How Collegiate Recreation Departments are Engaging Students With Non-Traditional Sports and Activities

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While collegiate recreation directors have always been tasked with engaging students, the modern world, with all its distractions, has made that job more difficult. Today’s rec professionals are searching for new and unique ways to bring students out of their dorm rooms and into an inclusive and active community.

To find out exactly how they’re doing that, AB surveyed a small group of rec directors at colleges and universities across the country. To put it mildly, the variety of sports and activities offered at campus recreation centers has evolved well beyond traditional sports such as basketball, softball and volleyball. Here’s a look at how the rec professionals we spoke with are navigating the demands of a new generation of students.

Pickleball and esports

The majority of rec directors who responded to our inquiry mentioned growing demand for both pickleball and esports, and all of them said they offer some form of organized programming — intramurals, clubs, tournaments — for these popular activities. Pickleball and esports are considered inclusive, as almost anyone can learn and enjoy them, and their popularity among students grew during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The rapid growth of these sports is what is surprising,” says Chris Morriss, assistant director of Sport and Camp Programs at LSU. “There has always been a student interest in them, but the growth of these sports since the return from COVID has been tremendous.”

Pickleball was touted as needing very little equipment or accommodations, and in many cases students bring their own paddles and balls.

“Equipment costs were minimal,” says Wendy Windsor, director of Campus Rec at Tulane University. “For our pickleball leagues, we purchased paddles and balls for play and have been able to repurpose a badminton court and net to take advantage of our existing facility space with the added benefit of keeping our limited tennis courts free.”

While esports may require dedicated facilities and some high-end computing equipment and game consoles, video games have become a big draw on campus, and most of the rec directors we surveyed said they’re happy to attract students who might not have otherwise ventured out to their facilities.

The University of California San Diego currently offers a variety of games, and has purchased high-end gaming PCs, peripherals and monitors, as well as access to high-speed, reliable wired internet.

“We have eight competitive titles — League of Legends, Valorant, Overwatch, DOTA 2, StarCraft II, Splatoon, Smash, Rocket League — with UCSD esports,” says rec director Rich Mylin. “Recreational esports programming includes regularly scheduled community events in partnership with the student gaming organizations, our largest and most prominent being Triton Gaming. We also work with them to help facilitate tournaments in our new gaming facility known as the Triton Esports Center. The REC@TEC programming has been more popular than the traditional intramural league format for our campus when it comes to gaming, yet we are considering relaunching intramural esports programming.”

Mylin says he’s not surprised by the rise of esports on campus, as gaming has been a part of many people’s lives for some time now. “Our new esports director is an alumnus and former president of the club volleyball team, yet gaming was a large part of his life and college experience at UCSD, as well,” he says. “It has always had a large community on campus and in the past decade that community has become more visible on campus and externally.”

Mylin says that over the past four years, UCSD esports has garnered more support from campus leadership and corporate partners, and is integrated into the school’s future outlook plans for facility enhancements, community growth and additional partnership opportunities. “It is also exciting to see the narrative around the stereotypical gamer change,” says Mylin, “and the focus really shift to how we can ensure gaming students have the tools to enhance their wellbeing and college experience.”

Students play inner tube water polo at American University.Students play inner tube water polo at American University.Photo courtesy of American UnversityTournaments over leagues

While clubs and leagues are popular with students, many respondents said that they’ve found great success with offering stop-in competitions that don’t require a major time commitment.

“Our one-day events are more popular than traditional four- to five-week leagues,” says Ken Morton, director of campus recreation at Stephen F. Austin University. “We still offer those, but participation is declining in them and increasing in shorter events — perhaps due to the commitment factor, perhaps Gen Zers change in what they want.”

Time commitment was a major consideration for Rip Horsey’s staff at Western Oregon University.

“There was a moment when as campus recreation professionals, we realized we may have swung a little too far in one direction from our students’ needs,” says Horsey, who serves as director of campus recreation at WOU, adding that a move toward favoring “engagement opportunities over lengthy commitments came from conversations with our rec sports student leadership and previous league-playing intramural participants.”

Horsey says Western Oregon spent two years providing short tournaments in such activities as cornhole, badminton, penalty kick shoot-out, hotshot basketball, NCAA college bowl and March Madness, as well as some esports when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented.

“We decided to reduce the commitment for students and run intramural sports as drop-ins,” explains Horsey, adding that the school started out with Thursday night intramural volleyball and table tennis drop-ins. Given the success seen on Thursday nights, Western Oregon has since added Wednesday night futsal and basketball. And to meet student requests, Horsey says his team has brought back some mini leagues that last only a few weeks, playing them on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Jim Walczyk, director of University Recreation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that fun, low-commitment activities are in demand. “Trends continue to show that activities that don’t require extended time commitments are very popular,” Walczyk says. “So, we are still exploring and learning post COVID what is a good mixture of traditional activities and new offerings that will allow us to expand our outreach to a larger population on our campus based on their wants, needs, time available, etc. In the end, we want them moving for their health and wellbeing.”

Protected by a climbing wall’s belay system, a Cal State Bakersfield student balances atop a crate stack as the tower grows taller.Protected by a climbing wall’s belay system, a Cal State Bakersfield student balances atop a crate stack as the tower grows taller.Photo courtesy of California State University BakersfieldKeeping things interesting

The variety of activities and sports being offered at campus rec centers mirrors the diversity of the students and their individual needs. While some may just want the in-and-out fun of a Friday night trivia game or the quirky challenge of stacking crates as high as possible, others may want the regular competition of an organized volleyball or pickleball league.

Korey Lane, assistant director of Intramural Sports at American University, says he’s not surprised by the uptake of the school’s the nontraditional offerings, nor the demand for a variety of activities to choose from. “Folks from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences are looking to have fun and be active in a way that works for them, and that may not be in a way that fits a traditional sport or league-type program,” Lane says. “Given that, it makes sense that we try to offer programs and experiences that fit the increasingly diverse, myriad ways people want to play or engage in physical activity.”

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