Steve Musco

On Saturday, Nov. 18, all 105 members of the Yale football team will stand inside the tunnel at the Yale Bowl. About to fight for their first outright Ivy League title since 1980, the Bulldogs will storm the field with the roar of tens of thousands of fans echoing in their ears. The goal is simple: dismantle Harvard.

Seven hours later, the Yale volleyball team will be shaking out its own nerves a mere 15-minute bus ride away. Sitting in their locker room at John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Elis will also be preparing for a single mission: defeating Princeton for a chance to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. Instead of imagining a packed house of Yale’s most ardent supporters, these Bulldogs have the disappointing undertaking of wondering how many fellow students will bother to come to the biggest game of their Yale careers.

Although attending The Game at 12:30 p.m. and volleyball’s NCAA play-in contest at 7 p.m. are not mutually exclusive, most will forgo the latter event in favor of the raucous celebration or mourning caused by the afternoon clash with the Crimson. Serving in the shadow of Yale’s most glorified athletic tradition, the volleyball team, precluded from these festivities, will contend with the unfortunate truth that Yale’s fan culture has its limit — and on Nov. 18, that limit is the doorway to Payne Whitney Gym.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Admission into the Yale Bowl on Saturday afternoon will offer fans a taste of the second oldest matchup in college football and one of the most historic rivalries in all of college sports. Yale and Harvard have faced each other on the gridiron 133 times over the last century and a half, and every iteration of The Game since 1945 has come in the form of a much-anticipated season finale.

Though Yale owns a seven-game lead in the all-time series against Harvard, the Crimson has dominated both The Game and the Ivy League football scene in the lifetimes of current students. Since 1995, Harvard has topped Yale in The Game 17 times, securing shares of nine Ancient Eight titles along the way. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, have boasted just two conference championships and a meager five wins against their biggest rival in that same span.

For a mediocre Harvard squad already eliminated from title contention, the 2017 installment of The Game represents little more than an opportunity to play spoiler, returning the favor after Yale’s improbable win in Cambridge last season. But for Yale, Saturday’s matchup is an opportunity for redemption, a hint at a return to the dominance which characterized much of the rivalry’s infancy. With a share of the team’s first Ivy League title since 2006 already in hand, a Bulldog win on Saturday would represent two historic accomplishments: Yale’s first outright league championship in 37 years and its first win streak against Harvard since the turn of the millennium.

Although the Yale volleyball program may not have the storied lore of its football counterpart, its past 14 years have been nothing short of remarkable. Since 2004, the Bulldogs and head coach Erin Appleman have won eight Ivy League championships and finished no worse than third place in the conference. In the five years from 2010 to 2014, Yale lost a grand total of seven Ancient Eight matches en route to the first and only five-peat in conference history.

Though stumbles in the 2015 and 2016 seasons shattered hopes of additional Bulldog hardware, Yale returned to Ivy championship form in 2017 with a conference campaign as crazy as it was ultimately rewarding. A shocking Princeton loss on the afternoon of Nov. 11 left the door open for Yale to spoil the Tigers’ bid for an outright title, and minutes after Princeton’s final error against Dartmouth, the Bulldogs reclaimed their share of Ivy League supremacy in a five-set epic win over Columbia.

Yale football’s Ivy title-clinching win that same day showed that the Bulldogs were back; the volleyball team’s victory showed that it had never really left.

But while a Yale football win this Saturday in The Game would be simply a further statement on its season, the volleyball team is playing with much more on the line. For the Bulldogs preparing on the hardcourt in Lee Amphitheater, a Saturday night win over Princeton would ensure that Yale’s magical season continues for another game, one with significant implications on the national stage.

“As a senior, this game is the most important thing I’ll do all season because it will show how hard we’ve worked these past three months, and even these past four years,” volleyball captain and setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 told the News. “To go to the NCAA tournament one last time would set a new tradition for the girls who haven’t been before, and to get experience for future [Yale teams] would be amazing.”

THE IDEAL SCENARIO

Saturday’s schedule should be a Bulldog fan’s dream: two teams, two games and two chances at witnessing Yale greatness, all with no homework due on Monday. But somehow — on a day touted as the zenith of Yale sports glory, no less — the importance of athletic success has gotten lost along the way.

Every year, thousands of Yalies fill the student section of the Bowl to capacity. For some, the hype surrounding the epic matchup is a prelude to 60 minutes of incredible rivalry football. Yet for most, The Game is a tradition that only tangentially includes athletic achievement.

The football game is, in many ways, eclipsed by the celebration surrounding it. For those who have little interest in the sport, The Game is still an amazing time. Festivities start on Wednesday with the Woads “Beat Harvard” Dance Party and continue as soon as classes end in the ensuing days. For many, Saturday is expected to be a blur of pregames, tailgates and post-win or -loss celebrations with the bonus that football is also being played, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, Yale-Harvard represents an opportunity for students to have a good time with friends without the pressure of deadlines, coursework and extracurricular commitments, thanks to its convenient date on the calendar. Everyone is going, and everyone will have fun. It might be a social event parading as a football game, but it is still a marvelous day to be a Yale sports fan.

