With nearly 40,000 students and an endowment that is upwards of $1 billion, McGill is no doubt a large and well-funded university. Despite this, attendance rates for sports games are low, and a general sense of apathy is palpable towards athletics at McGill.
McGill’s athletic history, much like its academic past, is both prestigious and noteworthy. Dr. James Naismith, a McGill alumni and former Director of Athletics, invented the game of basketball. McGill students were also instrumental in the formation of another sport, ice hockey, as they collaborated to codify the first rulebook of the sport before creating the McGill University Hockey Club in 1877, the first of its kind. McGill also had a major impact in the development of another of the ‘Big Four’ of North American professional sports—the remaining being hockey, baseball, and basketball—as the first North American styled football game was played between McGill and Harvard in 1874.
McGill’s athletic success isn’t simply limited to the history book, either. In the past three years, the Redmen and Martlets have combined to win 15 championships in conferences such as the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and the Reseau du Sport Etudiant du Quebec (RSEQ), among others. In addition to this, men’s and women’s ice hockey, men’s baseball, men’s lacrosse as well as men’s and women’s tennis have won national championships in the past three years.
The obvious lack of school spirit and excitement surrounding varsity sports gives the impression that McGill student athletes are unsuccessful. With the exception of the men’s basketball, hockey, and football teams—collectively known as the ‘Big 3’—most games are played in front of near empty arenas and stadiums. Even for the aforementioned ‘Big 3,’ attendance rates over the last three years have lagged considerably compared to other schools with significantly smaller student populations and comparable athletic records.
According to former McGill Martlet Kristin Hazzard (2002-2006), the culture of athletics at McGill has always been like this. She started off her career on the women’s volleyball team, a program that ranked consistently in the nation’s top 10. After her first year, she made the switch to the ice where the historically dominant Martlet ice hockey program made it to nationals every year she was on the squad. Despite the success in both sports, she noted that fan engagement was clearly lacking.
“I was on very good teams […] but nobody really watched us except for family and [sometimes] friends,” said Hazzard.
One of the main reasons that McGill Athletics struggles to generate interest is because of the university’s location in the heart of a major city. For many schools located in rural or semi-rural areas, university-sponsored sports are an integral part of daily life. Without alternative sources of entertainment, students are naturally drawn to varsity sports. Hazzard’s experiences echo this sentiment.
“At French-Canadian universities in smaller towns like Laval and Sherbrooke there would just be a different atmosphere,” Hazzard said. “[In] Sherbrooke […] the volleyball program was just something the entire town got behind.”
Tessa MacDougall, a former Syracuse Women’s Soccer player (2006-2010), commented that it was fairly common to see student life centred around college athletics at a National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) school like hers, compared to its relatively low profile at McGill.
“There were a lot of events [surrounding] sports, things like pep rallies or homecoming were a huge deal […] and there were tailgates for every game of every sport.”
Syracuse is in a metropolitan area with a population of less than 700,000 people and only one major higher education institution. Montreal, on the other hand, has a greater population of just under four million and hosts four major universities. Consequently, students here are given limitless options to satisfy their entertainment needs. Olivia Sutter, a former Carleton Raven and current McGill Martlet, noted that despite being the fourth largest city in Canada, Ottawa pales in comparison in terms of city life.
“In Montreal, as a student, there’s just so much more to do. There’s the culture, the nightlife, [whereas] in Ottawa you’d be more inclined to go to games because you know your friends are going,” said Sutter.
Neal Prokop, a forward on the Redmen ice hockey squad and former student athlete at the University of Manitoba, noted that schools that are in urban centres with large swaths of commuter students face added difficulty.
“Once a student leaves campus [for the day], they aren’t as inclined to come back, especially in the colder months of the year,” explained Prokop. “I think it is difﬁcult for a school to maintain a ‘campus atmosphere’ with students spending so much time living ‘off-campus.’”
Drew Love, McGill’s executive director of Athletics and Recreation, sees the other entertainment options as just another component of what he calls the ‘Montreal Fabric.’ The centrepiece of this idea is, of course, the Montreal Canadiens who dominate a disproportionate amount of both the media coverage and the fan engagement and interest. Other professional teams have struggled for a market share whilst competing against the Habs, despite seasons having very little overlap. The Alouettes, Montreal’s CFL team, have struggled to stay in the city throughout the course of their history while the Impact, Montreal’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team, have really focused on finding its consumer base in the large immigrant population.
Hazzard believes that funding is a major factor that drives the culture of athletics.
“It always seemed like other universities were pumping in more money into their programs. We were very lucky in ice hockey with the funding we had. I know in most other sports, including volleyball, it was very minimal.”
