FAYETTEVILLE – When the University of Arkansas sport club baseball team meets its first opponent next spring, 7,900 fans will not fill Baum Stadium to watch them play. The RBI Girls pom squad will not be shaking it atop the dugout to acknowledge home runs or rouse the crowd. And that’s okay by them.
The UA has 29 sport clubs that involve almost 900 university athletes. They’re not on scholarship, although some of them could have played varsity sports on a collegiate level and many of them have played sports most of their lives. They’re not intramural athletes, who often play mostly for fun. Club athletes are serious about their sport, are committed enough to raise their own funds to do it, and love to compete. If they can do it in the name of the Razorbacks, all the better.
UA Freshman Jonathan Benson has been swinging a bat since he was 4 years old. He played varsity baseball at Fort Smith’s Southside High School. His competitive drive didn’t end at graduation.
“Me and a lot of students played baseball in high school, and some of us were not really good enough to go on and play SEC baseball. But we still really wanted to play,” Benson said.
“Intramurals weren’t quite… they were a little too much ‘fun,’” Benson said. “In club sports, the competition is better and the competitive spirit is higher.” Benson said being able to play against other universities helps spread the competitive spirit that already exists through varsity sports rivalries.
Benson knows when the baseball club starts competitive play next year that they won’t get the attention the varsity Diamond Hogs get. And that doesn’t bother him or his fellow club members.
“We know how good they are. They deserve everything they’ve gotten,” Benson said. “But we don’t want to dedicate 40 hours a week to play. It’s about finding a balance and knowing we don’t have to do this to stay in school. We’re all coming out on our own because we want to. This is closer to that high school feel. Everyone is here because of the love of the game.”
Benson and others started the club process in mid-fall and were approved last month. The team will practice this spring but were approved too late to be able to schedule games with other schools. But they’ll be ready next spring, he says.
Shannon Dere, assistant director of University Recreation in charge of club sports, said most people involved in sport clubs have that competitive drive and often an advanced skill level, like Benson.
During the 2010-2011 academic year, 877 people took part in the sport clubs. They logged 57,555 travel miles for intercollegiate games. The disc golf, paintball, shotgun sports, and women’s volleyball clubs made it to national-level tournaments last year. This year, so far (many are still in competitive seasons), disc golf, shotgun sports and paintball teams made it back to nationals, as did men’s rugby.
Chad McKenzie earned his master’s in sports management from the UA in the late 1990s. He’s now sports club coordinator at the University of Texas. McKenzie said club athletes are real competitors.
“A lot of these kids could play at colleges across the country. Sometimes they just want to stay close to home, but they’re great athletes.” He noted a former Texas water polo club player who is now playing professionally in Australia. “He could have easily gone to the West Coast and played varsity. It’s not that we (club sports) don’t have great athletes, we do.”
But it’s not all about the competition, Dere said.
GROWING AND GIVING
The UA has 29 sport clubs, ranging from ballroom dance to bass fishing, from cricket to volleyball. The newest are running and baseball, both of which were just recently approved.
The university requires students who want to start a club to develop a constitution to govern it, develop a budget for equipment and expenses, and ascertain a certain number of interested students to show the club can be sustained beyond the founding members. The university provides some financial support but students have to raise funds for many expenses.
“The biggest thing I tell them is you learn so much more as a club sport athlete than you do as a varsity athlete,” said McKenzie, who also serves on the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association’s National Campus Championship Series Committee, which oversees four national tournaments.
He said budgeting for team travel and expenses, having to develop fundraising skills, and learning the value of community involvement aren’t always skills learned in varsity programs. But sport club athletes learn those things and can transfer those skills to real life and work situations after college.
“It’s indirect learning and that’s the beauty of it,” McKenzie said.
Dere said the club sports program was really involved in community service projects and as a program hosted a food drive that supported Full Circle-Campus Food Pantry and a clothing drive that supported LifeSource International.
“In total, clubs donated 1,171 pounds of food and 660 pieces of clothing, which is absolutely amazing,” Dere said.
