College athletics is in the midst of an “attendance crisis,” and student sections are not exempt. National championship contending programs continue to lose student support. Athletic departments must evolve their thinking on student sections or risk losing their student fan base. Following are best practices related to student section leadership, student engagement and sponsorship activation. 

Penn State defines a student section in the following terms: “A group of students who create an energetic, united atmosphere in an arena or stadium for the players, as well as to distract and intimidate the opposing team.” Student sections are vital to the energy of an arena and can help build lifelong fandom after students graduate and become alumni. Collegiate athletics are cyclical in nature. Having a winning program leads to stronger fandom from students, alumni and the community. Stronger fandom leads to more revenue coming into the program through donations and ticket sales. Increased revenue can lead to facility improvements, and in an era of facility arms races, having the great facility helps coaches recruit better student athletes. And finally, completing the cycle, better recruits help to create the winning program all college athletic departments hope for.

Declining student attendance negatively influences a school’s athletic department both presently and in the future. Presently, a drop in student attendance can influence the atmosphere in the arena, bringing less energy to the game as well as leaving many to wonder about the state of school spirit around campus. In the long-term, if the athletic department is unable to engage students while they are on campus, when attending games is inexpensive and easy, what will make them want to purchase tickets and donate when they are alumni? This is why building a strong student section that students will do anything to be a part of is crucial. 

One of the first things that must be done when building a strong student section is to create an official leadership body run by passionate and committed students. This leadership body serves several purposes, as the athletic department now has student contacts to promote the game to fellow students, lead the student section in chants, and provide security for the school by stopping vulgar or unsportsmanlike chants. An issue some athletic departments have come across is that after finding a group of students to lead the student section, the group graduates and the athletic department must start from scratch. In order to avoid this, the athletic department must make sure this group is sustainable through constant recruitment of new members to maintain the governing body. 

A common mistake athletic departments make with their student sections is that they do not focus on the retention of upperclassman and instead rely on the notion that losing upperclassman is natural and a new batch of underclassman entering the university each year will make up the difference. This is similar to a business losing a majority of their customers after their first or second visit but not worrying about customer retention due to the belief there will be enough first-time buyers to make up for any repeat customers that are lost. No business would operate like this, and neither should a student section. Instead, the athletic department should provide upperclassman rewards in order to engage them during the duration of their time on campus. 

The athletic department must also be willing to give the student section a variety of resources in order to promote the games. These resources can include access to student-athletes and coaches to help promote on-campus graphics and videos on their social media accounts, as well as access to sponsorship inventory. Through phone conversations with 10 experts, 70 percent believed utilizing players and coaches to promote games to students was moderately to extremely effective. Additionally, a 2015 research initiative from the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators found that “students consume team news and information primarily through email and social media.” Finally, utilizing sponsors with the student section will help cut costs, raise student awareness about sponsors, and provide credibility to themes and giveaways. Ultimately, giving the student section access to these resources will help to better promote games and will help build the student fan-base.

“Elite Eight” Tips to Build Effective Student Sections:

  1. 1. Create an official and sustainable student section leadership body.
  2. 2. Understand student demographics and competition by requesting student feedback.
  3. 3. Build rewards programs targeted toward retaining upperclassman.
  4. 4. Promote games on campus through utilization of student-athletes, coaches, social media and raffles.
  5. 5. Keep student ticket prices affordable.
  6. 6. Build in-game traditions through themes, chants, music and dances.
  7. 7. Target specific groups — student organizations, club sports, Greek life, international students — for each home game.
  8. 8. Activate sponsorship inventory within the student section at each game.

Chris LaReau is a 2019 graduate of the University of Dayton and a member of the Red Scare Executive Board, the University of Dayton’s official student section governing body. Dr. Peter Titlebaum is a professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science and coordinator of the Sport Management Program at the University of Dayton.