Sunday, August 30, 2015

North Of The Border

Just a week to go before football season--what's a fan to do?

Well, if you're on a business trip in Canada, and it's a Friday night, it's a foregone conclusion that I was headed to 60,000 seat Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta for a CFL game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Toronto Argonauts (the former team where Alex Buzbee played professionally after his one season with the Washington Redskins). And while I can say with some certainty I was the only fan wearing a cap which read "Georgetown Football", I learned a little bit more about what building a fan experience is all about.

1. First, make it convenient. Commonwealth Stadium is just two stops on the rail line from downtown--I was literally out the door of my hotel and in my seat in under 15 minutes. Better yet, the city of Edmonton declares free rail fares on the train to and from every home game. Given the lack of parking in that part of town, that's not only good business, that's good public policy.

2. Next, encourage people to tailgate...even in the stadium. Granted, the dimensions of a CFL stadium are longer and wider than an NFL or college field, but lacking any parking lot for such pre-game activities, the team has built a little corner of the end zone as a sideline club of sorts, along with four other locations for people with a little more to spend and enjoy a different game experience.

3. Involve the community. Friday night's game honored the Canadian military, and a group of soldiers and airmen brought out the Canadian flag at the national anthem, Granted, Canadians don't have the same display of nationalism as they do in the United States (or certainly not here in Texas, where we also sing the state anthem after the national one), but it was a nice show of support to the men and women in uniform.

4. Raffles. Long a staple of youth sports, the Eskimos have made it a way for one fan to win a small fortune. The premise is simple: for a $2 ticket, half supports youth football and half goes in the winner's circle. It's the "50/50" deal. By the fourth quarter, over $80,000 was up for grabs to one prizeholder. A month ago, a record $348,534 was given away. Granted, there 's some rules that work in Canada that may not work south of the border, but with that growing number on the scoreboard, it kept your attention:

And yes, that score was 10 to 1. The concept of the rouge makes as much sense to am American football fan as the infield fly rule can be properly explained to a cricket fan, but it's a staple of Canadian football scoring.

5. A family friendly experience. You won't find more courteous people than Canadian sports fans, period, Even with a pint or three, they take their manners seriously. I only heard one profanity uttered all night, from a middle aged woman who promptly covered her mouth and tried to look inconspicuous.

6. Lots of cheering. Despite it being a professional game, the Eskimos (and many CFL teams) have an atmosphere closer to a mid-tier Division I-A game rather than the NFL. Instead of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the Edmonton Cheer team was more like a college group, with tumbling teams and signs urging the crowd to cheer back and forth. The t-shirts below were part of the "Support Our troops" campaign--in fact, two of the cheerleaders were active duty military:

Owing to the military theme that night, the halftime presentation featured the Canadian Royal Regimental Band. They opened with the 1983 pop song "99 Red Balloons", to which a passerby remarked, "Well, there's an ironic tune, isn't it?" (For the younger fans, this was probably the only Billboard Top 100 song in recorded history that sang about a nuclear missile exchange.)

7. A Fight Song. From that 10-1 score above in the third quarter, the Eskimos pulled away, not before another touch of U.S. college -style football: a fight song.

Chances are, unless it's Hail To The Redskins, you'd be hard-pressed to think of many pro football fight songs. ("Detroit Lions, Down the Field", anyone?)  At the end of the third quarter, the Edmonton fans had their version of the seventh inning stretch, with 81 year old broadcaster Bryan Hall chanelling his best Harry Caray. Here's Hall in a 2008 game:

8. Easy Come, Easy Go. Final score: 38-15. Good seats, good times.

The game was over, and people went home. Even the traffic signs were altogether Canadian:

But something that does relate back to Georgetown was the fans: they wore the colors. Lots of green and gold, lots of football shirts, jackets, and caps. Moms, dads, grandkids, you name it. And plenty for sale, too. No one went home without a little more green and gold.

Yet only at Georgetown could fans be given one week, and only one week, to order football gear at an inflated price, and that's it. Try finding a copy of the new jerseys at the bookstore, or even at the game. You won't see it. Or ask yourself why a design of the jersey is on the official site that looks nothing like either the old or the new jerseys (never mind they don't even have names on the jerseys):

In the end, you build a fan base by being authentic to their support, and authentic to their team. Georgetown doesn't have to be Alabama or UCLA to have a great fan experience. Does it?

Edmonton hasn't won a CFL title in 10 years. But the fans will still be back. If the Hoyas get drummed by Marist or Dartmouth, do they even come back in October?

Georgetown could learn a little from their friends up north that, win or lose, you make the home game experience an event, and welcome them back as eagerly as you welcomed them the first time: a week ago, a season ago, or 50 years ago. That's what a football game is all about.

"We're fighting on 'til every game is won
The green and gold is bold and when we're done
We'll tell the world we’re proud of Edmonton
And the Edmonton Eskimos."

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Jersey Boys

In a quiet off-season for the 2015 Georgetown Hoyas, the team got its most coverage by, of all things, a jersey change.

But that was only half the story.

Such changes seem to rotate every two years on the Hilltop, nothing like the run of Oregon's uniforms du jour or even the regular rotation of basketball jerseys seen at the University. One hoop jersey appeared for the regular season finale, saw action in five games, and already seems to be gone for good. You can do that with 15 jerseys, not 100.

I guess the fan base can be thankful that Nike didn't put something really silly out there, but the look of the 2015 Hoyas isn't anything to write home about. In fact, it looks a lot like the style of the Michael Ononibaku era, circa 2005:

Were they playing to this era? Of course not. Nike doesn't invest in Georgetown's jerseys as they do for basketball, so it's more likely they offered three of four generic designs and the staff decided on a simple one. And it's simple--no "wow" factor, unless you count the words "Hoya Saxa" along the sides of the pants. It certainly could have been worse.

