On the Campus: May 8, 1996

Monster upsets notwithstanding, most Princeton teams play before empty, silent stands

In the waning moments of Princeton's upset of UCLA in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the phrase on everyone's lips was "Can you believe it?" Throughout the game, we cheered every time the Tigers scored, we laughed when the camera caught Coach Carril grimacing from the bench, and we whooped when one of the plaid-clad band members bounded on-screen. But as Mitch, Sydney, Steve, and the rest of the team fought the defending champs down to the wire, our disbelief turned into passion. When the final buzzer sounded, the score was "David 43, Goliath 41" (in the words of the next morning's Daily Princetonian), and the whole campus erupted in celebration.
Within minutes, hundreds of students converged on Prospect Avenue for a jubilant celebration that was to last well into the night. Some roamed naked, chanting "Final Four! Final Four!" while others, still sober, crooned "Old Nassau" at the top of their lungs. "We are the Champions" and the theme from Rocky blared from open dormitory windows, and the din could be heard half a mile from campus. The euphoria was shared by all: not a single face wore anything but an ear-to-ear grin as old friends high-fived and strangers hugged. We were bound together that night not only by joy, but by a sudden, strong sense of unfettered school spirit.
Before the onset of March Madness, I had never before rooted so urgently for a Princeton team, nor had I ever sensed such communal excitement on campus. Perhaps the Nude Olympics, Spring Fling, and graduation can be said to gather masses of students together for celebrations of traditions new and old. But none of these really attracts a true cross-section of campus as did the victory over UCLA.
Observing the fervor with which all those around me yearned for a Tiger upset, I couldn't help but wonder where all these impassioned fans were during the rest of the basketball season, or during so many of the athletic contests that go unnoticed throughout the year. A similar idea long tormented Coach Carril, who complained that it would take a three-headed player to draw undergraduates into Jadwin Gym.
Even without a three-headed wonder, 90 percent of the student body watched Princeton knock off UCLA in the NCAA tournament. By contrast, less than 5 percent of the student body attends the average men's home basketball game, and a typical women's basketball game draws at best a fraction of the men's fans.
Those numbers might not be of special concern were it not for the fact that basketball is one of Princeton's most popular sports. Events that feature other men's sports, like soccer or baseball, attract only handfuls of students. And women's sports-with the occasional exceptions of basketball and volleyball-are often virtually devoid of student fans. (This is not to suggest that the arenas are completely empty. Local fans, families, visitors, opponents' fans, and others fill seats, even when students are at the library studying.)
The lack of student support certainly has little to do with athletic success. In addition to Ivy League titles in men's basketball and football and in women's volleyball this year, Princeton recently has won several national titles, in men's and women's lacrosse and crew, as well as in women's rugby.
Despite that success, many of us claim not to have the time to attend games frequently. Most students are involved in at least one extracurricular activity (often several), and nearly everyone seems to have a job or a volunteer position that takes up time not spent studying. As Director of Athletics Gary D. Walters '67 says, "this is not an institution of couch potatoes." The first thing to realize, notes Walters, is that 25 to 30 percent of students compete in varsity or J.V. sports, and another 15 to 20 percent play on club teams, meaning almost half the student body is too busy playing sports to watch them. "Once they get done with their own games, they've got to hit the library," says Walters.
Be that as it may, there are several other factors that seem to keep students from getting out to games. The rigors of the academic calendar marred student attendance this year, according to Athletics Marketing Coordinator Curt Krouse. "During the basketball season, there was only one weekend without serious conflicts," Krouse said. "There was winter break, reading period, and then exams, all of which keep students away." Jerry Price, manager of media-sports relations, believes that student attendance seems poor primarily because Princeton's student body is smaller than that of rival schools. "Student attendance isn't great," he says, "but the student body isn't large."
Large or small, it's unfortunate when only a few students show up to see a top-flight field hockey or soccer team take on a nationally ranked, Division I opponent. It's unfortunate that we are all so absorbed in our own achievements that we don't get out in larger numbers to share in the athletic endeavors of our friends and peers. It seems, often, that we have too many chiefs and too few Indians, as the saying goes.
Krouse and others in the athletic department have been expanding outreach efforts to get more students to attend games. In addition to distributing complete game schedules to every undergraduate, Krouse is working with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee on ways to work with the residential colleges and the Eating Clubs. Hosting special events like class tailgate parties before the home football games and a student slam-dunk contest at a home basketball game are ideas Krouse wants to build on. With luck, the success of the basketball team will boost attendance for some time to come. "I think support for men's basketball will skyrocket," Krouse says, "and the freshman class coming in will be very excited to come to games."
Some see student fan support as less than vital. Jason Estrin '97, manager of the baseball team, said that "the people who are really important to the players, like parents and close friends, are there." And as Walters put it, fan support is nice, but not essential. "Players are basically driven by a desire to do something well. It's nice to get some student support, but in the end, people play to pursue excellence." Unlike many Division I athletic programs, Princeton athletics are not driven by advertising revenue, television contracts, and ticket sales. The love of sport inspires our athletes to compete. Now if only a few more of us would turn out to watch.
Returning to campus after the glorious tournament victory, our basketball stars momentarily held the spotlight, receiving congratulations from all who had watched them shine in Indianapolis. For that one brief spell, sport overtook us, bringing Princeton together under one gleaming banner of orange and black.
Jeremy Caplan, a junior from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, plays intramural football, basketball, and softball.