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April 18, 2013

Non-traditional students struggle to find school spirit

By Patrick Elder


Every year it seems the Cleveland State University Vikings are winning the Horizon League title in some sport. Whether it’s basketball or soccer, swimming or golf, the Vikings make their mark on the Horizon League year after year and tournament after tournament. In this year alone, Cleveland State’s volleyball, men’s soccer and men’s swimming and diving teams all won the Horizon League championship.

Yet, if one were to go see any of these teams in action, the sparsely populated stands would lead most to think the opposite was true. Even Cleveland State’s most popular sport, basketball, attracted an average attendance of only 3,260 in 2012 — and that was its highest since 2000. The Wolstein Center, which has a capacity of 13,610, has never sold out for a basketball game, with its highest-ever attendance of 13,055 in a 1991 game against the University of Michigan’s famous “Fab Five.”

In a 2011 interview with The Plain Dealer, then-interim athletic director John Parry was confident the Vikings’ winning ways would lead to increased attendance in no time.

“I think, next year, we can jump to average 5,000 if we come out of this year by winning the league and going to the postseason,” Parry said. “If we can do that — and knowing we only have one senior, our recruiting class is good, and the coaching is stabilized — I think we can get there.”

And yet here we stand, two years later and still 2,000 warm bodies shy of that optimistic goal. Greg Murphy, assistant athletic director of communications, is confident that such a lofty goal can be reached in the near future.

“I definitely think it’s a realistic goal,” Murphy said. “It’s a great facility, and it’s good basketball. It’s probably the most affordable ticket in town. You can bring a family of four down here for probably less than 40 bucks, and that’s parking, tickets and concessions too. And I think the product on both the men’s and women’s side in the next few years is going to be very good too.”

Others, like Cleveland State English major Rashida Mustafa, are not so optimistic that this goal can be achieved.

“The administration tries really hard to get students involved with activities and sports, but I really don’t see it changing,” Mustafa said. “I really love Cleveland State. I think it’s a great school with a lot of great people and great professors, so I love saying that I do go to Cleveland State.

But I don’t think anyone hears Cleveland State and thinks sports. They’re really not known for their sports here.”

The administration is making an effort to change this perception, but obstacles abound. One such obstacle is the fact that Cleveland State is primarily a commuter campus. Mustafa is one of a vast majority of students who commute to campus, one of the biggest reasons in her estimation for the lackluster support for Cleveland State sports.

“Most people have other priorities and more important things to do than hang around at school and go to extracurricular events,” Mustafa said. “The average student isn’t a 19-to-20-year-old student who lives on campus and has their parents paying for their tuition. It’s parents and kids who have jobs and things to be focusing on.”

Murphy, however, doesn’t see this as the main problem. From his perspective, the fact that Cleveland State resides in a downtown area and directly competes with three professional sports teams is a much bigger factor in low fan support.

“We’re competing against the Browns in November when basketball season starts, and you’ve got the Cavs right down the street as well,” Murphy said. “I think that’s definitely the biggest obstacle that we face.”

In his interview with The Plain Dealer, Parry also noted the difficulties that arise when competing with so many seemingly superior products. As a part of the Butler University athletic department, he witnessed the revitalization of that school’s basketball fanbase as the Bulldogs embarked on their historic run to two consecutive NCAA National Championship games.

“Indianapolis is a pro town, like here,” Parry said. “There is a lot of interest in Indiana, Purdue, a huge Big Ten presence, like here. You had to fight that. The perception of the league… fans and media were not initially drawn to it. Indianapolis has a big respect for the Big Ten, but not the Horizon League.”

Butler has since moved on to the Atlantic 10 Conference, and will be joining the Big East next year.

While Cleveland State remains in the Horizon League, it will continue to ask its fans to come out and support them against teams like Green Bay, Detroit and Wright State — excellent schools, but not exactly hot tickets.