The Ready Player One water wings have disappeared from store shelves. The Ready Player One notebooks and three-ring binders have taken their place. The back-to-school-way-to-early march has begun, with kids leaving behind their summer travel sports and resuming a school schedule.
Colleges similarly are opening their doors. But not all athletes there are returning to varsity sports. Many are participating in college club and recreational athletic programs. And for sports event owners, it’s a great place to start looking if they want to recruit a younger demographic.
The numbers, after all, speak for themselves. According to 2015 reports from the US Department of Education, Census Bureau, there are 20.2 million college and university students in the United States. A report published by NIRSA, the national organization for student recreation, notes that 75 percent of students use on-campus recreation center facilities, programs and services, and of those, 80 participate in campus recreation programs and/or activities at least once a week. (Forrester, 2014) NIRSA also notes that in the school year ending in 2015, there were 11,103 athlete participants, 633 student officials, 60 certified officials and 898 volunteer staff. That’s a pretty good pool of participants, volunteers and others who might want to become involved with local sports events.
Why are club sports such a good bet for event owners? The reason often has to do with the students themselves. Sometimes, the participants love their sport but do not have to commit to the rigorous schedule a varsity program would demand – although make no mistake, some club programs are very competitive in nature. And not having quite an intensive a schedule of practices and travel allows students to compete in tournaments and other events taking place in or near their area.
In some cases, students join club teams because their schools lack a program in that sport, while in other cases, the school has both the club and the varsity program (defined as something governed by the NCAA or NAIA, for example) – and they attract different students.
Generally, club participants enjoy the chance to compete against new opponents in order to keep their skills sharp. And provided event owners keep the entrance fees affordable (these are college students we’re talking about, after all), there’s a good chance they’ll keep coming back – maybe with friends. (Bonus point: Create a good relationship now and once they age out of college, those former students may come back to participate in future events or even just show up to volunteer.)
Marketing a program to club participants means learning about the colleges in your area, and then making outreach to them. While most clubs are student-run and -governed, they often have organizing bodies who also set up regional and national competitions for clubs. These organizations can also be a prime source of information on local colleges that may be interested in sending teams or players to your event:
Tennis: The USTA’s Tennis On Campus program offers co-ed team-based club play. As is the case with many clubs, the intensity of the program is a student decision, ranging from clubs that actively travel to compete with other schools, all the way down to those that simply provide opportunities for students to enjoy recreational play. (Some clubs offer multiple opportunities, depending upon students’ interests and competitive drive.) Event owners interested in contacting club members to let them know about upcoming tournaments, leagues, competitions or other events can use the interactive map to find schools in their area.
Softball: The National Club Softball Association, the only intercollegiate club softball league in the United States, is profiled in this Inside Events section of this newsletter. It is a member of this organization, which also puts on baseball, tackle football and other sports in a club format for college students.
Golf: The National Collegiate Club Golf Association runs competitive non-varsity co-ed weekend college golf tournaments for students during the fall and spring semesters. Each season, there are two regional tournaments (two days in duration) followed by a season culminating in Nationals held at prestigious courses. There are also other events hosted, such as the Spring Break Open held each March in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (A map of schools with teams is found here.)
Table Tennis: The National Collegiate Table Tennis Association has co-ed club teams as well as individuals who play within 29 geographic divisions in the USA and Canada. A list of participating schools is found here. Teams play throughout the school year and the top two to three schools from every division move on to regionals, which are held in March. Nationals are held in April.
Swimming: College Club Swimming is the collective organization that unifies college club swim programs across the country. Clubs have the ability to govern themselves, and CCS offers Regionals and Nationals each year as well. The website includes a list of participating schools with clubs.
Volleyball: The National Collegiate Volleyball Federation offers both men’s and women’s indoor play in multiple divisions. The season-ending NCVF National Championship Tournament, hosted annually in April, has drawn a record 456 teams in 10 divisions.
Weightlifting: USA Weightlifting has compiled this list of schools that offer weightlifting on the varsity and/or club level.
Pickleball: While multiple colleges host pickleball as a recreational sport, there has yet to be a concerted effort to have any kind of college club pickleball association. However, last year, Southern Utah University made history by hosting the first recorded intercollegiate pickleball tournament in the United States. Students from SUU competed against a Dixie State team in 60 intense pickleball matches. SUU came out victorious and is the first winner of the Western Collegiate Team Pickleball Tournament. Count on this type of organic growth to continue, particularly in light of new initiatives on the part of AAU and the USA Pickleball Association.
These are far from the only examples. NIRSA hosts a club soccer championship program; a list of participating schools is here. In addition, NIRSA also hosts championships in basketball, flag football and is expanding into cricket with the assistance of USA Cricket. Some colleges are beginning to offer clubs for CrossFit. USA Triathlon offers its College Club Nationals each year (currently, triathlon exists as a club sport, as well as on the varsity level, at multiple colleges, and is an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women in all three divisions.)
Many sports that are not currently offered at the NCAA level have collegiate competitions set up by their national governing bodies. USA Ultimate, for example, offers its college division (a list of teams is found here) and the Professional Disc Golf Association offers the National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships.