BY IAN KLEIN
Some of the best memories of my high school years come from those fall Friday nights when the student body and local community would convene in the stands of our football stadium to cheer on the blue and white. I remember so clearly standing in the sea of students during all four quarters of the game. Even if our team was losing by 30 points, if the cool night temperatures made sitting on a cold bench during halftime unbearable or if there were no free t-shirts, mascots or the resources of a university to keep us entertained, our student section would celebrate every touchdown, sing “Hey! Baby” with the band and enjoy that unique atmosphere that football brings.
When I came to cheer on the blue and white here at Drake, I had hoped that the students would be just as passionate. To my surprise, however, I found that student engagement at football games here at Drake is relatively poor. What’s more, the 77-7 beatdown of the Bulldogs by the South Dakota Coyotes two weeks ago was one of the worst defeats in school history. The football program at Drake has struggled to make an impact both on the field and with the fans.
Drake is one of the few Division I football programs that does not offer athletic scholarships to its student-athletes. For a little less than a century following the program’s founding in 1885, football players could receive scholarships to play for the Bulldogs. The last season in which Drake football players received scholarships was 1986. Seven years later, Drake joined the football-only Pioneer Football League (PFL) conference, which stipulates that member schools give no football-related scholarships to its players. Since the program’s transition from scholarship to non-scholarship, the team has had some successes, including PFL conference championships in ’98, ‘00, ‘04, ‘11 and ’12. In fact, the team has accrued a record of 47-17 in conference play since 2009. However, the team has also had plenty of low points, especially in non-conference play, where the team’s record is 10-14 since 2009. The team’s struggles against non-conference foes was highlighted against the South Dakota Coyotes, who managed to put 56 points on the board before halftime against the Bulldogs.
However, the overall statistics show that Drake’s football program has been relatively successful in recent years. The non-scholarship practice also ensures that the athletes are playing for the love of the game. Unfortunately, there’s been a lack of love for Drake’s football program by its fans. In 2006, the average attendance for a home game was over 4,300. Ten years later, the average attendance for a 2016 home game was a little less than 2,200. So what is causing this dramatic decrease in football fans? Potential fans may be dissuaded from attendance due to extracurriculars, plans with friends or other conflicts. But the problem may not simply be a matter of timing. It may be that the student experience at football games is just not enjoyable.
Football games have the potential to bring students together. As I noted, my high school football games gave students the opportunity to socialize, cheer on our classmates on the field and take pride in our local community. The football games caused us to realize our shared values and served as a true example of unity. One bad experience at a football game, however, can lead a potential die-hard Bulldog super fan to steer clear of Drake Stadium. This could not have been more evident at this year’s home opener. As the Coyotes racked up the score, a mass exodus from the student section occurred at halftime. By the end of the third quarter, the student section was practically empty. The number of students remaining at the end of the game could be counted in tens. For a freshman at his first college football game, it was demoralizing watching our team flounder on the field, but it was far worse seeing the lack of spirit among the students.
There are a few methods in which attendance at football games can flourish once more. Tailgating before games is an excellent way to bring students to football games, giving them a chance to eat (using a meal swipe) outside the stadium with friends before the big game. Another possibility is to have theme days for home games. Pink-out, black-out, camouflage, blue-and-white: the possibilities are endless. One of the best parts of Drake football games is our band, but the band plays on the field for the whole game. Having the band play next to the student section creates an atmosphere of excitement and energy for the student’s. Who wouldn’t want to be close to the band as they play the school song (and, of course, “Hey! Baby”)?
Speaking of the school song, why not display the lyrics on the video board for fans to sing along? During the game, however, is when school spirit needs to be shown most. Our mascot, Spike, and the cheerleaders in front of the student section do an amazing job of exemplifying positivity and school spirit. Yet having the front row contain student “super fans” may be the addition needed to keep students at football games. The role of the super fans could be to lead chants from the crowd, provide halftime entertainment (such as the wave or leading the student section on a roller-coaster ride) and simply bring enthusiasm and energy that the student section needs. Post-game parties outside the stadium in the tailgate area would allow for the local community and Drake students in attendance to socialize. On top of it all, the free t-shirts, coupons to local businesses and other giveaways should keep on coming!
Even if our football team has its blowout losses or if students keep choosing to skip football games, there is one small thing that every student in attendance can do to enhance the Drake football experience: stand. Stand up in solidarity with our football team, as they are giving their best effort on the field. Stand up because Spike might ask you to if you aren’t (speaking from personal experience). Stand up because you are proud to be called a Bulldog.