Wrighton, Carpenter drove interest in sports as fans returned to stands

Media Credit: File Photo by Auden Yurman | Assistant Photo Editor

Interim University President Mark Wrighton has regularly attended athletics games since his arrival in January.

Updated: April 4, 2022 at 7:13 p.m.

With GW’s fan section having returned in full force during the basketball season this year, administrators and student leaders worked to harness the rebound in energy.

Fans first returned to the Smith Center last fall after seats remained empty for more than a year, and as fan engagement bounced back, GW community members boosted school spirit with new traditions from the stands. After interim University President Mark Wrighton started his tenure at GW this spring, he soon became a regular face at basketball games, often joining the crowd side by side with Student Association Vice President Kate Carpenter and the leaders of George’s Army.

Wrighton, who is known to often conclude remarks by reminding his audience about the next big athletics game, has expressed enthusiasm for GW sports on Twitter and in person, saying he uses the games as an opportunity to rally students’ excitement and understand what’s on their minds in an informal setting.

“I found it to be incredibly impressive,” Wrighton said of the athletics department in a January interview. “I’ve never been on the faculty or certainly not president of any institution that has Division I athletics.”

Wrighton has celebrated with the men’s basketball team following victory and was once spotted sporting a buff-and-blue wig as he looked on with the crowd. Carpenter also pushed students to pack the Smith Center through efforts like President’s Weekend Palooza – a series of campus events building up to a tailgate and the men’s basketball “homecoming” showdown against the University of Rhode Island.

She said the weekend of events was an “honor of a lifetime” where students came together and expressed their school spirit. She said the celebration was an opportunity for students to collaborate and promote University programming in attempt to build on a lack of campus community.

“We wanted to have this opportunity for students to have the option to participate in something that led to a basketball game, and of course the game was so fun,” Carpenter said. “I saw so many people at that game that I normally don’t see at all the basketball games.”

More than a dozen students said the interest from Wrighton and Carpenter and new traditions like President’s Weekend Palooza may have contributed to the revival in attendance at basketball games after fans were absent from stands during the 2020-21 season. Athletics Department spokesman Brian Sereno declined to comment on attendance levels at University sporting events at the Smith Center this academic year.

Carpenter said her work on President’s Weekend Palooza drew in enough attendees to spill over into the seats beyond the Smith Center’s student section. She said she has promoted school spirit and school camaraderie at games through her work on the SA and new fan section traditions, like holding up an edition of The Hatchet during the introduction of the opposing team’s players at basketball games.

 

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Carpenter said she noticed that freshmen and sophomores who didn’t have a traditional high school sports experience due to the pandemic likely helped drive the spike in attendance.

“While the pandemic took a hit on a lot of things, it has also helped with turnout in my opinion,” she said. “It’s given people that excitement to go.”

Carpenter said officials like Wrighton and Dean of Students Cissy Petty have helped encourage excitement at games. She said Wrighton’s tendency to sit in the student section and even wear a buff and blue wig has added to the energy at basketball games.

“Seeing the president of the University, who you typically would think is wearing suits and sitting in an office and sitting in meetings all day, come to a Saturday game and sit in the student section and jump up and down and cheer with us and yell like the rest of us, that’s awesome,” Carpenter said.

 

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Juniors Macy McClintock and Ryan Puleo – the co-presidents of George’s Army, the official student section of GW Athletics – said attendance at basketball games over the last semester was the highest they saw during their time at GW, starting with the home opener.

“Ryan and I just kind of looked at each other like ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never seen this many students in the Smith Center,’” McClintock said. “It was awesome.”

McClintock said George’s Army built up its social media presence to encourage students to fill the Smith Center seats that once held cardboard cutouts of fans during the fall 2020 semester when the District barred fans from attending in-person sporting events.

Puleo said Wrighton’s support through social media with consistent posts about GW sporting events every few days on his personal Twitter page and appearances at games has been encouraging for those working to organize sporting events.

“Mark Wrighton, what he’s done so far with showing up to games and showing enthusiasm by posts on his Twitter and all that, and he’s at the games and stuff,” Puelo said. “And yeah, I mean, that’s a big thing – support and to have leadership involved.”

Puleo said he has seen how GW sports can connect students on campus with each other and with the student athletes themselves.

“Athletics is something that a lot of people can get behind,” Puleo said. “It’s not hard, it’s not really controversial, it’s just sports, it’s GW. It’s not too hard to show up, support your fellow students.”

Sophomore Kylie Brown, a member of The First Ladies, said more students appeared at this year’s President’s Weekend Palooza basketball game than most regular season games. She said people promoting and discussing games on social media could help boost game attendance and interest.

“If a few people care then that kind of starts to spread,” Brown said. “But if no one really talks about it, then obviously no one’s going to really show an interest.”

Brown said seeing student leaders like Carpenter in the stands brings an energy to the games that wouldn’t be there otherwise with her ability to boost enthusiasm in the crowd.

“Because she does have a prominent voice in the school right now, by her hyping up the games with things like President Palooza and things like that, I do think that has an impact on people,” Brown said.

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