University athletics and school spirit have long had a symbiotic relationship.
A winning team can often drum up support and heighten school spirit, creating a sense of mutual pride between athletes and students.
An example of a perfect relationship is Laval Rouge et Or football. The team is well funded (albeit by a corporation) and largely successful on the field.
The on-field success gets fans’ attention and as a result, the team is playing in front of larger crowds than some CFL teams.
The relationship works because both fans and the teams are willing to give. If the team wasn’t successful on the field would people want to go watch? Unless you’re running an NHL team in Montreal or Toronto, losing doesn’t usually fill the seats.
On the other hand, would anyone want to invest the same amount of resources in a football program that plays its games in front of 1,000 people? Probably not.
It’s like a good marriage.
And if Laval is the example of a good marriage, Concordia is the couple who bickers endlessly, only has sex on Valentine’s Day and is one bad game of Scrabble away from getting divorced.
Many Concordia teams have trouble sustaining success and the teams who are successful on the field-of-play often receive minimal attention from their student peers anyway.
Football coach Gerry McGrath would like to see more people in the stands for home games, but he is aware it can often be tough for a school like Concordia. “It’s difficult because a lot of our alumni are from out of province,” he said. “I think Laval is an exception in the country. It’s a separate situation. They are not competing against the Canadiens, the Alouettes or anyone else, they’re the only show in town.”
The Stingers’ director of media and communications, Catherine Grace, has been involved with the Stingers for over a decade, and acknowledged some of the difficulties in competing for people’s time and money.
“Any city school, like us or Toronto, is going to have less attendance. I mean, take somewhere like Lennoxville (home of Bishop’s University), there is nothing to do. You’re either going to the corner bar or going to watch the game,” she said.
She does believe, though, that students are proud of their teams. “I think a lot of students have big hearts and are verbally supportive, but I’ve noticed less of them being physically supportive [and attending games].”
Grace has noticed an improvement from when she started working at the school when many students would be shocked to find out Concordia even had varsity sports.
It could also be argued that because the Stingers play in NDG and not downtown, where more students live, their attendance takes a hit, but Grace sees an advantage in playing outside of the downtown core. “What we lose in students, we gain in families. People who might want to take their kids to the game and not worry about parking and all that are more likely to come. Even when we look at Laval or Montréal at their football crowds, it’s not students, it’s older men,” she said.
Ultimately, though, as Grace and everyone else in the athletics department are aware, people want to come to games to see winning teams and have a good time.
With hockey and football in a rebuilding cycle, there is really only one sport at Concordia that is competing for championships year in and year out: basketball.
The men’s team is undefeated through seven games and the women only have one loss. They play in an old, worn-down gymnasium that actually offers a great fan experience.
Fans are so close to the action that the solid red out-of-bounds line gets stained white in the winter from the salt on people’s shoes. The building has a seating capacity of about 700 if everyone sits on each others’ laps. As Grace said, “every high school in the city has a nicer gym than us, but there is something special about ours.”
McGill men’s coach Dave DeAveiro really enjoys playing on the road against Concordia, even though it is more difficult for his team. “It’s great. It’s got some history to it and I just love playing in old gyms.”
With a fun atmosphere and a winning team, it seems like at least basketball has conjured up the right formula to garner strong attendance and fan support. Yet the players still feel like students aren’t taking notice of what’s happening or getting involved.
Kyle Desmarais, star guard for the Stingers, feels like students are “not at all aware as they should be.”
“Today we had a good crowd,” he said about the Saturday game against McGill, “but it’s not always like that. If we could pack this place every night it would be impossible for teams to win here,” he said. “Playing in that gym when it’s packed is the best thing, but when it’s not it’s just kind of dead.”
Desmarais has been unsatisfied with the support the team has been getting.
“I think being the number one team in the conference, being undefeated, I feel like it would be nice if the school was more aware of that. We’re their team and we’re representing them so it would be nice if they could get behind us, and I don’t think right now [the amount of support] is satisfactory.”
Concordia’s basketball poster boy believes it might help to see, well, more posters. “I think the marketing has to be a lot better. I go around the school and I don’t see a lot of posters or anything showing what we’re doing.”
It is an uphill battle for the marketing and athletics departments. They can only hope, as they try to build successful programs, that if the stadiums start filling up with banners, they will start filling up with people too.