The women’s soccer club formed two years ago. Members are responsible for gas, food and part of the uniform costs. While each team gets a certain stipend from the university, teams can earn additional points, which helps them earn additional funding, by participating in various service projects.
“It encourages you to be part of the university,” said Nora Farrell of St. Louis. She’s one of the students who also serves as a team coach, as does Megan Johnson of Memphis.
Many of the students choose sport clubs over varsity because they want more freedom. Johnson said she tried out for the varsity soccer team and had the opportunity to play. She decided against it because of the time commitment.
“Club sports don’t take over your life like a university team does,” said Abbey Rhea, a soccer club player from Jefferson City, Mo. “I just wanted to play again.”
Club sports are varied, as are its members.
Tom Potts came to Arkansas to work on his doctorate after he retired in 2005 from his job as a scientist with a Joplin, Mo., company.
“I was bored to death,” he said of retirement. So Potts decided to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical engineering – and start a fencing club in his free time.
Potts began fencing 28 years ago in Joplin. When he came to the UA, he started the sport club and serves as its treasurer and beginner’s coach.
The club is trying to transition from a hobby club to a competitive team, Potts said.
Rachael Pellegrino, a sophomore from Hot Springs, played both baseball and softball in high school. She went with something a little less mainstream – Ultimate Frisbee – for her club venture.
“I still wanted to compete,” she said. Competing against teams from other schools rather than against fellow students was a draw. “I still have a sense of school pride,” Pellegrino said. “This way, I get to represent the university.”
“You can’t really represent (the university) in intramurals,” said Taylor Curtis, a freshman from Arlington, Texas, and Pellegrino’s teammate.
Club sports also helped bring Curtis “out of the dorm room” and into campus life, she said.
Building relationships is no small part of sports clubs’ appeal.
Will Sharp, a sophomore from Fayetteville who plays men’s Ultimate Frisbee, said club sports provide him with an easy, steady group of friends.
“It’s special on Sundays, even after a loss, riding back for nine hours with the same guys,” Sharp said. “It’s a bonding experience.”
Participating in the lacrosse club helped Rachel Albinson develop many interdisciplinary friendships. Without lacrosse, she likely would have known mostly people from the history department, she said. Albinson of St. Louis is team president.
Albinson said she’s learned time management skills, gained practical experience in finance and logistics, practiced communication skills, and learned the importance of team building.
University clubs also help raise awareness of lesser-known sports, Albinson says.
“When I came here (in 2008), we were the only team in Arkansas,” she said. Since then, Bentonville has begun high school and youth lacrosse teams, and Little Rock has created a women’s league, she said.
Calvin Godwin is a freshman, but the Mountain Home native already has taken on the leadership role of president of the racquetball club. Friendship and competition are what keep him glued to the sport. He didn’t expect much attention in his sport.
“Racquetball can be hard to watch,” he said. “It’s so fast.”
But some do miss the attention of high school sports and feel overshadowed.
“There are some that wish their sport is more glorified than it is,” McKenzie said. “But (varsity sports) it’s a totally different atmosphere. If the university is paying for it all, you have to do what the university tells you to do. In club sports, you get to choose your social life, your academic life.”
Dere, as a former sport club competitor, knows how that lack of recognition feels.
“The lacrosse team I was on was No. 1 seven years in a row,” she said. Her last year there, they also went undefeated. “The only mention in the school newspaper was three weeks later and it was nothing big.”
However, Dere said most student athletes take it in stride. Still, some teams are building a following.
About 150 fans consistently attend “Ice Hogs” games and many travel to watch the ice hockey team play.
“I just really like the atmosphere here,” said Dallas native Trent Ritchie. “It doesn’t matter what sport, if you have the Hog (logo) and you’re playing, the community comes out and supports you. That last home week, they said they had to turn people away.”
The Ice Hogs won the SEC regular-season championship this spring, Ritchie said.
While ice hockey garners more attention than most other club sports at the university, Ritchie is quick to recognize the skills of the other clubs. “I think there’s a lot of really good club sports teams here and many that are nationally recognized in their sport.”
Admission to club sports games is free, Dere said