THE RISE OF CLUB SPORTS

By Stephen Speckman | Photos by Stephen Speckman
*This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Continuum 

Sierra Jensen calls joining a club sport at the University of Utah the best decision of her college career. “And I would even go so far as to say in my young adult life,” adds Jensen, 21. The senior, majoring in civil engineering, plays Ultimate Frisbee, one of 24 clubs currently active at the U.Best friends. Better grades. Bonding. The thrill of elevated competition. Road trips. Lasting memories. Growth experiences. And great views, at least for outdoor sports at the U. They’re all part of the club sport experience that student-athletes say draws them to compete at the club level versus taking part in intramural sports, pick-up games, or even NCAA-sanctioned play.

“Club sports represent a critical opportunity for students to stay engaged, to stay healthy, to develop new habits and experiences, make friends, and benefit from all of the social components of being engaged in team sports,” says Barbara Snyder, vice president of student affairs. “We are very convinced that a well-rounded undergraduate’s experience can be enhanced by engagement with club sports.”

So, maybe Jensen’s claim doesn’t seem too lofty, even when you factor in the sometimes high cost to students.

AN INVESTMENT

A small amount of funding for each sport comes from student fees collected by the Associated Students of the University of Utah, but Jensen, like all students who play club sports throughout the country, pays plenty out of her own pocket. There are no scholarships in club sports, which also rely on team fundraisers to keep them going. Jensen estimates she spends about $500 to play with Spiral Jetty, the U’s Ultimate team. Some of that money covers travel, but it also pays for renting indoor practice facilities on campus during the winter.

Ultimate is one of the less expensive club sports. Others, like hockey, can cost a student upwards of $1,800 in dues per semester. Women’s lacrosse player Audrey Burns, majoring in kinesiology, pays $400 for the fall season and $2,000 in the spring, when the team competes and travels more. Burns, 21, notes that her fees pay for travel, accommodations, field space, coaching staff, referees, tournament and league fees, gear, and uniforms. “It’s hard to raise money on our own, but it is also rewarding to show people our passion for the sport,” she says.

The dividends in the investment, as students report over and over, are many. If they’re not practicing, competing, or traveling together on a long road trip to the next game, they’re studying with each other or just hanging out. Lots of time together forms tight bonds. Those road trips for Jensen have included destinations like San Diego, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Missoula, Mont.; Boulder, Colo.; and beyond.

And don’t let the “club” aspect make you think students are in it just for fun. These athletes are competitive. Jensen’s club qualified in spring 2017 for the Northwest Regional tournament. The men’s Ultimate team, called Zion Curtain, qualified for nationals in 2016, finishing 13th. Other campus clubs, such as the pistol team, compete on regional and national stages every year. The U’s climbing club took the national championship at the 2017 USA Collegiate Climbing Series competition in San Diego.

A DECIDING FACTOR

The popularity of club sports at the U factors into why some students choose Utah in the first place. Seth Hughes, a sophomore majoring in kinesiology, picked the U over several other schools because it had clubs in both swimming and water polo, both of which he plays. “This is just an awesome way to stay involved with the sports you grew up loving in high school,” says the Chicago native, 22.

Jeff Whipple flew in from Bellevue, Wash., with his son, Patrick, last fall to check out campus and watch the rugby club beat Colorado University-Boulder 52-22 on a warm, sun-drenched McCarthy Track and Field. “Rugby will be a factor in deciding which school Patrick will choose,” Jeff says. “I look for a program that’s going to be good for my son. The type of community you get into is a big deal. What’s the personality like? What’s the culture of the team? Are the coaches supportive of academics as well as rugby and fitness? Those are the kinds of things we’re looking for when we’re on campuses.” His son wants a good school that happens to have a rugby club. “I don’t want to end up at a school that has a D1/varsity team and then I don’t make the team and, as a result, I have nothing to do with the school.”

Patrick’s point about forming a connection with the school he chooses is one that Snyder echoes. “If you look at involvement in recreational programs in general, students who participate regularly do better academically, they persist to graduation more quickly in greater numbers, and they’re more loyal alumni,” Snyder says. “For a lot of students, club sports may be one way that they’re going to be involved on campus outside of classes.”

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— Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.