More Students in the Stands

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.5, April 2005,

Purdue University’s football and basketball players are used to loud, raucous student fans showing their support at home games. But lately, the volleyball players have enjoyed an enthusiastic cheering section of their own—a horde of students clad in black and gold chanting praise for every spike, block, and dig the team executes. It’s a product 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 adopt a Boilermaker sports team. For signing up, the athletic promotions office provides the proud parents with specially designed T-shirts identifying them as "Purdueligans" for their sport. They also receive e-mail reminders before each home game, and an invitation to a once-per-season hospitality event typically held 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 took ownership of that Boilermaker team."

"It’s made a tremendous difference at our matches," says Dave Shondell, Head Coach at Purdue. "The biggest thing is they 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 special chant for each player. The rest of the crowd responds favorably to their energy, and I think it’s made our home court one of the best environments in the country."

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

"They’ve been to our matches at Illinois, Ohio State, and Northwestern, and they’re usually there when we travel in-state," Shondell says. "The support is great for our team, and the players love it."

Since the adopt-a-sport groups are sanctioned by the athletic department, Purdueligans are 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 family-friendly," says Fetzer. "We want them to be crazy, noisy fans having fun, but we don’t want them cursing or heckling opposing players. We encourage them to be role models for other fans, and so far they’ve been really good about it."

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

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 get 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 promote their team—they want to know who is adopting them."