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Fixing Student Apathy is Easier Said than Done

Making some noise for your Cardinals! That does not mean they are “your” Cardinals.

New athletic director Bill Scholl is trying to increase attendance from the student body at Ball State home games. The plan being if more students come then it will create a livelier atmosphere attracting more fans. Coach Lembo has even started a Twitter account to improve communication with students.

It is a good goal to have, but it is just not going to happen.

Student attendance at Ball State games has been a big issue for every year except the magical 2008 season. There are plenty of factors but when it comes down to it; Ball State students are not Ball State fans.

With ESPN, geography does not matter much anymore. Countless times I saw students wearing North Carolina and Duke gear on campus. One of my best friends had no connection to Duke but knew their whole basketball roster and made sure to watch every game. When it came to Ball State games he was apathetic.

Think about it, by the time a person is say 15, he or she will have knowledge of the best teams in college sports and developed some favorites. Before one even considers college he or she is likely a passionate fan of one or more college team.

Since Ball State earns little media attention, future students typically do not become fans until they truly are students. At that point most students have ties to other schools. I was one of them living in Lexington, Kentucky the first eight years of my life. It is a poor assumption that incoming freshman will be passionate about a football team they know nothing about. My fanaticism with Ball State developed late but for many students it does not develop at all.

For comedic purposes here is how I became a Ball State fan starting all the way back in grade school.

1996: Saw the first minute of the Las Vegas Bowl between Nevada and Ball State. Had no idea what Ball State was and thought it was a stupid name. A decade later I discovered the Cardinals lost.

2001: Shocked that some school named Ball State advanced to the final in the Maui Invitational. Because I hated Duke I rooted for Ball State to win the final game. Living in Kentucky at the time, I learned that Ball State was located somewhere in Indiana.  With little knowledge of the northern half of the state I assumed it was near Bloomington in either Seymour or Columbus.

2004: Attended a summer journalism workshop at Ball State as a high school freshman. Learned Ball State played in the MAC. The only schools in the conference that I could previously name were Marshall, Toledo, and Miami. The latter I assumed was in Florida.

Larry Fitzgerald may be on the cover but all know Dante Ridgeway was the star.

2005: Played my first college football video game. After playing as my favorite teams in Kentucky and Purdue I played as Ball State for the added challenge. Dante Ridgeway is still open.

2006: Because of my interest in Ball State’s journalism program it was almost a lock I was going to Muncie. Pushed Peyton Stovall to the max in NCAA 06 March Madness and won it all. I know Ball State can win in basketball because Electronic Arts says so. Stovall became and still is my favorite Ball State athlete from watching him persevere through multiple coaches and poor teams his junior and senior seasons.

2007: Attended Ball State’s football loss at IU wearing a Ball State shirt my senior year of high school. Took crap for it and could not have been happier. That same year I was cheering for Western Michigan to beat Iowa simply because they were a MAC school. I had gone off the deep end.

Bottom line, it is not easy to become a Cardinals fan. Ball State has to fight through the bigger schools just to grab attention.

I was interested in sports going in, most students are not. The school is filled with nursing, education, and architecture majors who are not interested or too busy to attend games. The rest of the student body has allegiances elsewhere. They are fans of IU, Purdue, Notre Dame, Duke, Boise State, and everything in between. At multiple home games I recall students asking people next to them with smart phones to check the Notre Dame score. Their body may be in Scheumann Stadium, but their heart is elsewhere.

It is hard to be passionate about Ball State sports when it is not your favorite school. I do not see how Scholl or anyone in the athletic department can change that. Students are new to the history of the program causing blank faces when Rick Majerus or Bonzi Wells comes up. I guarantee you most students could not name more than a couple of MAC schools. The only thing students know about Western Michigan is that it is somewhere in western Michigan. Speaking of which the Broncos and Chippewas have it tough too.

To be a Ball State fan your focus can not be about winning national championships. You care about respect more. That is why when Kent State made it to the College World Series or Ohio to the Sweet 16 we rallied behind them. What those schools did was grab the aristocratic BCS schools by the lapels of their suits and yell “Don’t Tread on Me!” That is how you go Revolutionary War on the BCS.

Ball State had their turn to do that in 1990, Maui in 2001, and the 2008 football season. Life of a Ball State fan is meaningful as you never take any victory for granted. Compare that to when Ohio State wins a football game it is logged as another conquest to be forgotten the next day. I know how it feels from being a Kentucky basketball fan. Winning is so expected fans become numb to it. That is why Kentucky fans react more passionately to losses.

