Jack Whitten: Give non-revenue sports the popularity they deserve
If you watched Michigan football in 2019, you were watching one of the University’s worst teams that year.
While the Wolverines could barely beat unranked Army and were overwhelmed by Wisconsin in September, Michigan women’s soccer beat back-to-back ranked opponents on the road. As Jim Harbaugh’s fifth-straight loss to Ohio State soured the Thanksgiving weekends of his fans, men’s cross country ended November with a seventh-place finish at NCAA championships. The Wolverines stumbled and fell in the second half of their bowl game against Alabama on New Year’s Day, but around a week later, Michigan women’s gymnastics won its season-opening meet with a near-perfect performance.
These are just a few examples of the recent dominance of Michigan’s non-revenue programs. Including the three listed above, a total of 11 non-revenue programs finished their 2019-2020 campaigns with higher national rankings than No. 18 Michigan football.
But there isn’t a bandwagon full of Michigan fans on its way to support one of the school’s many successful non-revenue programs.
Sure, football has a unique game day atmosphere. But fans could make that the case for any sport.
It is indisputable that the surrounding atmosphere of a football gameday significantly adds to the experience of watching a game. Michigan’s home games are played in America’s largest non-racing stadium with exciting pregame hype videos, a vivacious marching band and fierce rivalry matchups. Parties and tailgates are pulled into the orbit of home game weekends with the strongest gravitational force of any Michigan sport.
Even in a pandemic-altered year, Ann Arbor bore the signs of football’s presence last weekend: flags and signs plastered on houses, front yard tables surrounded by crushed cups and cans and the inevitable meltdown by @BarstoolUofM Twitter operatives when the Wolverines lost to Michigan State. And despite the loss, the same will probably happen next Saturday. For many Michigan students, when it’s time for football, it’s time for fun.
But why can’t Barstool also get upset over the field hockey team losing in the Final Four? Or tailgates outside of Cliff Keen for a heavy-weight wrestling matchup between No. 2 Mason Parris and No. 3 Tony Cassioppi — which Parris won, by the way.
That gameday culture could be built around any non-revenue sport, with one notable difference: fans would likely be watching a dominant team. It’s happened before, in the case of the SEC, and specifically Louisiana State, baseball. No surprise there, given the recent dominance of SEC baseball teams on the national stage.
It’s happening at Michigan, too, in small ways. The Michigan Ultras lead the student section in cheers at men’s and women’s soccer games, with hundreds of students clad in maize to watch a Friday night game against Western Michigan. It’s no surprise that the club started in 2010, the same year the wave of three winning seasons for the men’s team crested in the form of a Big Ten championship.
In Alumni Stadium, you can watch a passionate fanbase pack the bleachers and root on a softball team that’s been a consistent top-25 team for about 30 years. There’s also a band, playing the fight song after a run.
These sports show it’s a matter of creating the atmosphere, rather than adopting one that already exists.
Hopefully, with enough time and consistent success, more non-revenue programs at Michigan will inspire clubs in their support. But for that to happen, Michigan has to continue fielding teams — something it’s pledged to do despite ghastly budget predictions.
Other schools can’t say the same. Coronavirus-related budget cuts and school closures forced more than 230 college teams to shutter, including at least 85 Division 1 programs. Teams at Big Ten schools including Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State are among the victims, as are some of the nation’s top programs, like Stanford’s wrestling team.
So when non-revenue sports return, show the administration why they need to stay. Drop teams a follow on Twitter, or livestream a game or two. When life returns to normal, start a club, go to a field hockey game. If history is an indication, these programs have the wins necessary to build a coalition of fans. All that’s left is to make them popular.
Whitten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pizzajack25
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