Early on during my illustrious career as a Saint Sports writer, while still naïve in the world of university sport, I was tasked with reporting on a 1’s XI Hockey match. With my experience of hockey limited to my trials and tribulations on the Year Nine B-Team, I felt rather unprepared for such a lofty task. Nevertheless, I refreshed myself on the rules, which had apparently changed somewhat since I had last played, and then rushed along to watch the game.
After some minor difficulties involving a vain attempt to look for the team on the grass pitches, I made my way to the back of the sports centre. I finally found the pitch, and quickly accosted some of the players to find out the teams and the circumstances of the match. To my surprise, I discovered that this game was probably one of the most important of the season. Should St Andrews lose, they would most likely be relegated, while if Glasgow won, they would win the entire league. Clearly then, a lot was on the line.
What resulted was the best and only game of hockey I had ever seen, with a plucky St Andrews team fighting for survival against a Glasgow giant. St Andrews went behind early, before storming back to seize the day and win the match. The entire affair was a testament to what top level university sport should be all about, with a comeback win for St Andrews in a physical and emotional match.
Why then were there a total of five spectators?
The sun was blazing, the teams were passionate, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and yet the vast majority of people at the university were unaware that this fixture was even taking place. I asked the few gathered spectators what brought them to watch, and the answer was inevitable: “I’m here to watch my friend.” While certainly their dedication to friendship was commendable, I was disappointed not to find someone there out of a pure love of the game.
Yet, the only reason I myself was there in the first place was because I had been instructed to be there. The day before, I didn’t know where the men’s hockey team played, on what days they played, where they were in the league, and who played for which team. I was entirely ignorant of the world of St Andrews hockey.
This is true for almost all university sports. Perhaps I just live under a rock, but to this day I remain largely ignorant of the vast majority of sport played at this university, unless I either play it myself or have a friend who plays. The very fact that in order to find out how a team is doing in BUCS, I have to make a BUCS account, log on to the atrocious system known as ‘BUCS Play’, scrawl through about fifteen menus, and find the exact league, is demonstrative of this, with it taking an awful lot of effort to find out even the most basic information.
“But what about varsity!” I hear you shout through your computer screens, no doubt energised and impassioned to defend the university’s sporting heritage and prowess. “That gets loads of spectators.” While it’s true that the one day a year that we scantily fill almost one quarter of Murrayfield to watch St Andrews lose is much better than the zero people that watch most university matches, it pales in comparison to the level of college sports viewership in the US.
This isn’t just a St Andrews problem. Compared to the USA, where over 100,000 people will regularly pack into a stadium to watch a college game of American ‘football’, university spectator numbers across the UK are negligible at best.
There are a number of reasons for this. First is simply geography. Wherever you live in the UK, there is a very good chance that you’ll live within a reasonable distance of a top quality sports side. In the US, with such a large country and few top franchises outside the major cities, for many people the closest and only team they can reasonably support is their local college team.
Secondly, college is the lifeblood of the US sports scene. All of the top prospects will be playing for top college teams, which feed directly into the draft system. With no draft system in UK sports – a point which shall be left for another article – top sportsmen and women will simply play for their club or academy, and perhaps not attend university at all. As such, the quality of US college teams is astonishing, and often the games can be as tense or as skilful as a relative big-league game. While the UK does have something similar in cricket with the MCCU system; unfortunately, cricket doesn’t quite lend itself as much to high octane spectator frenzy as other sports.
So, what’s the solution to this UK sporting quagmire? Unfortunately, unless the entire way sport is run in this country systematically changes, which I can’t see happening any time soon, there is no easy quick-fire solution. Ideas such as showing BUCS finals on TV, and simply increasing sports funding are very nice to dream about, but I doubt they would have a transformative effect on UK sports culture.
In St Andrews though, there is something we can do. I hate to sledge an entire brigade of university sports team publicity secretaries, but often people are simply unaware of an upcoming crunch match. Perhaps some sort of centralised fixture and results system that isn’t the plague that is BUCS Play might be suitable. There is also a great deal of responsibility for each and every one of us to get out there and watch the games. Often the quality of the matches is very good, and a vibrant atmosphere not only breeds more spectators but also helps to energise and galvanise the playing team to victory. We need to foster a culture of sports viewership, and there’s no better place to do it than in our quaint little town.
So, when we’re finally allowed back, and have the opportunity to go outside, get out there and support your team! You never know what exciting fixture you might drop in on.