Two years ago, placing cardboard cutouts of cheering fans along the Smith Center stands served as one of the few methods of engagement during basketball games on campus.
But as basketball season revs up, the athletics department and George’s Army – the official student section of GW Athletics – are stimulating fan engagement in the student section with a marketing strategy that has revamped since the Smith Center reopened to fans last year. New merch, social media promotions and collaborations with student organizations headline George’s Army’s plans for the season, while the athletics department organizes game-day tailgates, halftime contests, a food drive with Martha’s Table and special recognition of women in sports and veterans to connect the teams with the GW community.
Senior Associate Athletics Director Andy Ruge said the department and George’s Army have looked to new methods in fostering a strong, active, Buff-and-Blue-ridden turnout at games – especially in the student section.
“These games are as fun as the students make it,” Ruge said. “People go to college basketball games because they love to see the students there. They love to see them having a great time, so getting them involved is a very important part of the fan engagement.”
He said the athletics department will host fan contests, including the return of “Mutts Gone Nuts,” a halftime act where dogs perform tricks and catch frisbees in their mouths, and “Giant Tic-Tac-Toe,” where two fans on opposite sides of the court must make a layup to make a mark on a large tic-tac-toe board in the center of the court.
Both the athletics department and George’s Army plan to host tailgates where fans can enjoy a meal and play carnival-like games. Fans can join a tailgate during the final weekend of November and homecoming weekend, the first weekend of February. The homecoming celebration has served as an especially important time for fan engagement throughout the years, uniting current community members with alumni.
“Homecoming weekend is just a fun time to catch up with old friends,” Ruge said. “Even if you have someone who just graduated, maybe they’ll come back and celebrate with you.”
Homecoming weekend will kick off that Friday with the continuation of a Hall of Fame induction ceremony for a new class, including the 1993 basketball team that went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The men’s team will play against Duquesne Saturday, and the women’s team will take on George Mason after a tailgate.
He said the department will recognize various communities on campus through themed games to help unite the GW community. GW Athletics will honor the veterans and active military through a salute to military services during the season’s opening week on Veterans Day Friday. The department will also continue its tradition of an international night for students who won’t return home for Thanksgiving, which in the past has featured free shirts, giveaways and cultural performances during halftime.
GW Athletics will also continue its trademark marketing tactic – food giveaways, which keep fans on edge for free deals that deliver delectable prizes. That tradition includes partnerships with Tonic and Domino’s Pizza, which supplies boxes of cheesy bread that members from the First Ladies and GW Cheer pass out if the team scores six 3-pointers during the game.
Along with the athletics department’s efforts, George’s Army has a few tricks of its own to push fan engagement at GW back to pre-pandemic levels. Wacky costumes and props were akin to the fan section’s identity in past years, and George’s Army hopes to raise student turnout through collaborations with student organizations and a texting service that promotes games and other activities for students who register.
Senior Macy McClintock, one of the co-presidents of George’s Army, said rebuilding school spirit at GW seemed like a tall order after coming back from the height of the pandemic into the fall last year. She said she and George’s Army co-president Ryan Puleo were the only two members left on the executive board and had to devise a plan to fill the Smith Center stands back up to their full capacity that season.
Since then, McClintock said George’s Army has founded several new traditions that have helped increase student levels. She said students in George’s Army design and print humorous signs for students, including fatheads and banners with passionate phrases like “Raise High or die,” and the organization plans to set up tables prior to the games where students can create their own signs.
“We have some jokes up our sleeves that we’re excited about,” she said.
McClintock said the fan section plans to continue holding up copies of The Hatchet during the opposing teams’ introduction – a jab at the Colonials’ competition that the fan section started last season – and bringing a big box of random Buff and Blue items to games, including fake rosters that poke fun at the opposing teams and Buff-and-Blue-colored wigs.
The organization uses social media to promote events and spur engagement, advertising free apparel at games and posting spirited memes through the organization’s 1,500-follower Instagram and 3,300-follower Twitter accounts. And don’t forget “FanCam” – a repost of fan photos with student athletes that George’s Army will continue reposting on their Instagram story this season.
“We definitely want every athlete at GW to feel like they’re a big part of the school because they are,” McClintock said.
The student section has long seen a sizable attendance gap between men’s and women’s games, but Puleo said he and other executive board members committed to attending more women’s events this season in hopes that other students will follow suit.
“Hopefully we’ll end up doing the same amount of reach of the men’s and women’s teams,” he said. “So that’s what we’re looking at, because every athlete is important, no matter which team they’re on.”
As a middle-sized, private institution in a city dominated by politics, GW’s school spirit may not be comparable to powerhouses like UCLA or the University of Michigan, but Puleo said those larger, athletic-centered universities could serve as a model to boost engagement. He said Puleo said the fan section is targeting student organizations through their marketing to chase higher turnout levels that can replicate athletic fandom at larger state schools, including a “Greek Game,” where Fraternity and Sorority Life chapters wear their respective merch to represent their organization.
“There’s always a lot of people involved in their own clubs or whatever, and they’ve kind of disengaged from the rest of the student body who maybe have different interests, but I think this is one thing that we want to see a lot of students get behind,” Puleo said. “So it’s important, not only for the athletes on the court, but also the overall campus atmosphere.”
Clara Duhon contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the November 7, 2022 issue of the Hatchet.