When Ball State has a chance to beat a BCS team time seems to slow down. I can tell you what I was doing when Ball State pushed Michigan in 06 and Nebraska in 07. Those were moments where Ball State fans said “Oh my God is this really happening?” For Michigan and Nebraska it was just another game.

It is difficult to reach this point for many students. They grew up thinking it was all about going to the BCS and Final Four. If your school does not have the resources to make it there many students say “What’s the point?” They fail to see the intrigue of trying to beat Clemson or South Florida with one hand tied behind their back as a small school. The only question students have is “Why can’t you beat them?” It does not help that when students visit the Muncie Mall there is just as much IU and Purdue garb for sale as Ball State. The implied message students receive is Ball State is and will always be second-rate.

If Ball State is serious about attendance its best bet is to build the identification Muncie residents have with the school. When residents view the Cardinals as representation of the area, like a third senator, attendance will rise. It is going to be tough but until places like New Castle, Anderson, Portland, Richmond, and even Muncie identify stronger with Ball State empty seats will be an issue.

A close example is when Indiana State placed a “WV” on their helmets to claim they represent the “Wabash Valley.” Fresno State does the same with their helmets. May sound cheesy but if Ball State makes the claim it represents “Eastern Indiana,” or the “White River Valley” it could help residents take pride in the team.

I like that Scholl and Lembo are taking proactive routes to improve the fan base, but if they think they can get more students to come to games I have a feeling they will be introduced to student apathy the hard way.


2 Responses

  1. I became a fan after I attended Ball State. I knew of it simply because my mother got her masters there. I knew they had a great education program and weren’t as expensive to go to as IU or Purdue and was far enough from home but still kinda close too. I think why I really became a fan though is that I saw/see the potential for real greatness in just about all the sports. Especially the major ones (football, basketball) but also in like Vollyball and Baseball. Plus I love rooting for the underdog. This is one of those leagues too that anything can happen. Sure losing is expected but when you win….you get a lot more satisfaction out of it unlike the OSU’s and USC’s. We have the chance to succeed which is why I like being a fan of Ball State. Up’s and downs alike. Then there are those teams that you just can’t see how they could ever become a contender despite being in an elite conference. Does anyone really see Vanderbilt winning it all? Wake Forest? IU? Those certainly feel like lost causes 😛

  2. Well-written piece. I’d only add a few points:

    1. The students rooting for other schools phenomenon is not new. And I dare say, it’s light years better than it used to be than back in the early 90s, when ND was coming off a football title and IU still in the prime of the Knight era, and the MAC had one (1) football game per year on national TV (the Las Vegas Bowl — that was it). Finding quality gear even at TIS or the BSU Bookstore was difficult. People gripe about the amount of other school’s gear they see now, but it’s a fraction of a fraction of what it was two decades ago. You could literally go hours without seeing any BSU gear on campus at all back then.

    2. While student attendance needs to improve, I think improving alumni attendance is even more critical. Alums move to Indy and suddenly believe there is a force field erected on NB I-69 at 96th St. that is too difficult to pass through to return to campus, apparently. Get those folks back to campus for days other than homecoming, and we’ll be on to something long-term. But along those lines…

    3. Don’t forget that previous administrations spent 15 years doing everything they could to kill interest in the football program (’88 – ’03-ish). Until 1997, you could not tailgate AT ALL at home games (my roommates and I tried on a few occasions in college, UPD shooed you into the stadium every time, even threatening to arrest us once). No night games until the mid-00’s. And people mock the stadium pre-2001 (when the Fisher complex/endzone grandstand opened), To them I say: you didn’t see the place pre-’95, when the east grandstand consisted of about eight rows of wooden bleachers that even Yorktown High would be embarrassed to use. Our worst student attendance from last year would have been a high water mark in 1993, when BSU happened to win the MAC in exciting fashion. Things can always be better, but they can be a lot worse, too. Progress doesn’t come overnight.

    4. Winning takes care of everything. Despite the fact that Bob Knight was unofficial governor of this state during the time I was at BSU, student attendance at BSU hoops games was through the roof. Why? We were just a couple years removed from the Sweet 16 and in the heart of our “kicking ass and taking names” era in basketball. Plenty of students spent their waking moments rooting for the jackasses in Bloomington back then, but you bet your arse they were filling the stands at BSU games, too.

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