Sorry to harp on an increasingly tired theme, but the barrage of reports on the lack of fans at Yale sporting events in various publications has really started me thinking. And when that happens, I know something is amiss.
Last week, I took the “no more shenanigans, no more tomfoolery, no more ballyhoo” route espoused by one of the crack shrinks from “Good Will Hunting” in suggesting that gimmicks are not the permanent solution to putting people in the seats. This time, I’m following the no-nonsense Al Davis mantra of “Just win, baby!”
The only way to galvanize a dormant fan base is by putting a winning product on the field. It’s tough to swallow the concept of a Florida Marlins World Series championship — the second one in the franchise’s 10 years no less — simply because the overwhelming majority of the fans who were there in all their nail-biting, pennant-waving, hiding-their-faces-in-their-hands-in-agony glory throughout the postseason were too busy tending to their sun-tans during the summer months.
I guess I have some sympathy for the Southern Florida baseball junkies who were so incensed by Wayne Huizenga’s instant dismantling of the 1997 championship squad that they refused to believe in the re-tooled 2003 outfit. The rest of the bandwagon-hoppers were just along for the ride. Whatever the case, the Marlins will undoubtedly bolster their attendance marks next season when the fans know that a certified winning product will be on the field.
(Side note: Was I the only one who found himself muttering “Sit down and shut up” to Dolphins fans during yesterday’s game against the Colts? You’ve had your parade already this week. Put it away.)
And so it goes for Yale sports. Clearly, the golden age of Walter Camp, Ivy League athletic hegemony and 12 football national championships has about as much chance of returning as does Steve Bartman to his favorite Chicago bar. But national prominence has long been out of the question. A much smaller scale of success is required here.
Witness the men’s basketball team — after years as a campus afterthought, its success in 2001-2002 drew hordes of students to the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Home victories over Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania furthered the legitimacy of the program and ensured continued fan support for the following season. The Midnight Madness kickoff event last October packed the gymnasium, and each Ivy League home game drew boisterous crowds.
But last season’s men’s basketball team’s problems were endemic of those of Yale sports teams collectively. Several teams without historically large fan support had the benefit of hosting games with unique import. The hype for the games lured fans for a trial basis — a one-shot chance to earn non-roommate, non-girlfriend/boyfriend, non-parent attendance. Unfortunately, Yale — with the notable exception of the women’s lacrosse team’s victories over Syracuse (in the first round of the NCAA Tournament) and eventual national champion Princeton — found itself on the short end of almost every one of those games.
In a match that featured freshman phenoms Julian Illingworth and Yasser El-Halaby squaring off in a memorable five-gamer at No. 1, men’s squash dropped a thrilling 5-4 decision to Princeton that ultimately determined the Ivy title. Coming off a victory over perennial national championship contender Princeton in New Jersey in 2002, men’s lacrosse failed to repeat the feat in front of its home fans last year. Men’s ice hockey — one of the few teams that consistently sells out its home games — fell at the Whale to No. 2 Cornell and then to Brown in the best three ECAC quarterfinal pairing when all three games were played in New Haven.
Games with special significance such as these will always put butts in the seats. But Yale teams would do themselves a great service by emerging victorious in some of these games. Creating a buzz among the students — such as the one the men’s hoops team created two winters ago — is the only sure-fire way to attract support. The only way to create a buzz is to win.
With Ivy League presidents gradually making the admittance of recruited athletes more stringent and Yale simultaneously switching to an Early Action program that will mean accepted recruits who have passed the tougher standards might not even attend, the sons and daughters of Eli will be even more hard-pressed to stay competitive on the field. If that happens, not even Blue Blood-type fan support groups or cheesy publicity stunts will be enough to ensure attendance.