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This article was published 6/11/2014 (2634 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a frozen March night in Regina, the night the Bisons women became national volleyball champs, that a small herd of Manitobans thundered into the stands.
On the court, Bisons libero Caleigh Dobie saw those fans -- couldn't miss them, not with how their heads bristled with giant furry hats. There were just five of those, but they sounded an army -- they banged drums, cheered every point, they howled chants.
"That was so cool to have," said Dobie, laughing a little at the memory of the ruckus. "They are the greatest, ever. It's not just having a fan group. They feel like they're almost part of the team."
These are the Big Horns, and they're something a little different. Dobie, in her third year of eligibility, grew up in University of Manitoba stands, cheering on the football teams that her dad, Brian, has coached for 19 years. When she became a Bisons athlete, that perspective shifted. Now, she was looking out from the field of play, and from that vantage, the crowds sometimes looked thin -- an average announced home attendance of 450 in 2012-13, though oftenCa far fewer actually sat in the stands.
As with everything in sport, winning changes things. About 500 people snagged tickets to the women's volleyball home opener against Calgary on Oct. 9 to watch the team unveil their banner.
"I thought it would be our parents, plus 10 other people," Dobie said. "There were a lot more fans than I thought there would be, which was awesome. To see that you had a whole province behind you, who wanted to see where you could go from there, was really cool."
The U of M volleyball turnout is high, compared to many venues they play throughout the country. Canadian university sport has rarely captured the same public attention as the NCAA in the U.S., or even the obsessive loyalty that drives massive crowds to American high school games. There are pockets of boisterous commitment -- in Quebec, the Laval Rouge et Or football team routinely packs its 12,000-seat stadium, for instance -- but it's never been the same.
Of course, there are pros and cons to the big exposure, to turning university games into a gnashing cash machine. But today, in the spaces of Canadian stands, there is both challenge and opportunity.
"It is frustrating in a way, because as Canadian athletes, we want to be like the States," Dobie said. "But it has started to change, and I think that's amazing. Because people realize that when you support something like this, you're supporting something greater than just a team. You're supporting a whole community and a whole university."
That's where the Big Horns come in, that rowdy herd of fans who drove out to Regina last winter to help the Bison women win. But let's back up a bit.
In 2012, David Grad moved to Winnipeg for work and enrolled at the U of M for his masters degree. Originally from Sarnia, Ont., he'd done his undergrad work at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., where he fell full-frontal into the school's raucous fan culture. They'd turn out to games caked in body paint and heckle and cheer. When Grad arrived at the U of M, he started hunting for the same.
"I was like, 'Oh, big school, it must be even bigger,' " he said. "And it wasn't."
Freshly minted as the U of M's student life co-ordinator, Grad saw a chance to make a change. One night, he recruited former U of M basketball athlete Kevin Oliver and they splashed themselves in body paint and turned out to a Bisons basketball game. A photo of them ended up in a local paper, but the experiment was only a partial success.
"It was really cold, and it took a lot of work," Grad said. "I'm just remembering the days cleaning my shower out. It was always covered in paint."
That's when they came up with the idea of wearing fur, instead of paint -- and so the Big Horns were born.
It's a spirit group. It's a roaming social club that travels from the games back to the on-campus pub. From an initial core group of about seven diehards in November 2013, the group has swelled to include dozens who turn up at different games. They have a tongue-in-cheek induction ceremony now, where their namesake hats are bestowed and freshmen students are teamed up with a senior to help show them the ropes.
"First-year students come and that's what they want," Grad said. "They want a fan atmosphere, they want the culture, they want to celebrate the school, kind of like you would see on TV for an American school. And for some reason it doesn't happen in Canada... It doesn't get the TV coverage, or the media coverage, so it's not the sexy sport like the NCAA is. Because you don't even know it's happening. A lot of people will be 'Oh, we have a volleyball team?' Yep, sure do."
Getting the word out, that's one of the biggest challenges. Over the years, while the product itself has become more polished -- Bisons women's volleyball head coach Ken Bentley remembers once having to set up chairs and nets himself before games -- media exposure of CIS sport has chipped away. Until roughly 10 years ago, women's volleyball championships were broadcast on TSN. In the 1970s and '80s, some Wesmen games against rivals packed the Duckworth Centre, and were broadcast on TV.
Today, Bentley is satisfied with his team's fan base and media exposure, though he's seen how it can change.
"There's been ebb and flow in it," he said. "Certainly when the Jets came back, it took a lot of air out of university sport. While they were gone, there was a marked increase in our exposure. There seemed to be a bit more attention paid... we've been a pretty consistent draw. But over the years, sure, there are days when you can hear the crickets in the stands, too."
Facilities help. too. The Bisons football team boasted an official attendance of 10,199 for their home opener at Investors Group Field in 2013 and their average attendance of 2,645 this season is up from 1,325 in 2012, when they played in the spartan old stadium next door.
And of course, winning helps, too.
"There has definitely been a culture change," Dobie mused before hitting up practice to prepare for tonight's home game against UBC. "Even around campus, people kind of know when games are, and they want to come. And that's really awesome, because I hadn't seen that in years before. It's just a different atmosphere on campus, and off of campus."
That's a hint of what boosters like Grad are hoping to build. Because it's not just about what happens on the field or on the court -- it's the fact the memories that are made around a campus will someday be precious. "Most students when they graduate, they probably won't realize it, but this is probably the last time that you'll be part of a community," Grad said.
"I always wanted to embrace that, and I think students want to. I know there's always that apathy thing... everyone says 'students don't care, they're apathetic.' I think they're totally wrong about that, it's just, who's inviting them? Who's making them feel welcome? If you build it, they will come. And if you invite them, and you make the culture there, I think people will come."
Hey sports fans, have you ever been to a university game? If not, why not? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.