The scene is set. Richmond is about to take on a nationally ranked team in a conference matchup at E. Clairborne Robins Stadium. Playoff and conference championship hopes are on the line. The teams line up for the opening kickoff.
The student section is less than half full.
This scenario has occurred twice so far this football season -- against Villanova University and University of New Hampshire -- and a similar situation will occur again Saturday as the Spiders battle James Madison University for what could potentially be a spot in the playoffs.
The student section will not be full, barring a drastic and immediate change of culture at the University of Richmond.
Week after week at Robins Stadium, “The Web” fills up no more than half way, prompting continued chatter among university faculty and staff about why support is so low. The perception is, based on the fullness of the student section, that students are uninterested in watching the Spiders play football, regardless of the opponent.
I used to think that student support was terrible. I used to think that students did not want to come to games, and that they used the tailgate as a beginning to a “festive” day away from Robins Stadium that typically involved more alcohol. I used to think no one went to games because no one cared.
The reality is, though, that student support is not fully lacking. The issue is not that students don’t care, but rather that the decision to claim a ticket does not always translate into attending the game. David Walsh, deputy athletic director, presented me with a surprising statistic that changed how I perceive the student body’s general attitude toward athletics:
"On average, 877 student tickets have been claimed for each home football game in 2014. That is close to 30 percent of Richmond’s 2,983 undergraduate students who at least consider attending each game."
To give some perspective, consider schools with massive fan support such as Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, which boasts the largest stadium in the U.S. According to a Wall Street Journal article published in August, Ohio State’s student attendance was at about 17,500 per game in 2013, while Michigan’s was at nearly 15,000. Both of these figures represent close to 30 percent of the respective student populations at those schools, which nearly matches Richmond’s student ticket reservation rates.
There are no data available regarding how many students are actually attending games, Walsh wrote in an email. These data are not necessary, though, to understand that 877 students are not attending each football game. Tell students that almost 900 students go to each football game, and they will almost universally respond with disbelief and call that number a fallacy. Trust me -- I’ve tested this with many students, and the reaction is universal.
It seems obvious by looking at the student section during a game that there are not close to 877 students sitting in The Web. In fact, pictures taken of the student section at the beginning of the Villanova game show only about 200 students. Based on how full the student section looks with just 200 students, and my own observations throughout the season, I would guess that the highest number of students in “The Web” all year has been no more than 500, and that’s being generous.
To give these counts more meaning, consider that 200 students represents about seven percent of undergraduates, and 500 students represents about 17 percent.
These numbers tell a distinct story – attitude toward games is not negative, at least based on ticket reservations, but attendance at games is an issue. The student tailgates held in parking lots near the stadium are generally popular, so why aren’t these students making the short trip to the stadium?
Perhaps alcohol is a factor. Perhaps some students who reserve tickets don’t ever intend to go to games. I find it hard to believe, though, that a student would take time to reserve a ticket without any intentions of attending the game.
Because of the nearly 900 tickets claimed each week on average, I believe the idea that most students are apathetic about sports at Richmond is not grounded. Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, found apathy among students was not as prevalent as it may seem. He walked around the campus and spoke with students to see what they were doing with their time on game day.
Bisese found that many students were opting to go to the mall. “A lot of those students were international students,” Bisese said. “Maybe football is not a game that is understood.” Considering that 12 percent of undergraduates are international students (about 360), this represents a significant chunk of students who may simply not be as interested in American football as they are in other sports.
For instance, many students showed up at Richmond field hockey’s conference championship game Saturday. As Walt Abrams, reporter for The Collegian, described it, the crowd was made up of about 200 people, many of which were students, and was “thunderous” and “provided an intense atmosphere.” This kind of showing for a field hockey game, which is played in a much smaller venue than football or basketball, shows that some students will support athletics regardless of a sport’s popularity.
When Bisese was roaming campus, there were also people in the library, club sports games underway and students playing frisbee, he said. To me, this represents a population of students who may either not care about football, or feel that whatever they are doing is more productive than sitting through a football game.
Bisese also stood at the entrance to Tyler Haynes Commons and asked the first ten students he saw whether they were going to the game. Eight of 10 said they were not, but six of those eight said they had to study, Bisese said.
Bisese’s findings make a case against the theory that all Richmond students don’t care about sports. Sure, there are students who could care less and choose not to go to football games because they don’t want to. And sure, some of those students who said they had to “study” could have been using that as an excuse.
Nevertheless, the nearly 30 percent of students reserving tickets to each football game proves that plenty of Richmond students care enough about athletics to at least consider showing up to Robins Stadium on a Saturday.
So, how do we fix the perception that students don’t care about athletics? It is not a perception that can be completely set straight, or should, considering students still are not attending games. The problem now is translating the thought of support, which is existent according to ticket data, into actual support. That battle is difficult and is a national issue among colleges and universities, but some changes could be made to encourage student attendance.
First, “The Web” in Robins Stadium does not have to be so big. It is not a large student section, but it is too large for a student body of 3,000, especially considering that it rarely ever fills up half way. Making a student section that only seats about 600 students would make “The Web” appear more dense and, in turn, create what appears to be a more supportive atmosphere for athletes.
Another solution could be to play against teams that have recognizable names. Casey Glick, former president of the Richmond Rowdies, pointed out that students were unlikely to be intrigued by a game against an unfamiliar New Hampshire team for instance, regardless of that team’s record. Playing teams such as University of Virginia in football and Wake Forest University in basketball will help draw support, Glick said.
Last, people should lower their expectations for student support at Richmond. Considering the percentage of international students, the small size of the school and the percentage of students attending games at big-name schools, it is actually impressive that almost 900 students are reserving tickets to each football game.
Changes can and will continue to be sought out to increase student support, Walsh said. The first priority should be making an environment that is desirable enough for a student to make the two-minute walk from the tailgate to the stadium.
Contact Sports editor Charlie Broaddus at email@example.com