By Lance Jordan, Sports Editor

 

The University of Missouri- St. Louis has many qualities to be proud of. In the fall of 2015, the Recreation and Wellness Center (RWC) opened its doors, adding approximately 100,000 square feet of space for open recreation, intramural sports, and wellness education. The Princeton Review ranks the business program in the top three percent of business schools in the nation. U.S. News and World Report continues to rank the international business program among America’s top 20 – for 14 years running. But the highlight of any college campus is its sports teams. In the fall of 2016, the men’s soccer team ranked number six in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and the women’s soccer team ranked number three, both accolades not easily achieved in a competitive division.

Across the country collegiate athletics are seeing a decline in attendance. Even Division 1 NCAA schools, who are also seeing a hit in home game attendance, are no exception. This is for several reasons. According to an article published by Jon Solomon of CBS sports in 2015, home attendance at major college football games declined for the fifth consecutive year. Among the top 25 attendance leaders, the biggest percentage decline came from University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) (13%), Florida State (11%), Louisiana State University (LSU) (8%) and Iowa State (6%).

But for these big universities, their issues appear different from the smaller UMSL. Iowa’s issues rose that year from a disappointing performance compared to previous years. Flooding caused many of LSU fans to purchase fewer tickets during the season. While as a whole, I can argue HDTV is partially to blame for killing college football attendance at all universities.

But what is wrong with UMSL’s attendance? The answers may be found from a man whose office sits inside UMSL’s Mark Twain Building, home of the Chuck Smith Court, which serves as the home facility to the UMSL’s men’s and women’s basketball teams and the UMSL volleyball team. Passing the court and wall decorated with pictures of UMSL’s elite teams of years gone by and plaques commemorating the achievements of the university teams, you’ll arrive at the Athletic Administration office, and in the last room on the right down the hall, you’ll be in the office of Head Baseball Coach, Jim Brady.

His office is decorated in photos of past and current teams. In the center is a photo celebrating the team’s 800th win this past 2016 spring season. Outside the huge window in his office, you can clearly see the tennis courts, Express Scripts, and Interstate 70.

“The [baseball] field used to be out here. It’s hard to imagine, but Express Scripts wasn’t here. We had great teams here. My 2003 team was the first team to win the GLVC conference from UMSL. There wasn’t enough room for people to sit. It was so full and our stands were limited to 100 people who could sit. And we had over 1,000 people here,” Brady said.

Coach Brady, who enters his 32nd year as head baseball coach in the 2016-2017 season, has a few critiques of the university as a whole and isn’t afraid to let the university know it.

“They had meetings. They’ve spent money. When they changed the name from Rivermen to Triton. The name Triton sucks. Okay? It sucks. You know what a Triton is? It’s a merman,” Brady stated.

A Triton is a mythological sea god with the head and torso of a man and a fish tail instead of legs. Triton is also the seventh moon of Neptune and a tropical mollusk, a colorful semi-aquatic salamander and the nucleus of a Tritium atom. A university committee was formed to study possible new mascots and came up with the Tritons in early 2007.

“For the amount of money that they spent, $10 [thousand] to $20 thousand, they could’ve come to me for $20 and I would’ve gave them the perfect name, ‘The Admirals.’”

The Tritons beat out several other possibilities, including the Red Thunder, the Archers, the Aviators and the Mudcats.

Not finished with his critique, Brady addresses the university as a whole and what issues lie with the way the university has addressed itself since its creation.

“A blind man can see it,” Brady said. “In the1960s when this place was built, what label did it get? A commuter campus. That was the label they gave it.”

Missouri State University in Springfield, MO went from being a Division 2 to a Division 1 institution. They were not a commuter school, but they were Division 2 school, much like UMSL’s athletic programs today.

“Why did that happen so quickly?” Brady asked, referring to the change in divisions. “All [of] their student body during that time… had intermural, clubs, [and] activities on campus that kids could get involved with. So when it was time to give to the alumni program, the money [came] flowing in. Now, they’re right there, almost eye to eye with the University of Missouri because their alumni had a great experience.”

As a commuter campus you go to class, and you go home. It can be difficult for some commuter students to find love or pride in their campus, let alone attend a sporting event. And when it does come time to give back to the university as an alumni, some alumni maybe hesitant in their donations.

“We built the foundation, but now we have to build the front porch and walls of the house,” Brady said.

Those walls Brady believes could be built with the help of potential students from Illinois. Right now, 22 counties in the state of Illinois do not have to pay UMSL’s out-of-state tuition rate, but instead pay in-state tuition.

The Associated Press counted at least 50 public colleges and universities nationwide that have lowered nonresident tuition by more than 10 percent in recent years without making similar reductions for in-state students.

But 22 counties isn’t enough Brady believes. “We need to expand that to all of Illinois, and especially Chicago,” Brady said.

Illinois currently has 102 counties. Whether such an expansion can actually take place will be up to UMSL administration. But say it did happen. How do we do it? How do we convince the first-time college student in the Windy City to come down to St. Louis?

“You go in there, and let them know of our programs. Our business school takes a back seat to nobody in the Midwest; number four in international business, number 17 of all of them.” Brady said, highlighting UMSL’s business program as an example.

