those teams. While that kind of ignorance can claim many fathers, Penn Athletics certainly plays a role in those programs’ lack of notoriety.
I understand that my argument is complicated by the fencing team’s few competitions at home in comparison with Penn’s basketball teams, one of which plays at home nearly every weekend. Nevertheless, there is a much greater incentive for students to make the trek down to 33rd Street if they know they can see some of the best athletes in the country do their thing. This is not to say that the athletes in the University’s high profile programs don’t still deserve your support or are not talented in their own right. They most certainly do and most certainly are. But the athletes who sacrifice just as much for far less praise could use some ego-boosting and rowdy student sections, too.
Whether this “resolution” for Penn Athletics gets fulfilled in 2017 comes down to the students just as much as the institution itself – empty seats are filled by people, not clever pregame promotion tweets. So, as a personal response to Ellie’s question, I want to attend a game for each of Penn’s 31 varsity programs before I graduate. In my three-and-a-half years of working for The Daily Pennsylvanian, I’ve already written about 26, so I’m almost there.
I’d like to challenge whoever is reading this column to try to match my total. The fall sports season is already over, but there is still time to see 23 teams in action. So make it your resolution – for 2017 or for the remainder of your time in college. Maybe you’ll lose a little precious time in the library, but trust me, you won’t regret it.