MacDougall’s experiences at Syracuse were completely different. She noted that funding was never an issue and was a consistent driving force in the development and maintenance of a successful culture.
“I was paid to go there [through my scholarship] just like all the other student athletes. And […] alumni donate back to make sure the experience improves,” MacDougall said.
While McGill Athletics has a budget of $3.8 million, most NCAA athletic departments see much bigger numbers. Syracuse Athletics’ profit alone is around $4.1 million.
In addition to this, there are certain characteristics about the student body that are unique to McGill. One such characteristic is the location and structure of the athletic facilities.
“At Carleton the arena was right on campus and everyone knew where it was. Here, it’s hidden,” said Sutter.
Hazzard noticed that the atmosphere around the McGill vs. Concordia rivalry game was noticeably different if the game was being played at Ed Meagher Arena at Concordia, as opposed to McConnell Arena.
“The game [at Ed Meagher] was always more popular and the atmosphere was better […] because their arena was structured so that there was only one side of the ice for bleachers.”
Love reiterates the statement when it comes to McGill’s field sports, as the atmosphere created is misleading if only attendance rates are taken into account.
“You can’t create a sense of urgency around buying a ticket when you never sell out […] because our venues are so large that if 3,000 people show up you can’t black-out the rest of the stadium and create a positive atmosphere,” Love said. Percival Molson stadium has a seating capacity of over 25,000. so even a crowd of 3,000 would look relatively modest.
Another key factor that is mostly unique to McGill is the academic and research-orientated nature of the school. This is something that affects everyone that is a part of the university, including those in the Athletics program.
“We know that this is an academic institution,” said Love. “That’s why we’re all here, and we say that we develop student athletes, students first, athletes second [….] We see, even in [the Athletics Complex], the result of fans and players who have to fight their way through very difficult academic situations […] It’s just reality here and it affects the fan base.”
MacDougall’s experience at Syracuse, a reputable and top 50 institution in the United States, is a far cry from those within the McGill community.
“It was the sort of situation where you’d rather skip an exam than skip a game […] because it’s the main reason you’re going to the school,” she explains.
McGill still has a long way to go in terms of branding its program compared to other Canadian universities. Sutter has noticed the marked change during her time as a Martlet.
“[Here] there aren’t flyers anywhere promoting the games. [At Carleton] it was everywhere on every wall of the student centre,” said Sutter.
Prokop noted that the University of Manitoba was able to parlay two major developments on campus, the building of a new stadium and a new active student centre, into added interest for university athletics.
“The school is using the opportunity to create a new ‘fan experience’ through student promotions, university events, state of the art facilities and a new website,” he explained. “The football team has drawn some of their largest crowds to date, and the ‘buzz’ on campus, with the help of social media, is focused on engaging as many students as possible.”
Prokop also believes that a successful athletics program should strive to move past just success or fan engagement and focus on the development of its student athletes.
“I think the healthiest university athletic program are those that produce great student athletes,” said Prokop. “Having the support in place to help athletes succeed in and out of the classroom should be a priority.“
In this respect McGill undoubtedly succeeds. However, as evidenced by the current state of the program, more needs to be done by both McGill Athletics and by the student body as a whole. Love says he is fully aware of the unique, inherent problems that McGill faces when trying to develop its fan base and has been spearheading the charge to tackle these issues. It has become clear that it is not enough to just broadcast that there will be games certain nights and expect fans to show up. Rather, its latest policy has focused on generating buzz through step-by-step solutions that make it easier and more exciting for the greater McGill community to attend games.
“We’ve created special event nights [like] ‘Fandemonium’ and ‘Pack the Stadium’ […] to generate interest and get people [in],” said Love. “We’re trying to work with Red Thunder and get them more active and out to more games. We’re working [on] some programs now with [the residences…] to get the community to come in […] but the thing is it’s never-ending, it’s a four year cycle that keeps on going.”
The program is also currently going through a marketing program that has focused on bringing more advertising towards main campus and away from the Athletics complex. The new strategy places a greater emphasis on branding the uniqueness of McGill. Phrases such as: “Behind every great team there is a great university,” or, “#werunthiscity” can now be found on walls in academic buildings on campus. Despite the continuing efforts of McGill Athletics, students must also choose to shift time away from alternative entertainment options and choose to support their peers. A perfect opportunity to do so will be Homecoming Week. McGill football faces off against the Université de Montreal in the annual Homecoming Game on Saturday Oct. 19 at 1:00 p.m. in Molson Stadium, a tilt with major playoff implications. Later that evening, as part of the festivities Men’s Ice Hockey will also be playing its Homecoming Game against UQTR at 7:00 p.m. in McConnell Arena.
The foundation for creating a strong culture of athletics exists at McGill. The shared onus now falls upon the entire community to take the next step forward.