The Spider football team played in front of its largest home crowd this season last weekend, despite playing the No. 1 ranked James Madison University Dukes during fall break when many students had left school.
During the past few years the athletics department has been working hard to rally student support and school spirit for all sports, especially football and basketball, but many of the teams' toughest games are played during student breaks or at other schools.
"Don't get me started," head football coach Mike London said jokingly.
More than 16,000 fans packed into UR Stadium on Oct. 11, but a majority seemed to support JMU. Purple and gold were as common as red and blue even though the weekend was meant to be a "red-out," which meant the school was offering free Smoothie King vouchers to fans wearing red.
The Richmond student section was especially spirited - decked out with body and face paint, pompoms and a full-size, stuffed Spiderman - but JMU brought with them a large portion of the Marching Royal Dukes, JMU's 365-person marching band.
Even though the fans weren't all Richmond supporters, London, who spent six years coaching at the University of Virginia, where game attendance is usually upward of 50,000 people, said he was excited about the large crowd and the energy he felt from the fans.
"That atmosphere was electric," London said. "It was awesome - the body paint, the face paint. You don't know the message that's sending, having fun and getting dressed up ... It's the way people view the school, by looking at the fans."
Still, the student section was relatively small. There are only 2,795 undergraduates at the university on an average weekend, when most students are still on campus - even fewer during student breaks.
The men's basketball team, whose season stretches from mid-November until mid-March, will also encounter difficulties with student support when it plays challenging basketball programs from Syracuse University, Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech either during winter break or in away games.
Although the athletics department does its best to schedule big games while school is in session, the conferences - the Colonial Athletic Association and the Atlantic 10 - make up each teams' conference schedule, Athletics Director Jim Miller said.
"We don't really have control," Miller said about the football team's schedule. "There are 12 teams [in the CAA conference] and they each have a family weekend, a homecoming and a fall break. That's 36 weekends that are specific, and there's about a one-month period all those things fall in."
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The school submits its requests about when it would like to play certain games to the conference each year.
"Sometimes it works," Miller said. "Sometimes it doesn't."
Similarly, the basketball team's conference play is scheduled by the A-10 conference and begins in mid-January, lasting through the rest of the season. The conference schedulers have to fit a 16-game season into a short period of time, so it's difficult to consider each school's individual academic calendar, said David Walsh, the deputy athletics director who oversees scheduling for football and men's and women's basketball.
Walsh works with each of these teams to schedule both conference and non-conference games, but said he spent most of his time working to schedule non-conference games because each conference had limited flexibility anyway.
Both in- and out-of-conference games for football are usually scheduled about three years in advance, Walsh said. The basketball schedule, on the other hand, is not necessarily finalized until spring of the school year prior to the season. However, for both, it is difficult to find a balance between minimizing the amount of class that student-athletes miss and maximizing student attendance.
"It is difficult to get the perfect schedule because of the myriad of issues/scheduling principles the conference has to consider," Walsh wrote in an e-mail. "We make every effort to schedule games when students are able to attend but again, it is very difficult when you consider the [basketball team's] non-conference games (approximately 11 to 13 games) are scheduled from mid-November to early January and there are several breaks for students during this time - Thanksgiving, exams, winter break."
Along with the complications of conference scheduling, academic calendars and school breaks, there are other obstacles to overcome before Richmond will host major sporting events, Walsh said. Traditionally, Division 1-A football schools, such as U.Va., don't travel to smaller schools like Richmond where the stadium has limited seating. For basketball, it is uncommon for major conference teams, such as Syracuse, to travel to smaller schools, such as Richmond. But Walsh said the school would continue trying to bring the bigger events to Richmond.
"We are constantly trying," he said.
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