Every year when March Madness takes off in the US, it drives varsity rivalries and a fanfare to be desired in universities across the world. Brimming with excitement and donning their college colours, fans go wild for the collegiate basketball tournament run by the NCAA.
So why doesn’t Australia have this equivalent, or should we be seeing America as the exception, when it comes to the college experience?
In the post-Covid world, disconnection from academic communities is not uncommon. It’s very easy for students at any institution to complete most of their degree from home, if they want, or at the very least, spend as little time as possible on campus. But doing this undermines their own opportunity to experience a fulfilling varsity lifestyle.
Sydney Uni faces these issues just like other major universities around the globe with the pandemic. We see March Madness in the United States and yearn for a campus sporting culture like that one but lack both resources and buy-in factor to make it happen.
The sporting prowess of Sydney Uni is well recognised and widely respected. This famous institution is internationally renowned in equal parts for both its academic and athletic prestige, and it’s not uncommon to find its athletes smattered throughout team lists at the highest levels of sport.
If Sydney Uni teams and athletes perform at such a high standard, why are so many of its sporting ventures so poorly supported by its own fans?
WHO IS TO BLAME?
Is it the lack of university support, the club, the student or is it all of them? At the University level, the areas of concern are grounded in resource availability, infrastructure improvement, and overall effort to foster a quality campus experience. At club level; it’s an issue of ineffective marketing. For the individual student, some level of blame must be shouldered, as they’re ultimately in control of their own involvement.
COMMUNITY, CULTURE, TRIBALISM
The tribalism and patriotic fanfare at college football and basketball games in America is certainly something to aspire to, but at the same time, is not grounded in the same reality as the majority of varsity sporting models around the world. Taking American college sport out of the equation for a moment, Sydney Uni is one of, if not, the leading sporting universities around the globe, all while upholding an ‘amateur’ ethos. And while this institution doesn’t operate its sporting programs like the NCAA Division 1 college powerhouses of the United States, it’s probably the closest bastion in this country and the world. Now, this is not to suggest that we should attempt to replicate the US college model to generate more fanfare for our teams, far from it, but certainly something needs to be done to make the Sydney Uni varsity community ‘buy in’.
While the University of Sydney is well recognised and widely respected for its sporting prowess, the institute itself, in fact, does very little to drive sporting culture on campus. The real engine room is actually Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness aka SUSF. This not-for-profit organisation was set up by USYD many moons ago to house all the institution’s sporting clubs and facilities for logistical efficiency.
As the years have progressed, the University has grown increasingly distant from SUSF, not to mention the campus’ sporting community in general, and as a result, can’t adequately help to foster a culture that its own students strive for.
SUSF still punches well above its weight for a not-for-profit set up, producing numerous Olympians, successful clubs, and facilitating sporting growth on campus.
The key to fostering a culture of support is creating a community that makes members feel as though they genuinely belong. Community creates tribalism, and tribalism is crucial for a buy-in culture. These terms: belonging, community, and tribalism, are all associated with the cultures of strong sporting organisations. USA college football and basketball games are dripping with this culture. Students have a sense of belonging to their college community, irrespective of whether they are athletes themselves.
If creating an inclusive, all-in on-campus sporting culture of a similar vein is the goal, it’s important to acknowledge the distinct structural differences between American and Australian varsities.
LIVING ON CAMPUS IS A MUST
The tertiary education structure in this country presents challenges the US colleges never encounter. This has resulted in the two systems looking quite different today. A core issue is campus accommodation. It’s not a requirement to physically live on campus while studying here.
To get the most out of your university days, living on campus is crucial.
It forces you out of your comfort zone and allows you to become part of a unique community. Belonging to a community, or feeling passionate about one, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to college, though. This is what every USYD student should feel during their time at this institution.
The other obvious challenge that comes with being a smaller nation is having fewer universities, often separated by large distances. This makes the notion of an exclusive varsity tournament logistically difficult, and very expensive. We simply don’t have the system in Australia.
The difference in core purpose of university sport between Australia and the US is an interesting point of contention.
Not every single athlete plays sport to make a career out of it.
Many students enjoy playing at a competitive level, but their studies will always take priority. Some even capitalise on their ability to assist them in obtaining a degree, if their university facilitates this.
