Historically, the strong detachment between McGill Athletics and the greater student population has suppressed passion for all things sports at McGill. Because of an amalgamation of problems, including McGill’s proximity to Montreal’s nightlife and professional sports teams, and the out-of province and international students without loyalty to the school, McGill simply lacks an environment conducive to sporting activities.
My first experience with McGill sports culture followed a pattern – a basketball game that occurred two years ago that I attended in support of a then Martlet friend. The game was quiet, unexciting, and lacked the atmosphere you’d expect from a school of more than 30,000. The few fans in attendance were scattered throughout the bleachers amongst the relatives of those playing. The attendance was more reminiscent of a second-tier high school matchup than one between university varsity teams.
Enter Red Thunder, brainchild of then volleyball captain and current SMMU VP Internal Tom Fabian. With the intention of fostering student interest, Red Thunder offers free entry to varsity games for all members and has put a focus on “storm” games, such as Fill the Arena and Fill the Stadium, in support of the hockey and football teams. Recently, they helped organize Pack the House – the first “storm” event for McGill Basketball. The strategy includes marketing the tickets through other varsity sports teams and clubs. The tickets are cheap and the games fall on Friday nights, garnering attention as a more exciting pre-drink than beer pong or streaming the Leafs game off justin.tv.
In contrast to my experience with varsity basketball two years ago, Pack the House was near astonishing, with fans trickling in throughout the two games. The near-capacity crowd – that McGill officially recognized as a sell-out – was a sea of red, leaving only a few dozen empty seats in the upper section of bleachers. Actually, Pack the House marked the first regular season “sell-out” since they moved to the Love Competition Hall in 1996. The games themselves were both entertaining. The Marlets added to their division lead with a commanding 65-58 win over the Laval Rouge et Or, leading the entirety of the game.
The Redmen fared just as well, narrowly winning 85-83 in a game that went down to the wire, moving them within two points of the nationally ranked Rouge et Or. The hall was rambunctious, and this only grew as the games went on. When the Redmen rallied, the fans rallied with them, aided by $4.50 beers and flasks undiscovered by the student security guards. They were loud, taunting, and borderline obnoxious. Led by a contingent of Red Thunder supporters, Laval players were mocked for missing shots and referees were ridiculed for questionable calls. The atmosphere was highlighted with face painting, homemade signs (including one that read “Let it Rain,” and was accompanied by umbrellas that went up in unison when McGill scored), chirps, cheers, and jeers from the crowd. Complete with the loyal McGill Fight Band and McGill’s cheerleaders, this was quite the spectacle for what would normally be a smaller and more reserved crowd.
Sadly, yet obviously, the after party faired far worse than the games before it. With a no-name DJ playing in the adjacent part of the gym, it was more reminiscent of a junior high school dance hosted by Much Music: bright lights, pizza, cliques of friends, atrocious music, and a projector filled with photos from past Red Thunder games.
Why the strong attendance at these selective games? Tom Fabian asserted that attendance and interest in McGill sports is “all about creating buzz,” using word of mouth, Facebook, and varsity teams selling tickets to the highlighted games. If you build it, they will come… You just have to let them know it’s happening first. In discussions with Drew Love, McGill’s Director of Athletics, he and Love have come to the conclusion that Red Thunder has caused, “an increase in the arena and court sports, but not so much the field sports”: the atmosphere possible with 1,000 fans in an arena for basketball or hockey is impossible to match in Molson stadium. Another hindrance comes from within the athletic department. “[Students] are only here for three, four, five years, whereas they’ve been here forever,” said Fabian. “The problem is we’re the ones who know what’s going on.” Until the department starts building more bridges with students, groups, and clubs on campus, Fabian believes that attendance won’t hit its potential.
What Red Thunder has created in the past two years is far from perfect, though it’s a strong start for a school where athletic apathy had previously ruled. Pack The House, Fill the Arena, and the other events aren’t solutions to the apathy problem, but they are getting people interested, and that’s more than students ever were before. More importantly, they’ve created games worth attending, and although sports culture at McGill will likely never flourish like major American schools, they have created quite the rumbling.