With peers too busy or uninformed to attend, facilities across an icy river, and entrenched institutional roadblocks, Harvard athletes wonder where the spirit is. And they end up playing for one group of fans: each other.
For one hockey game each season, Lynah East fills with fans. Students vie for limited seats and Cornell spirit erupts from the Big Red student section. But why do fans flock only on this occasion, while the stadium sits half-empty for almost all the rest of the season?
Because it’s not in Ithaca.
Lynah Rink houses the Big Red’s regular season games, but “Lynah East” is Cornell-speak for the Bright Hockey Center, home of Harvard’s hockey teams, just across the river at the Soldiers Field Complex in Allston.
Descending en masse from their hamlet, the Cornellians transform the tranquil arena into an emotional tinderbox. They slip fish—hidden underneath their clothes—past security guards. When Cornell scores, the fans hoist the putrid trout onto the playing surface, then serenade the Crimson faithful with a rendition of “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.”
Ambivalent Harvard fans, many at their first and only game of the season, rise to applaud at a fashionable moment. They then recline to chat with their friends while the action passes them by. Win, lose, or draw, they will return to the Yard after the final buzzer sounds. They won’t think twice about the conference playoff picture or the game-winning goal. The ephemeral thrill of Harvard athletics evaporates until The Game rolls around 10 months later, and that’s assuming the trip to New Haven isn’t too arduous, the temptation of lingering at the tailgate too alluring. For Harvard students, that’s just how you play The Game. “It’s just one of those Harvard traditions that you have to do,” said Jaime Davila ’07 of the annual match against Yale. “[But besides that] I’m not really motivated.”
The friends from Cornell who’ve arrived for the hockey game blather about an anticipated return to the NCAA tournament or their goalie’s performance while they expectantly await the next drop of the puck. Of course, the swarm of Big Red fans won’t be returning the hospitality offered by Harvard. At Cornell, there’s no room for the few Crimson fans willing to brave the six-hour trek through the wilderness of Upstate New York anyway. In each of the past two seasons, even Lynah’s standing-room only section has been filled to capacity, 3,836 students strong, no matter the date or opponent, exhibition games included.
For them, and for the diehards who fill the bleachers at Jadwin Gym and the Palestra to watch Princeton and Penn battle for the Ivy League basketball title each year, the season doesn’t end with a matchup against one legendary rival. At other schools, road trips are more a rite of passage, less an enjoyable diversion. With the “sixth man”—the fans—squarely in their corner, foes of Harvard generate electricity strong enough to overcome any sluggishness from the travelling or unfamiliarity with the facilities.
Since 1994, the men’s hockey team has successfully defended its home ice just once against Cornell. In 14 years, the men’s basketball team has held off the Killer P’s (Penn and Princeton) at Lavietes Pavilion just four times.
During that same stretch, battling against the amassed student bodies at Jadwin and the Palestra, Harvard basketball has emerged with a victory only once, feeding the frenzy of excitement for loyal spectators when the Crimson comes to town.
But for Cambridge’s casual fans, the calendar—dotted with a few scattered dates of can’t-miss contests—demands much less, even come playoff time. Hosting its final post-season contest of year, the women’s hockey team, ranked second in the nation, could draw just 423 students, one day removed from a turnout of 349.
Bright holds 2,776.
Their male counterparts proved a slightly better draw that same weekend, though they too played before a crowd littered with fans from opponent Vermont and thinned by empty seats, drawing attention from athletes and coaches alike.
As a gaggle of reporters descended on him outside the locker room following his team’s unseen victory, men’s coach Mark Mazzoleni recoiled for a moment before making light of his squad’s poor draw.
“There are more of you than there were fans in the stands.”
The Loyal Few
But hidden amid their indifferent peers, the majority of Harvard’s 41 varsity teams cull a small but faithful following whose presence on the sidelines is as consistent as their being outnumbered.
There are few students who just stumble into such devotion, particularly for the more obscure sports. Instead, most unofficial Crimson Crazies trudge across the J.F.K. Street Bridge or down to the MAC in support of an overworked family member, friend or blockmate, languishing in relative obscurity well below the radar of the masses remaining Yard-side of the Charles.
“I consider my support of the feminine ferocity of my friends on the Harvard [women’s] lacrosse team to be my most important contribution to the University,” said Matthew D. Bellfy ’06. “And I call upon all other students to join their voices with mine in the stands this year.”
While few have taken up the call thus far, there are shining examples to the indifferent masses. One fan removed his shirt and coated himself in Crimson body paint for the duration of the men’s hockey team’s run in the ECAC tournament, positioning himself right up against the boards in the front row of the student section. A large posse of Jason Norman fans generates a surge of energy following each of his rim-rattling slam dunks that puts the rest of the crowd to shame.