Generating new out-of-state students will call for new student housing. Brady calls for 4,000 beds; beds that will be occupied by UMSL’s new population once UMSL accumulates the new students from Illinois.

“No more status quo! This institution needs a commitment to bona fide student housing that brings in another 4000 to 5000 beds on this campus. It is imperative in keeping this window open, so that it allows us to move from the retro 50s and 60s mentality to actual modern day millennial progress. Today’s college bound millennial must have the entire university experience in order to be a ‘whole and complete’ person,” Brady said.

Coach Brady doesn’t care who it offends, because he feels it needed to be said, in regards to the Tritons name, and the commuter campus label. But, he sings the praises of the current administration, from athletics, to involvement, and admissions.

“Alan Byrd in admissions, Curt Coonrod in Student Affairs, Yolanda Weathersby in the Welcome Center, as well as the steady leadership and yeoman work of Lori Flanagan and her staff in Athletics. The efforts by these individuals is exemplary, and because of our academic excellence remaining in place, we are now at the ‘perfect’ moment in this university’s history to breakthrough and truly prosper in this critical window of opportunity. [The] truth is, this window will close abruptly, if we continue to follow the same path and [in the] remain status quo,” Brady said.

As Current Dean of Enrollment Services, Alan Byrd attends as many athletic events as his schedule will allow him to.

“Unfortunately, that is not many these days. I regularly attend home basketball games, and I usually make it to one baseball and one softball game a year,” Byrd said.
So when Byrd is able to catch a basketball or softball game, he is somewhat disappointed at the relatively small turn out at games.

“We have great student athletes at UMSL and some very competitive teams.  We simply need to figure out how to make attending athletic events part of the culture for UMSL students, faculty, and staff,” Byrd said.

As Dean of Enrollment Services, the native St. Louisan is responsible for providing leadership, direction, and planning for all undergraduate recruitment initiatives at the university. Being the go-to guy in recruitment at UMSL, Byrd is also not a fan of the commuter label.

“It would definitely help our recruitment efforts if UMSL was not perceived to be a commuter school.  Most prospective students choose a college based on a combination of academic and social experiences.  If we continue to be one dimensional, it really limits the number of students who will enroll at our institution,” Byrd said.

Along with losing the commuter campus perception, Byrd and universities all across Missouri all agree that opening their doors to out-of-state student prospects seem to be the answer in order to increase enrollment.

“Reducing out-of-state tuition rates is a common recruitment strategy being used by most public institutions in the Midwest to maintain or increase enrollment.  Due to declining numbers of local prospects, Missouri colleges and universities are opening their doors to more non-resident students.  Nearly all of our public competitors have developed scholarship programs or tuition agreements to cater to non-resident students over the last decade.  Now UMSL is currently exploring similar opportunities to expand our recruitment boundaries to more states,” Byrd said.

As for increasing turn out at games, Byrd has his own thoughts about how to go about it.

“My first suggestion would be to strengthen the relationships between our student athletes and the general student body.  Students are much more likely to support the athletic teams if they know the players personally.  I also believe we could do more to market the games and give students an incentive to participate (spirit contests, food, give-a-ways, etc),” Byrd said.

***

Gabriel Jimenez, freshmen, engineer, is a swimmer who I interviewed for the October 30 edition of The Current. At that time, the Mexico native held three individual meet wins against Lindenwood University and two event wins against Maryville University and William Jewell College at a tri-meet.

Since then, Jimenez and the rest of the swim team have traveled to Saint Charles, Missouri for Lindenwood’s hosted swim meets, winning four events. They have traveled to Rolla, Missouri for the Miner Invite, where the Tritons finished third in the team standings behind the host Miners and Ouachita Baptists. They also traveled to Oxford, Ohio for the Miami Invitational where the UMSL women’s swim team added three more school records, while the men added two school records on the third and final day of competition. Unfortunately for the team, few of their peers where able to catch their great moments.

Wanting to hear from a student athlete, I emailed Jimenez. Instead of responding with just his thoughts on the issue of attendance at UMSL’s games. He collaborated with some of his fellow teammates to answer my questions.

With the team only hosting Lindenwood so far in the 2016-2017 season, I asked the team about the audience attendance at the home swim meets.

“Audience attendance was poor at the home swim meets here at UMSL, unfortunately there was more audience members from the opponent side,” they said.

When asked if they notice more audience attendance at other universities, the group said,

“Absolutely. Undoubtedly the attendance was way bigger at all other universities we visited during this semester.”

The team feels swimming is getting less support, advertising, and turnout compared to the other sports on campus, such as basketball and volleyball. The lack of support from other sports teams is also disappointing to the swim team, which they hope will change.

“Not even athletes from other UMSL athletics teams attended, not like when basketball and volleyball teams are playing”

Like I suspected when starting the story, athletes have noticed the lack of a turnout in stands during sporting events. It seems that at UMSL we are currently seeing a divide between the general students (residential and commuter) and student athletes.

As the team put it: “We don’t think this is forming a healthy environment between us.”