Roaring In Unusual Places and Times
It hasn’t been the typical quiet fall for athletics at Columbia. Football under legendary former Penn coach Al Bagnoli moved back up a few notches on the field, broke their long losing streak from a previous regime and became more competitive than in years as the program looks to rebuild and become more relevant in a very competitive Ivy League. Both hoops teams, the men’s under Kyle Smith and the women’s under Sheila Roux, also entered the season with some great expectations and interest, and other fall sports have found their niche as well.
However what made the fall even more interesting in the first full year under new athletic director Peter Pilling were the moves the Lions made off the field in trying to engage students who even in the best of years can be a bit ambivalent about athletics. Columbia tried a few key moves to try and raise the awareness, and the connectivity with those roaming the campus on the upper west side of Manhattan. First, Bagnoli brought late week practice walk-throughs to the grass plains on the main part of campus, far away from the manicured fields at the Baker Athletic Complex. Seeing the players go through drills on grass in front of Loeb Library, a place where Lou Gehrig once played baseball before many of the current buildings were put in place around the middle of the campus, probably caught some by surprise; the area being used for practice is usually used for some intramurals or an occasional Frisbee game, but not for varsity athletics. But seeing the blue clad Lions running through some drills certainly raised awareness and made the team itself more a part of Columbia culture, even for a short period of time, than it had been in years.
Then there was the morning hoops game. Starting the season against Division III Kean University probably would not have filled Levien Gym on a Monday night at any part of November, so athletics again tried to do something different, playing the game on a weekday in the late morning. It was at a time when the campus was packed with students going from place to place, and gave yet another reason for students, many of whom live off campus, to interact with a live sporting event at a time when their routine has them in and about the University. No need to leave, get caught up on homework and then find an excuse not to come back to campus; the game was there, right around lunch time and just feet away from one of the more popular coffee stops in the area. The University supplemented the audience with some local kids groups from a number of nearby schools who could get time away from class to venture over, giving the game a much different look, sound and feel than just starting at night. The crowd was still not huge, but it created a reason to engage not just for the short term, but for the longer term, with students and faculty who might not have Columbia athletics on their go-to list during the fall and winter. A similar later in the day game (2:00) is being planned this month with the same goal, making it easier to engage with the team and coaches and spend some time enjoying the sport as part of the usual daytime routine, and the women’s team has undertaken similar initiatives to engage with young people off campus for their games as well.
While many not familiar with the challenges of drawing students on an urban campus may think the initiatives are not the biggest of deals, the idea that Columbia realizes and understands a need to engage students where they are with the personalities of those engaged in athletics says a great deal about their efforts going forward, as the Ivy school tries to get more awareness and hopefully more ROI out of the investment in time and money being made into Division I college sports across the board. Maybe it’s not a huge roar, but it certainly is a good growl for the Lions.
Pursuit of Perfection: UCLA
Several schools working with IMG College have upped their commitments to content production in recent months, and UCLA is no exception. Last week, Bruin Films produced this three-part series that followed UCLA Men’s Water Polo’s pursuit of a perfect season and the university’s 113th national title.
The Bruins also had a some fun with their abundance of NCAA championship trophies around the athletic campus in a “This Is SportsCenter-esque” video. Finally, they were there to capture the scene at Pauley Pavilion as UCLA Men’s Basketball took down No. 1 Kentucky — helping tell the story beyond just what happened on the court.
Again while not earth shattering it shows how UCLA has looked to engage with a key audience, students, and find ways to get them more involved and part of the conversation.
Whether on Broadway or in Westwood, the problem solving issues of engagement are not being looked at in a silo, and both schools deserve a shoutout for the effort.