The men’s soccer team played in front of a big crowd, several thousand strong, earlier this year at Creighton. The 7,500-student school in Omaha, Neb., doesn’t have a football team. Instead, the Bluejays have made soccer the face of their athletic program, and it’s been working out so far. It’s consistently very good and well-attended.
If you look around Division I schools, it’s really interesting to see just how many schools don’t really mind not having the traditional football or men’s basketball flagship. Many, like Creighton, have been able to create followings in other sports.
While Columbia doesn’t have continuously excellent baseball or soccer programs to take the focus off disappointing football and men’s basketball teams, it does have some pretty good alternatives. I think that given a conscious effort to sell the student body on the teams and make events more accessible, some of these could be teams that Athletics could hang its hats on.
What we need is a sport that’s spectator-friendly and quite good. The latter criterion narrows the list considerably, and unfortunately, the former criterion eliminates cross-country and rowing. But we’re still left with tennis and fencing.
Unlike cross-country or rowing (other strong teams), fencing is decently spectator-friendly. Home meets happen in the Blue Gym, and you can watch from the sidelines or from the middle of the track above. Moreover, it can be pretty entertaining—just 10 or 15 seconds of people trying to stab each other in the chest, over and over again. Since there are usually multiple bouts going on at once, there aren’t as many annoying breaks in the action.
(Disclaimer: I’m friends with a few fencers.)
The problem with selling a sport like fencing is that there simply aren’t that many home meets in the first place. This year, there are two: Nov. 22 and Feb. 5. The team also has meets at St. John’s (Queens) and NYU (downtown). Not a whole lot of chances to see them, even if the meets do last all day.
But that’s where the athletic director needs to step in. First, publicize them more. Maybe set up some temporary seating areas for home meets, or have them in Levien so we don’t have to stand on the side the entire time. Incentivize going to the meet and occasionally throw some special events. (Meet an Olympian? See if some team members can teach the occasional fencing class? Organize viewing trips to St. John’s and NYU? Public scrimmages?) It can’t be that hard to highlight a team that can showcase itself in Dodge, is good enough to have multiple current members and alums going to each Olympics, and can feature up to four simultaneous bouts.
Tennis, however, does play at home often. And as we know from Grand Slams, if you sell tennis enough, people will watch. Last year, women’s tennis swept Princeton at home to claim a share of the Ivy title, but I wouldn’t have known if I weren’t part of this newspaper. Men’s tennis is also pretty good in its own right.
(Disclaimer: Also friends with several tennis players.)
The problem with tennis is that it happens up at Baker, which is far less convenient a location for most students than Dodge. But that’s where having fan buses and special events helps. Football is inconvenient to go to as well, but that just means attendance needs to be further incentivized.
Football and basketball are the biggest sports here, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Columbia’s undergraduate population is far smaller than those of state schools, which allows for more athletic flexibility. If we want students to leave with a positive impression of the sports teams, I think it would be more productive to redirect some of the current effort toward improving marquee sports at selling the fringe sports, and to stop allowing or telling students to focus on the marquee sports rather than devoting all that energy to trying to improve them year after year. Play to your strengths.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College junior majoring in astrophysics and economics. He is the sports columnist deputy for Spectator. Picked Apart runs biweekly.