Imagine standing among hundreds — maybe even thousands — of fans, cheering on the Yale Bulldogs as they strive for a national championship. There’s not an unoccupied seat in sight, save for those emptied by fans standing up and cheering. The roaring of the crowd is deafening. Yale football versus Harvard at The Game?
This was the scene that greeted Yale swimmers at every home meet from the 1930s up through the 1960s — a far cry from the expected atmosphere at this coming weekend’s Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, which will likely be more energetic than other meets this season but nonetheless fall short of the excitement of Yale Swimming’s heyday. Yet while swimming has faced a marked decline in prominence compared to earlier decades, the squash teams, which played in front of loud crowds against Trinity last week, provide a striking contrast.
“Swim meets were the thing to do and the place to be — everyone came out for these,” Steve Conn, director of sports publicity, said. “There will be a good atmosphere and crowd for HYP this weekend, but it’s not going to be the same as it used to be. Back then, there weren’t games on TV all the time, and there just wasn’t that quick access to sports entertainment.”
Conn grew up around Yale sports and was exposed to the sports culture at a young age through his father, who taught at Yale as a professor for more than 40 years. Conn said his father used to have a book of sports tickets for all Yale competitions and would go to events ranging from polo matches to swim meets.
“He’s probably in one of those pictures where the pool is just filled to the top with fans,” Conn remarked.
Conn is referring to a picture hanging in Payne Whitney taken at the height of Robert Kiphuth’s reign as head coach of Yale swimming from 1917 to 1959, during which time he coached Yale’s team to a record 528 wins, with only 12 losses. The picture depicts the competition pool, now named the Kiphuth Exhibition Pool, filled to the top with cheering fans.
It is a picture that members of the swim team see on a daily basis — and one that inspires Colin McCarthy ’10, who competes in backstroke and freestyle events.
“We look at that picture every day on the walk to the locker room, and we know we’ll never be able to get that amount of people in these stands now,” he said.
McCarthy said most of the home crowd at swim meets consists of parents and that not many students come out to support the team. He acknowledged that swimming may be a harder sport to watch because it features individual talent, as opposed to team dynamics. But he added that it can sometimes be frustrating to compete without student-body support.
As an example, he cited the team’s last home meet, at which its competitors from Dartmouth and Brown had more supporters than the home team.
“As a team, we’ve always recognized that we don’t get as large a crowd as other sports, and it’s something that we’ve gotten used to,” he said.
McCarthy said one reason for the large difference in Yale swimming’s fan base over the years may be the change in the average quality of swimmers at Yale and in the Ivy League in general. He said the level of competition in the league is still very high, but decades ago, the pool of top national talent used to be concentrated within the Ancient Eight, with many of Yale’s swimmers going on to compete on Olympic teams.
He added that Ivy League schools’ inability to offer athletic scholarships may also explain why swimming at the national level is no longer associated with the Ivy League and has shifted to state schools that have money to support higher-level swimmers.
Although attendance has decreased, noticeably so for sports like swimming, Conn said pure numbers may not tell the whole story.
“It’s hard to quantify the exact change because we don’t have records of attendance at the events from back then,” he said. “But I think fan attendance has developed in a positive way, because there’s more interest and more emotion in the stands than there used to be.”
Other sports, meanwhile, have attracted growing fan bases in recent years. Head coach David Talbott — who calls his sport, squash, a “niche sport” — said that although squash has grown increasingly popular internationally, it is still overcoming its stereotype in the United States as a sport for prep schools and students from the Northeast.
But despite its highly selective appeal, Talbott said squash has developed a robust following within the Yale community among students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as faculty and staff.
“There’s been a real following since I’ve been here, and I’ve been coaching a long time,” Talbott said. “The fans have definitely increased, and they’re rocking the courts.”
Talbott likened last Wednesday’s match against Trinity, a squash powerhouse and Yale rival, to a hockey game, complete with drunken Trinity students.
“It was absolutely crazy — there were hundreds of people, everyone was yelling, and you couldn’t move around,” he explained. “For squash, that’s as good as it gets.”
“We have great energy, and it’s a really good cross-section — half were familiar with squash, and half didn’t know what was going on,” he added. “But it’s really high-level squash, and everyone can watch and have a good time with the crowd energy.”
During the Brady Squash Center’s renovation in 1999, Talbott said, the courts were reconfigured to allow spectators to move around and watch several games simultaneously.
“We’re not trying to fill a bowl, and squash is one of those sports where your friends really make a difference,” he said. “If everybody can ask 25 of their friends to come, you can really get a good crowd going.”
A good crowd is exactly what the swimmers hope to turn out this weekend for the HYP meet at Payne Whitney, the team’s biggest meet of the year before the Ivy League Championships and a long-standing tradition within collegiate swimming. All three teams are entering the meet with unblemished league records.
“This is our last large meet before the Ivy League championships, which is our final meet of the season, so our success is determined by this meet,” McCarthy said. “In a home environment, we have an advantage, and with a strong student presence, it would really boost our team’s confidence and help us perform at the level that we know we can.”