But aside from the Harvard band—steadfast in its support of both hockey teams during their winter campaigns—and those small circles of friends and family able to squeeze in time to travel to watch a game, the throng of Crimson fans share one trait: they've been on the other side and felt what it's like when just about nobody cares. This self-contained community of athletes, current and former, support one another in their otherwise neglected pursuits and provide the loudest voice in the crowd, particularly when the stakes are highest.
On Jan. 11 the women’s hockey team faced off against Dartmouth, then ranked third in the country, one spot behind Harvard. This battle of the titans failed to draw the attention of the general student population, but not a smattering of other women’s teams and the Harvard-Radcliffe Foundation for Women’s Athletics.
Rallying around their peers, members of the field hockey, soccer and softball teams arrived alongside Radcliffe crew to express their support with stomach-painted messages and signs in the bleachers. The crowd, though still below full capacity, was the largest the team saw all year.
“This,” said women’s hockey coach Katey Stone, “is the kind of crowd that our kids deserve to play in front of.”
As the year progressed and both hockey teams reached the NCAA tournament, that support did not wane. Members of the football team were in the stands in Providence, R.I. and Albany, N.Y. as the men’s team rolled through the ECAC tournament. Radcliffe crew, in Cambridge during spring break to train for its spring season, took the afternoon to travel to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence to watch their peers, again serving as walking billboards as the women’s team battled for the national title.
And with each goal, each setback and each berth in the next round, Adam A. Gordon ’04 was there to lead the fans in celebration.
“I think that most of us are motivated by the ‘they shouldn’t’ school of Harvard bashing,” Gordon said. “Maybe Harvard students succeed because we are advantaged, but nothing is better than watching the hockey team win because they aren’t. They don’t give scholarships or have the best facilities or the most fans. So on a level playing field, they shouldn’t win, and a lot of us are proud they do.”
Gordon, a wide receiver on the football team, donned a costume astronaut helmet and bright blue jacket from the drop of the first puck during the men’s tournament run through their celebration after winning the Whitelaw Cup as conference champions. After mercilessly taunting the Vermont fans and bench with the repeated chant “elephant walk”—a reference to the hazing scandal resulted in a year-long suspension of the school’s hockey program—Gordon traveled to Providence and then Upstate New York, where he managed to squeeze in time to watch both the men’s team in Albany and the women’s team in Schenectady.
Gordon, alongside women’s basketball co-captain Tricia A. Tubridy ’04, was part of a Crimson crowd at Union College fewer than a few dozen students strong.
It’s Too Cold
While one can explain that small turnout as resulting from a remote location on a difficult weekend—with midterms rapidly approaching for most students—Harvard’s inability to draw larger crowds, particularly at home, hints at a larger cultural issue that does not permeate other campuses. At most other universities, athletic facilities are more easily accessible due to either their proximity or college-provided shuttle service. But the location of most Harvard facilities in Allston geographically marginalizes athletics within the larger campus, and leads to wider social irrelevance.
“I don’t think [easier access] would affect my personal desire to go,” Bellfy said. “But if other kids would go, I’d be more likely to go to a game.”
But, daunted by the prospect of a 20-minute walk from the quad or a walk back to campus through a brisk winter’s wind on the river, students are largely deterred from integrating such plans into their schedules, despite largely complaining that the social scene is bereft of meaningful weekend activities.
“I just hate walking,” Davila said. “And I’m not even joking.”
University policy, however, offers little weaponry to combat this large-scale apathy towards making the hike to take in a game.
“We actually [had a shuttle service] for two years, but what we found is that it just wasn’t utilized,” said Steve Staples, Associate Athletic Director for external relations. “Had it been utilized we certainly would have kept it going.”
A committee of student-athletes made efforts to spread the word about the available transportation through house open e-mail lists and other pre-existing channels, but the program never gained footing on campus and was quietly disbanded in 2002, suggesting that the root of student absence lay not just in laziness, but deeper ambivalence.
“I think there’s a lot of school spirit,” said Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67. “We have more competing for students’ attention than would be the case in Hanover, New Hampshire or Ithaca, New York…It’s harder to build a big audience.”
In the face of that added pressure, athletic contests have struggled to catch the eye of casual fans. These students, rather than actively seeking out a team’s schedule on Harvard’s official website, would be more likely to go on the spur of the moment. They’d need the right information ahead of time, or maybe posted on one of the bulletin boards around campus or the back of one of the many street signs that dot the sidewalks between the River Houses and Yard. While other student groups have capitalized on dining hall advertising and e-mail to drum up support, similar efforts to draw attention to sports have been absent, in effect conceding the overwhelming majority of the student body to other activities simply because they exist. But Penn, for instance, draws sizeable crowds to its athletic events, including an ad hoc campground which crops up outside the ticket window before basketball tickets go on sale. This flurry of spirit exists despite the cultural offerings of Philadelphia—even closer to its campus than Boston to Cambridge—and an equally large number of other after-hours offerings.