Students await the game with childish excitement because of just how great it is. And on Nov. 11, when Yale volleyball outlasted Columbia and forced its date with Princeton, this Saturday got even better. Yale’s two most well-attended fall sports teams will play in New Haven for the title of Ivy League top dog, and according to Yale’s Senior Associate Athletic Director of Internal Operations Andy Dunn, game times were specifically set so that fans could enjoy the best of both worlds.

“We picked 7 p.m. [for the volleyball game] to give everyone a chance to get back from the Bowl,” Dunn said. “What we as an athletic department want to do is put our student-athletes in positions to be successful … it’s a good problem to have when you have two championship games on the same day.”

Bands of friends who enjoy The Game together now have the opportunity to double down on a day of shared fun and school spirit. Shivering stragglers on the bus back from the Bowl need only walk across the street from the drop-off spot to warm up in Payne Whitney Gym, where a winner-take-all bout between two Ivy League volleyball powerhouses awaits. And with free admission for students to both games, the football-volleyball doubleheader could be Part I and Part II of the biggest celebration of The Game in recent memory.

But it probably won’t be.

Yale volleyball’s play-in match will fail to reach its fullest potential because a significant portion of the student population has already decided not to come. The Game, an event many Yalies ink into their schedules months in advance, has been conceptualized not only as a football contest, but also as a lineup of social experiences before kickoff and after the final whistle. It is the moment when the hypothetical GCal is updated that Yale-Harvard sheds its athletic significance. Unfortunately for the volleyball team, a Nov. 11 game announcement is too late for its contest to be integrated into The Game experience.

Since Yalies have already planned their nights around other aspects of The Game, from the trip home to the inevitable suite party or fraternity celebration, the necessary buy-in required to support the volleyball team increases — high enough to discourage fans already saturated with sports to make the tiny trek back to Payne Whitney.

Though many are reluctant to admit it, Yale fans are having difficulty envisioning themselves as volleyball participants on Saturday. And because of the lack of personal relevancy, students are finding themselves in positions of apathy that amount to not caring about a potential volleyball victory at all.

This disheartening lack of support for the Bulldogs is symptomatic of a larger trend in Yale fandom: Yalies, on the whole, tend to care only about the results of athletic contests when they themselves are in attendance.

THE YALE FAN CONUNDRUM

In a survey of 50 students who will be attending The Game on Saturday, just over 25 percent had gone to a Yale football game this season. Extrapolating that ratio across the Yale-Harvard student section, it is likely that the vast majority of people sitting in those seats have never seen Team 145 in action before The Game.

When Yale-Harvard is the only game that even a plurality of Bulldog fans attend, it becomes the only game that matters, a season-defining result for the general student population. For Yalies, 2016 — a year in which the Elis went 3–7 and allowed a league-worst 33.9 points per game — is nevertheless an unquestionable success. Beating Harvard in the only game for which fans come out en masse is their only metric for great Yale football. And to be clear, the Bulldogs’ class of 2018 certainly did not categorize last season as a triumph, despite the victory over the Cantabs.

For many Yale fans, the mark of a good athletic program is its success when they show up. The contests played in their absence, and their impacts on Yale’s records, are of little consequence.

Several characteristics of Yale fans explain this desire to see themselves as the determinants of athletic achievement. The most obvious is that, be it in sports or elsewhere, Yale hates losing — especially to “sibling-rivalry schools” like Harvard, as wide receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18 explained. The “Harvard Sucks” sentiment is so fervently featured at The Game because Yalies love to hate their nemesis just as much as they love their own University.

Furthermore, students are too busy to keep up with Yale Athletics. With 5.5-credit course loads and an overabundance of extracurriculars, Yalies’ threshold for caring about sports is too high a standard for most to meet. But even if it is fun to hate Harvard, and even if they did have the time, many Yale fans simply don’t care about sports that much to begin with. Of the 50 Game attendees surveyed on Monday, just four could identify Yale running back and runaway Ivy League Rookie of the Year favorite Zane Dudek ’21 by name.

There are categorical exceptions to this conclusion, namely the many dedicated friends and family who are testaments to ideal spectator support. A consistent core of suitemates, classmates and parents will, without a doubt, follow a team’s progress regardless of game attendance. Also scattered in the crowd will be members of the Yale community who are simply lovers of the game or athletics in general. For all of these people, a volleyball game is more than a last-minute addition to The Game day calendar — it is an event to plan around in its own right.

Although members of the Yale volleyball and football teams expressed sincere appreciation for continuous fan support this season, their game days will go on as planned, regardless of how many seats at the Bowl or in Lee Amphitheater are filled. According to Williams-Lopez, the football team takes every game as personally as the next.

“It’s the nature of an athlete,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “As meaningful as the [strongest] fan base is, a championship at the end of the day is satisfying because of the work you put in when no one is there. Fandom is a huge part of sports and it is important, but the effort that a team puts into a championship is a lot more valuable.”

But this does not excuse student indifference. The time to stop the cycle of Yale fan apathy is now, when so much is at stake for both of Saturday’s contenders. Go to The Game for any and all reasons. Cheer against Harvard, if not for Yale. But instead of writing off the volleyball contest, complete the lap back to Payne Whitney and give The Game Part II a chance. Perhaps by then you might even know who Zane Dudek is.

Hope Allchin hope.allchin@yale.edu 

Matthew Stock matthew.stock@yale.edu