As for an alternate helmet, well, what were they thinking?

Georgetown has worn gray or silver-shelled helmets for 50 seasons, and it served them well. Who thought of picking up the Georgia Southern helmets instead?

The style of numbers only and color (a near-black, at least from the photos) bear no particular ties to Georgetown. A post on a Lafayette message board suggested it was a nod to its pre-1950 heritage (when Georgetown wore blue helmets), but that's a stretch even to this amateur historian. I'm not convinced alternate helmets are necessary, but a simple switch to a gray G on a blue helmet would have been even more impactful.

Uniform styles don't change on great programs: Alabama, Penn State, Georgia, USC. Georgetown had a great look in the Sgarlata-as-player era and it would look great today:

But that's not Nike talking.

So what's that on top of the helmet?

If it's Nike, that means a generous dollop of kente cloth design, something I've complained about for nearly 20 years. I still get questions as to what my problem with it is, and it gets a little complicated. Here, once and (maybe) for all, is my argument:
Kente cloth is a deeply held cultural symbol of the Ghanian people, specifically the Ashanti tribe. It was never made as a marketing tool; yet, by Nike's generous use of it on Georgetown basketball  jerseys from 1994-97 (playing off Georgetown's popularity in the black community) it cheapened what kente is all about.

Would Nike have been so cavalier to use the stripes of the Hebrew tallit to sell warm-up jackets? How about a jersey that looks like a dalmatic? How about references to Allah on a design  to sell Nike shoes? (Well, they actually did that one ...)

Kente cloth has no institutional ties to Georgetown University whatsoever and to suggest that it does is disingenuous. It's a Nike branding instrument, nothing more, which is sad. The point is that cultural artifacts are not suited to selling merchandise, and as a global university, Georgetown should have known better.  Yes, the relationship Georgetown basketball has with Nike may override such thinking, but how does it tie to football? It doesn't. 

Finally, I said that the new jersey design was only half the story. Where are the white (road) jerseys with the new design?

As of late August, they haven't been seen in a single photograph, tweet, or Facebook post. It's likely that Georgetown didn't get a pair of road unis from Nike, and will likely be using the 2013-14 style which bears no resemblance to the new look:

This, of course happened two years ago, as the white jerseys were new and the blue jerseys were two years older, as if GU can't get a pair of jerseys anymore. And unless you're the Dallas Cowboys, home and away jerseys should be the same style.

Clothes maketh the man, but not in football. It's what's inside that counts, even with that Georgia Southern helmet.

(And for a further look into jerseys, check the Georgetown Football History Project.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Where Football Is Everything

For all the excitement about a new season for Georgetown football, facts are stubborn things. In the last 15 years, Georgetown fans have enjoyed just one winning season, and students have a way of smelling a struggling program at a distance. They might come to the first game, they'll show up at the tailgate at Homecoming, and then the talk will turn to basketball.

That's unfortunate in so many ways, but it speaks to a fan base that, for better or (mostly) worse, doesn't appreciate football for what it is: a great game, win or lose. That's an experience you don't get on TV or on a video feed, but for a lot of newer fans, this may be their own experience to the game these days. Unless you're a student at a Big 10 or SEC school, a ticket to one of these high-voltage games would set you back a monthly car payment, and the Patriot League pales in comparison. Add in the lack of any rivalries between Georgetown and schools in that conference, and students tune out before they even give it a chance.

As students return to college across the nation this weekend, one freshmen is ready for football. She's Cole McConachie, from Verona, NJ, who wrote a column at Odyssey Online about what football means to her.

"Football, in a lot of small towns like mine, is the heartbeat of the fall," she writes. "And although football doesn’t completely dominate my small town as I’m sure it does in some small southern towns, it’s such a big part of fall life here. Whether it’s a football game played by the local youth, the high school team, the college players, or a professional team, football is uniting. Football, more than any other sport in America, brings people together."

Another excerpt follows:

"Whether it’s the mother rooting on her son, the girlfriends decked out in their boyfriends’ jerseys, or the old man who played on this same team himself many years ago—everyone comes out for the game. The small sports store in town sells the jerseys of the high school football legends. The band gets the crowd hyped up as we cheer until we lose our voices.

"I can remember spending all day, all weekend, watching games. I’d wake up early to watch my brother play and then stay for the next game, and the next one, until the sun went down and I’d realized the only thing I had eaten all day was a pretzel from the snack bar. I even announced a couple of youth games before I realized that being a screaming fan was more my forte than holding back my cheers through the loudspeaker."

She continues. "The critics complain about the emphasis on the what some call the violent nature of the sport. They complain about the stereotypical “dumb jocks” that football players are made out to be, and although I don’t think they’re heroes like some claim, they’re for the most part good guys and together they make a family. A football team creates the type of comradery [sic] that is rare to come across because every single person is critical to every single play. Every team member has to come together each play to make the pieces work; one man can’t hold the team up alone.

"In my town, the football family extends beyond the field, from the players and coaches to the families and fans, the small businesses, and the booster clubs—football allows people of all backgrounds and walks of life to come together to support one common goal."

And the best part? Where she's headed.

"This fall will be a bit different. I will miss seeing my younger brother’s games and the fan section full of familiar faces at the high school games. But you can guarantee that I’ll be in the stands at Georgetown, at every game cheering on my new team because that’s what I know how to do best."

Memo to the Gridiron Club: get this student a t-shirt, a jersey, a front row seat at the tailgate, whatever it takes. Georgetown, and college football, needs more fans like this.