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West High athletes and coaches discuss why some sports have more recognition than others, the effects thereof and the solutions to change.
November 22, 2021
Friday night lights can be deceiving. Packed stands, painted chests and an overwhelming sense of school spirit aren’t part of the experience for many West High sports teams—even the most successful.
Lack of accessibility to competition venues can pose a barrier for students, especially those who rely on others for transportation. Bowling, swimming, cross country and golf compete off-campus, so supporting a home competition requires travel to another location.
According to Olivia Taeger ’22, the girls swim team lacks attention because home meets are held outside of school grounds at the Coralville Recreation Center.
“I think one of the main factors is that we’re not an on-campus sport, so it does require transportation to attend,” Taeger said.
Athletic Director Craig Huegel notes that one reason some sports generate a lot of popularity is because of their existing level of national recognition.
“We have kids that are more familiar with certain sports,” Huegel said. “On TV, you see football and basketball quite a bit.”
Head swim coach Byron Butler also believes national spotlight influences popularity.
“There is a lack of name recognition [in swimming],” Butler said. “Nobody knows who the fifth-best person is in the world, so there’s an education component to it.”
However, national recognition may not have the greatest impact on fan turnout. With a variety of school sport teams competing simultaneously, students must choose which sport to support.
“In spring, we have seven different [sports teams] that perform almost all the time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that really pulls our student fan base in a lot of different directions,” Huegel said.
While this may be one of the largest barriers for student turnout, scheduling is not an easy fix.
“There’s not a great answer in terms of giving each [team] their own separate date because we run out of days,” Huegel said.
Football player Noah DeSaulniers ’22 believes the social environment surrounding a sport’s competitions also impacts support. Students that show up may want to participate in the social experience that the event provides.
“I think it’s just that atmosphere, like Friday night lights, [that attracts people to games],” DeSaulniers said.
Head girls basketball coach BJ Mayer says that basketball games serve as opportunities for students to socialize.
“In the winter, kids are looking for reasons to get out and be with their friends so going to a game is a good reason,” Mayer said, through email.
Whether due to a lack of understanding, need for transportation or desire for social atmosphere surrounding competitions, the amount of attention and support a sport receives may affect the success of the sport itself.
“The enthusiasm of the crowd can sometimes carry your team over the top,” Mayer said. “Without the crowd, the game’s outcome may have been different.”
In addition to influencing game outcomes, a crowd brings a desirable atmosphere to athletes and coaches. Mayer states that heavily attended games are the most memorable ones.
“All players and coaches would love to be in games that are heavily attended,” Mayer said. “Those are the games that people remember. Packed stands create an amazing environment that is great to play and coach in.”
Huegel has a similar opinion on the effects of home crowds, giving the example of the volleyball team.
“Our student section has had a huge impact on our volleyball team,” Huegel said. “We play so much better when we’re at home. Our coaches and athletes … love the energy that our student section brings.”
As a cross country runner, Caden Noeller ’22 doesn’t compete under packed bleachers and bright lights. However, he doesn’t think that makes a large difference. It doesn’t always feel like the school is backing our team — Olivia Taeger
It doesn’t always feel like the school is backing our team
— Olivia Taeger
“I don’t think [lack of attention] has too much of an effect because you are really focused on just competing in the moment,” Noeller said. “But I think it would probably help give a little motivation to see classmates cheering you on or wanting to see you compete and win.”
When reflecting on last season, DeSaulniers believes COVID-19 restrictions on audience attendance affected performance.
“There were no fans, so it definitely impacted those games. Having [a crowd] this year definitely pumps you up a little more,” DeSaulniers said. “It’s definitely good knowing that you have people supporting you.”
Noeller appreciates support from those that do show up but believes student presence would make a difference.
“Honestly, the parents do a pretty good job of cheering, but I think it would definitely be beneficial to have to have classmates watch too,” Noeller said.
Athletes like Taeger see student support as more than beneficial; it makes a team feel valued.
“When you look at the stands at a swim meet, it’s just parents and grandparents, and it doesn’t always feel like the school is backing our team,” Taeger said. “It can really affect you and make you feel like your team isn’t important to the school even though it is.”
Since attention is crucial to make all athletes feel supported, promoting a high level of student engagement for every sport can foster a more positive environment around athletics at West High. Huegel uses all the resources he has to promote and support sporting events and share news about the programs at West.
“I really try to make sure that I’m supportive with my presence, with financial support for the programs. I’m pretty active on social media on Twitter; I try to promote every single activity,” Huegel said.
Butler recognizes Huegel’s efforts.
“I think [Mr. Huegel] does a pretty good job of always trying to tweet out stuff about recognizing the kids that are having success and the team, so no complaints from me,” Butler said.
Despite Huegel’s efforts to regularly promote all athletics, some athletes still believe more publicity would help bring support to their sport.
“I know there are some social media accounts. I think posting more on those [would help bring more attention to sports],” Taeger said. “A lot of high school students check their social media.”
Outside of social media, some students think that visual reminders and advertisements around school could help bring attention to more sports.
“I don’t see any schedules anywhere in the lunchroom on the TV, saying like ‘big bowling meet today.’ I just don’t think it gets put out there enough,” DeSaulniers said.
Huegel recognizes that some students who want to actively support athletics are not always able to because of ticket fees or other financial limitations. He believes this should not limit student support, though.
“I can do some things to get discounted tickets. We can do other sorts of things if finances are the barrier,” Huegel said.
While publicizing events may spread the word about all sports, Noeller believes creating an environment for spectators would bring more students.
“Our track coach, Mr. Craig got a good idea [from] Eastern Iowa Track Festival. He brought in a couple food trucks to the meet so that people could buy food, and he had music playing,” Noeller said. “We just got to make the environment for home meets more exciting, more fun. I think that will help get people out to come watch,” Noeller said, recalling one track meet that garnered lots of support.
After all, the exciting environment is what gets many people to congregate at football and basketball games.
Support for teams can also come from other programs to foster a sense of athletics throughout the school. Butler has ideas for how sports teams could help support each other on a regular basis.
“I made a suggestion that we make a schedule of [teams coming to support each other] and have it fixed,” Butler said. “In terms of the microcosm that is athletics, we could do more to support each other.”
Noeller has firsthand experience with West groups supporting each other in sporting events and sees the value in incorporating this collaboration. One of our goals we strive for is that all groups feel they are valued. That’s really important to me. — Craig Huegel
One of our goals we strive for is that all groups feel they are valued. That’s really important to me.
— Craig Huegel
“I think we just got to get other parts involved,” Noeller said. “A couple years ago, we had a meet at the Ashton course. We brought the pep band over, and we had them playing at the finish, and I think that was pretty cool.”
Overall, Huegel does all he can to make every team at West feel appreciated, but there must be initiative from students and collaborating groups.
“One of our goals we strive for is that all groups feel they are valued. That’s really important to me,” Huegel said. “If there are suggestions that students have about ways we can be even more equitable in promoting our sports, I’m always open to that idea.”