ACU has a storied history of athletics, but unlike colleges with similar emphasis on athletics, there are hardly any unique athletic traditions even after the move to Div. I in 2013, leading to a lack of student engagement and overall care for athletics.
As someone who has been to ACU sporting events for over a decade now, student engagement has always been an issue. I’ve never understood why a Div. I university struggles with this, but I believe a lot of students find it hard to care about their school’s teams due to a lack of uniqueness and creativity to the events.
Even in the Div. II era, students came out to Shotwell and stayed for the entirety of the games but now games are on campus and students leave at halftime after having little reason to care. Our football team has not been this good in a while, yet students still leave early.
ACU’s programs were not strong after the Div. I move likely leading to low engagement from students in the programs. However, ACU’s recent move to the Western Athletic Conference and rumored moves to higher-level conferences like the Conference-USA, leaves the question — why do students still not choose to go to games?
Last year, men’s basketball advanced to the WAC tournament championship as well as baseball while men’s golf and tennis crowned themselves WAC champions with NCAA Tournament appearances. Teams like Tarleton, a Div. I program as of Nov. 2019, recently expanded their football stadium seating to 24,000 due to having the highest attendance rates in the WAC. ACU beat Tarleton 29-3 last year despite being 5-6 overall and Tarleton having a 6-5 overall record. Tarleton has the highest total football attendance of any WAC school with over 9,000 per game while ACU had less than 7,500 per game. If ACU wants to compete on a national stage then schools like Tarleton should not rank higher than ACU in attendance.
Club 325 was created before the year to give students a chance to tailgate inside the stadium, watch other games inside the stadium and provide shading in the student section. Yet attendance has still been subpar to this point of the season. Students have no desire to stay for a four hour football game especially in a stadium with a lack of energy and a weak overall game-day experience.
I do believe that the experience has gotten better with the addition of Quintin Payton, associate athletic director for marketing and fan engagement. However die hard ACU fans, some faculty and staff and their families, and a select few students tend to stay for the entirety of a football game.
I believe involving students in the game-day experience is a step in the right direction to motivate students to come support their peers. The students’ energy has yet to be induced into the crowds’ energy. The crowd has been unenergetic even with a 7-3 program on the field, the highest winning program of the Div. I era. Payton and others have a large task at hand to engage more students into the game-day experience and become creative with new ideas for potential new traditions.
On Nov. 3, the men’s and women’s basketball programs hosted a “Moody Madness” event in an effort to garner excitement for the basketball season. At larger universities with storied programs, this event is called Midnight Madness and celebrates the upcoming season in which a team opens its first official practice to the public, essentially a pep rally incorporating other fan activities as well. Open practices usually start on or around the Friday night closest to Oct. 15 because prior to the 2013-14 season, teams were not permitted to practice prior to the date.
While a good idea, it is not unique to ACU, once again a lack of tradition unless more creativity is shown. My primary concern with this event the timing being four days before the first game of the year for men’s basketball when normally universities host the event on or around the Oct. 15 date. To me, it seems as if the athletic department threw the event together at the last minute in an effort to show off the newly renovated Moody Coliseum.
If the athletics department wants to create and maintain this tradition, they must communicate with students and encourage them to come out and show support for their Wildcats, especially with the football team playing for a WAC title on Saturday.
At the end of the day, if the Department of Athletics wants higher engagement rates with rowdy home atmospheres for every sport, they must create traditions students, faculty and staff can support and rally behind. While significant and the largest win in ACU’s history, men’s basketball’s win over the University of Texas in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament cannot be the only time students convey deep love for their athletic programs.