The way many Portland State University students view school athletics is either with untiring apathy or humorous pity. If this sounds harsh, look at these facts.
For the 2004 season, the average student attendance at football games was 691. There are well over 20,000 students currently enrolled in some fashion at PSU, so a conservative estimate puts that number at 3 percent of the student body, and this is an improvement.
In the year 2000, attendance for games sat at 411 students, in 2001 the figure rose to 607 and in 2002 the number again increased to 641. Last year saw a small dip to 620 as the team struggled to a 4-7 record.
The numbers went up this year as the Vikings started to win again, going 7-4. There were some bright spots this season, with the highlight being the exciting Montana game, where overall attendance was estimated at over 8000.
PSU football is just a microcosm of the larger issue at hand. Students are resentful of the money the university spends on losing teams while tuition rates skyrocket and incestuous relationships with corporations such as the hated Higher One continue to propagate.
Meanwhile, students often forget that athletes are students too, not the gods they are made to be at some schools. You won’t find boosters shelling out cars, clothes and money to Seamus Boxley a la Maurice Clarett at Ohio State. You might not find too many boosters either.
An interesting phenomenon at PSU has many students still more strongly allied to their old schools and favorite teams than to the Vikings. The trend continues post-graduation. The stigma Portland State suffers as a commuter school has done a terrible disservice to the campus by destroying what little school spirit and tradition the University once enjoyed.
Still, no one expects droves of fans to show up to watch losing, unentertaining teams, or to support slumping programs after moving on after graduation. The situation is exacerbated simply by Portland’s rich culture. Marketing local college teams is a difficult challenge in the face of the multitude of entertainment opportunities the city offers.
Student versus Overall attendance at football games
2002: 646 students, 3221 overall
However, Athletic Director Tom Burman is confident that his product is improving. He cites the highly ranked Viking men’s basketball team.
"There will never be a time when Coach Schroyer is here that we will finish at the bottom," Burman said. The challenge is to get students excited about a team that is neither mediocre nor proven to be spectacular either.
While PSU is a Division I-AA football school, basketball is another matter altogether. For men and women’s basketball, Portland State owns full D-I status. That means that should either team win the Big Sky tourney, little old PSU would be on its way to the Big Dance and a CBS timeslot.
"I’m excited to see the campus reaction to our team if we make a run this year," Burman said. The excitement was evident at the Cal-Poly game last Saturday, when 624 people showed up to the Stott Center on Thanksgiving weekend to see an 80-63 win. Unfortunately only 175 of those people stayed to watch the women put up a lively fight against intracity rival UP, finally losing 59-66.
Perhaps the situation isn’t all that dire. Burman gives himself a two year window, a time he calls "critical", to get fan attendance up and to help each program build a winning regime. The process isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t quick, but in reality, things seem to be looking up for PSU sports. Attendance has slowly but steadily risen to games, and more and more students are getting involved with club sports and intramural competition. A new student rec center is in the works that would free up the Stott Center for athletic department while providing students with a new, state of the art facility completely separated from the scholarship sports. It’s progress. Tom Burman is optimistic, but the AD knows that the status quo is unacceptable. "We can continue to flounder, or we can take a step."