Six years ago, the Harvard “H-Club” was founded to combat this lack of information, utilizing the vigor of already hooked students to lure hopefully hundreds more out of the Yard and down to the athletic fields.
But rather than create new fans, the group has provided a much-needed means of transport to road events—organizing buses to otherwise inaccessible Hanover for a crucial women’s hockey game against Dartmouth among them—and was a source of tickets for the sold-out Harvard-Cornell men’s hockey game. These activities, however, do little to generate a buzz surrounding the teams in the first place, meaning that the more than $4,800 provided in the last semester by the Undergraduate Council goes largely to promoting a small, mostly self-contained cluster within the Harvard community.
Further clouding its role within the athletic community at large, the H-Club can function as a glorified liquor cabinet with a University credit card, melting into tailgates and diverting resources to purchase alcohol—and fans from the inside of stadiums to the U-Hauls outside in the parking lot.
But at least those drives get students to the arenas. The next step inevitably lies in providing an attraction to draw them inside.
During intermission of the men’s hockey team’s conference quarterfinal matchup against Brown, an American Airlines sponsored contest was held, in which students were given an entry form and told to make a paper airplane, which they would then throw on the ice. The plane landing closest to a cone placed at center ice was awarded round-trip airfare to a narrowly-defined set of destinations. But that didn’t stop hundreds of fans from hastily scribbling their names and floating their best chance over the glass.
Similarly, at most basketball facilities throughout the Ivy League, small giveaways—generally backed by donations from local businesses—are held for gift certificates and other small merchandise. All in attendance at the Palestra receive a free cheesesteak from a local vendor, Abner’s, when the Quakers top 100 points, for example.
“I’d have liked to hit a half-court shot blindfolded for a new car,” Gordon said.
The absence of these small distractions seems almost too insignificant to really matter, but, while Harvard fans file out before the final buzzer of a blowout, supporters throughout the rest of the Ivies—often not even students—have another reason to tarry longer, providing additional support. So, on a dreary Hanover evening, when the Dartmouth women’s basketball team is being blown out by the Crimson in its season finale, dejected fans do not leave in disgust, but clamor for free t-shirts being tossed into the stands by sponsors, or excitedly check tickets to see if they have won the limousine trip from New Hampshire to the FleetCenter, complete with courtside Celtics’ tickets.
At Harvard, though, the situation is dramatically different.
“There might’ve been a trivial raffle, but I don’t even remember since there was nothing too big,” said Michael V. Tucci ’06, formerly of the cheerleading squad. “We never discussed holding three-point contests or anything like that. There’s just a lot of red tape.”
Though three-point shooting competitions among fans never fail to invigorate a sleeping crowd, and the almost-clichéd half-court shot with a prize on the line can often overshadow a lackluster contest, the best Harvard has mustered for mid-game entertainment—apart from the regular performances of the Crimson Dance Team and cheerleading squad at basketball games—is a halftime scrimmage featuring local youth programs.
While the struggles of the small hoopsters during their eight-minute contests usually provides a break from the monotony of other stoppages in play, these respites pale in comparison to the opportunities at the University’s disposal. If even discussion of corporate sponsorship didn’t border on taboo, that is.
“[The Provost’s Office] has some very strict requirements on relationships with corporate entities,” Staples said. “They have some very strict parameters about what departments within the University can and cannot do.”
According to the “Use of Harvard Name” policy, “relevant standards of quality and appropriateness should be established and maintained,” but nowhere is this additional funding specifically banned, and because it is the advertisers’ names, presumably, and not the Harvard name that would be used, no conflict ought to exist.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Dingman said. “I personally think it’s something we should go into very, very cautiously. We do some of it by printing companies on the back of ticket stubs.
“But if you start to build a budget around it,” Dingman continued, “say they give you $40,000 one year and then they say we’re not going to do that unless you put our logo at centerfield. It really blurs the distinction between amateurism and professional sports. All you need to do is go to the FleetCenter and you’re just completely overwhelmed.”
Head to Princeton, where the basketball program’s jerseys are provided through a deal with Nike, or any of the other Ivy League schools that accept this sort of revenue, however, and the picture is dramatically different.
“We’re a smaller program, and most of the sponsors are neighborhood businesses that cater to students,” said Michael D. Botta, a sophomore at Princeton. “There isn’t a high degree of commercialism, but it’s noticeable if you’re looking for it.”
Nor, at least from several athletes’ perspective, is the amateur spirit of the game lost because of advertising, particularly when more fans are brought in.
“I don’t remember [seeing too much corporate influence],” said Yale freshman pitcher Brett Rosenthal, “because I didn’t really notice.”
Instead, like Mazzoleni, they notice what can’t be missed: empty seats, lackluster cheers and an atmosphere that is depressingly muted, deprived of the vitality that could so easily be restored given the right push.
“The energy that fans get from the game is really contagious, so even if it really starts off as sort of dead, people will get into it,” Tucci said.
If only they would show up.