USYD, through SUSF, offers the Elite Athlete Program, for athletes striving for a career in professional sport, but also caters to those who enjoy competing at a high level. On the other hand, the very essence of what makes college sport such a spectacle in America is that almost everyone competing is gunning to make a career out of it. In the cases of basketball and football, these athletes have to be at college for at least three years to even be considered for the NBA or NFL. This extremely high standard of competition is facilitated by each of these colleges only offering one team for each sport to make the cut for. The money that then trickles in from broadcasting deals allows these Div. 1 colleges to fund their other lower profile sporting programs.
We simply don’t have the same system in Australia, and it would mean that the USA is the exception, not the rule, in comparison to the rest of the world.
American colleges apparently steer away from some of the core university principals; personal growth and a quest for new knowledge and experiences, which can only be realised by having a go, and getting out of your comfort zone, especially in a sporting sense.
Camperdown is an iconic venue and a huge part of all Sydney Uni Clubs’ identity.
For Sydney Uni, the tag is anyone can try their hand at a club, not just a fractional percentage of the community.
However, in such a strong sporting nation like Australia, there are bound to be incredible athletes who matriculate to university rather than pursue professional sport, as well as many who do both, which creates a standard of competition worth supporting. We don’t struggle with this part of the equation, but promotion is an entirely different challenge.
HAVING THE CAMPERDOWN ADVANTAGE
The biggest secret weapon for creating a ‘buy-in’ culture at Sydney Uni is actually playing on the main campus.
Having so many sports operating concurrently means competition for prime field and facility usage is tight. Many clubs are not fortunate enough to play their games at Camperdown, which means they’re out of sight and out of mind.
Camperdown is an iconic venue, and a huge part of all Sydney Uni clubs’ identity.
Not only is this ideal for the clubs’ home-ground advantage, but its proximity is a practical means for enticing student attendance. To demonstrate just how crucial the ‘at home’ factor is to a club’s success, consider the Uni’s rugby league club. Most league fans, let alone Sydney Uni students, are not aware of the club’s existence, which is tragic because it was once part of the old NSWRL competition (the equivalent to today’s NRL) in the 1920s and 30s. The challenge of staying relevant while being part of a typically nonrugby league institution has proven tough, especially given the popularity of rugby union and Aussie rules. Not being allocated a Camperdown-based field for home games compounds the problem. The result is bleak, with minimal student involvement in the club, and almost no exposure to the bulk of the varsity community.
Then take the men’s University Basketball League final earlier in the year as an example. Off the back of a fantastic run throughout the regular season, Sydney Uni progressed to the big dance. The fixture was on our home pine at SUSAC, and the grandstand echoed with support. The takeaway point here is the University needs to invest in a major facility and infrastructure upgrade so more of its teams can train and play on campus. One upgrade could be turning a number of the campus’ fields into synthetic turf, meaning more teams could train and play without being affected by wet weather. In short, the University needs to cater to and support its varsity community, which has significantly grown since the last major sporting infrastructure upgrade was undertaken.
CLUBS NEED TO INVEST IN THEIR MARKETING
In addition to infrastructure upgrades, the product that we want the community to adopt needs to be at the forefront of their consciousness. The culture of attendance will flow on from the community being acutely aware that there’s something they should be attending. But targeted and effective marketing tools need to facilitate this. In the short term, better marketing can be as simple as posters and flyers for major upcoming fixtures for clubs in high-traffic areas, as well as clubs making an effort to have representatives engaging with the Sydney Uni community on a regular basis. For example, running small skill games on Eastern Ave during a lunch period to attract five minutes of someone’s attention as they’re walking past. This could be a 3-point contest for basketball, passing targets for rugby or Aussie rules, or goal shootouts for soccer.
In the long term, it would be ideal for Sydney Uni to develop an app that houses everything anyone needs to know about any club. This could include a news feed with the latest articles about results, similar to those posted on the current website. The app would also include fixtures, draws, team lists, player bios, and ways to get involved in a club.
DON THE BLUE AND GOLD
How do we bring the kids back to campus? There’re a few factors that need to fall into place. We’ve established that the University needs to initiate infrastructure improvements, that clubs need to work with SUSF to best market themselves and at the individual student level the solution is very simple; just buy-in. Be proud of your varsity, attend fixtures, and support your community. On a campus that offers everything from topflight rugby union to quidditch, there’s something for everyone to get behind. You’re only at university for a small part of your life, so it’s important to make the most of it.
That assignment’s not going anywhere, so don the blue and gold, get down to the next game, and fulfil your varsity experience.
By Harry Croker