UP FOR ADOPTION

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1702/wuadoption.htm

Purdue University’s football and basketball players are used to loud, raucous student fans showing their support at home games. But lately, the swimmers, wrestlers, and volleyball players are enjoying enthusiastic cheering sections of their own. A group of 40 frenzied students chanting along with the action at a swim meet? Sure. It’s all a result of the adopt-a-sport program, launched last year by Purdue’s athletic promotions office.

Any residence hall, fraternity, sorority, or student organization with at least 25 members can choose to adopt a Boilermaker sports team. For signing up, the athletic promotions office provides the students with specially designed T-shirts identifying them as "Purdueligans" for their sport. They also receive e-mail reminders before each of their team’s home games, and a hospitality event once per season—typically a meal at a local restaurant before a game. In return, each student in the group promises to attend a set number of events on the team’s home schedule, usually around 80 percent of the total.

"It all started because we found that every time we gave away T-shirts, a lot of students came to our sporting events," says Sara Fetzer, Assistant Promotions Director for the athletic department. "So to inspire students to come out to watch our Olympic sports, we created this affinity program. We got groups of students involved with a specific sport and they started feeling like it was their sport, and they took ownership of being there."

The program kicked off last year with six groups participating. It was a great success, and this year there are already 23 groups involved. Almost every team has been adopted at least once—exceptions are football and men’s and women’s basketball, which already have sufficient fan support, and golf, which doesn’t lend itself to rowdy bands of supporters. Some teams have multiple groups supporting them.

"It’s made a tremendous difference at our matches," says Dave Shondell, Head Women’s Volleyball Coach. "The biggest thing they do is set the tone in our gym. Before, we had pretty good crowds but it was kind of a ‘sit on your hands’ atmosphere. At our matches now, from start to finish they’re on their feet making noise, and they really get into it—they’ve even got a unique chant for every one of our players. The rest of the crowd responds favorably to all their energy, and I think it’s made our home court environment one of the best in the country."

The students that adopted the volleyball team are nicknamed the Tark Sharks (after their home, Tarkington Residence Hall), and with 106 members they make up the largest Purdueligan group. They’re also the most organized—students arrive at matches early to distribute pre-printed cheers, and they even collect dues from each member and use the money to travel to away games.

Since the adopt-a-sport groups are sanctioned by the athletic department, they’re encouraged to be as supportive as possible but never to cross the line that separates loud and spirited from vulgar and abusive. "Before the season begins, we communicate our expectation that they always keep things clean, because we consider our home events to be a family environment," says Fetzer. "We want them to be crazy, noisy fans having fun, but we don’t want them cursing or heckling individual players. We encourage them to be a positive influence for the team and a good role model for other fans, and they’ve been really good about it."

To ensure that students honor their attendance commitment, ID cards are swiped at each event, and any who don’t meet the season requirement are charged five dollars for their T-shirt. But Fetzer says students hold each other accountable within their group, so the turnouts are consistently high.

"Last year we had some guys who didn’t come out to a women’s tennis match, and one of our interns e-mailed them to say that this was unacceptable," she says. "The guys felt so bad, they wrote an apology and bought a flower for every person on the tennis team. The players were so pleased to see that these guys really cared, they made cookies and brownies for them before all the rest of their home matches."

Other teams have shown appreciation for their groups in different ways. The soccer team spent a night bowling with its adoptive group, and the volleyball team heads to Tarkington Hall once a month for a barbeque with the Tark Sharks. And in all sports, the P.A. announcer at each event takes a moment to thank the Purdueligans for showing up to support their team.

The adopt-a-sport program has been so successful in bolstering student attendance that Fetzer says many coaches at Purdue now view it as their number-one promotional tool. "When we have our preseason meetings with coaches, the first question we’re getting now is, ‘What groups have us this season?’" she says. "They saw how great it could be last year, and so this year they don’t ask how we’re going to advertise or how we’re promoting their team—they want to know who is adopting them."