This article is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
For a football team that has won the last two Ivy League championships, Dartmouth’s bleachers look surprisingly barren on game days, said Nigel Ekern ’87, a former Dartmouth football player.
Dartmouth’s Ivy League opener against the University of Pennsylvania — with attendance bolstered by Family Weekend — saw a crowd of 4,767 people. In 2011, Memorial Field welcomed 8,117 fans to a home game against Penn — a contest not occurring on Family Weekend, coupled with rain and overcast skies.
Ekern said he observed a similar trend of low attendance last Saturday at the Yale Bowl. Even with pristine weather and a convenient location near alums in the greater New York City area, the alumni tailgate welcomed only seven attendees: five alumni, as well as an alum’s spouse and child.
Lloyd Lee ’98, who played safety at Dartmouth and went on to play professionally for the San Diego Chargers before coaching with the Chicago Bears for five years, said it’s “too bad” that crowds have been smaller in recent years.
“It’s just weird, because coming off of COVID, you’d think people would be getting back out and going to events,” Lee said. “I just think there’s so many other things that students must be doing.”
And while Lee said he is surprised by the lower turnouts, Ekern said he is not. This all speaks to what Ekern said is “the general trend at Dartmouth,” in which undergraduate students are becoming “much more academic [and] much less athletic.”
“Except for the dedicated athletes, the rest of [the undergraduates] are really scholars,” Ekern said. “So I think that there’s a whole generation now of Dartmouth students that just aren’t interested in athletics, and they were never interested in them.”
As a result, the football team is “in itself distinct and separate from the student body,” Ekern said.
The team disagrees, head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 said.
“I think overall, more people are tuned in and…there’s probably more access to Dartmouth athletics,” Teevens said. “So people are actually watching it, but we don’t see them in the stands as we did years ago when we had no [streaming] options.”
Defensive captains Shane Cokes ’23 and Quentin Arello ’23 said they were encouraged by this season’s attendance. Arello said the week one crowd as “fantastic” and Cokes described turnout at the Big Green-Penn game “really good.”
A cross-section of Dartmouth students often show up to games, including many of teammates’ non-athlete friends, Arello said.
“When you have 120 football players, you get around a little,” Arello said. “So everybody has a little friend group here and there that will come and support.”
Teevens said that he explains to his team the value of engaging with the student body outside of football.
“I encourage [players] to take advantage [of Dartmouth],” Teevens said. “There’s a lot of different folks on campus that have great skill sets — and we try to appreciate excellence, wherever we may find it.”
Teevens, who joined a fraternity and played both football and hockey, said he knows how valuable it is to embrace all facets of the College.
“They’re football players when they’re [on the field] — they’re intellectuals and academics when they’re anywhere else on campus,” Teevens said. “I’d say this to anybody on campus: Don’t just hover with your one little group. We’ve got such a compilation of fascinating people from around the globe.”
Football team captains have done the work Teevens encourages — and they’ve been pleased with the resulting student support.
“The more you’re able to go support and engage with the other sports teams — but [also] just other folks in general — the more likely they are to be reciprocal of that,” quarterback Nick Howard ’23 said, saying he’s been “pretty happy” with the student turnout at games.
Contrary to some alumni, current Big Green players believe the team’s community engagement has sustained the team, Howard said.
“Part of our success has been the entire community and the school really buying into what we’re doing on the field,” Howard said. “It makes playing games that much more fun, and I hope we continue to have the kind of support that we have.”
Still, some alumni insist that at a fundamental, cultural level, Big Green football’s value on campus has shifted, Ekern said. Though they admit Teevens is uniquely qualified to help the team connect with the rest of the student body.
“So [players] are actually tremendous in terms of their outreach,” Ekern said. “And that's encouraged by Buddy, because Buddy knows the difference between what Dartmouth was like in the ’70s and what it’s like now.”
But Teevens, who has been playing or coaching at Dartmouth for 26 of the last 47 seasons, said he doesn’t feel the need to compare the College to its past.
“Some of the alums speak about way back in the day — [but] the world has changed,” Teevens said, noting that lower fan numbers could simply be a result of fans now streaming the games from home.
Still, that doesn’t mean more support wouldn’t be appreciated, Teevens and his three captains said.
“The more fans there are, the better the environment is to play in, the more confidence that gives us, the harder it makes for the opponent,” Cokes said, adding that it also “just makes for a fun day being out there with your friends in the stands.”
Jack Wisdom ’26, who is roommates with defensive back Jamal Cooper ’26, said he has been to both home games so far and is hoping to travel to at least one away game later on in the season.
“I come from Alabama, so football’s huge where we are,” Wisdom said. “I like to go support people I know on the team, but I also [go] because I love the sport and like watching it.”
For students who aren’t close with football players or are busy with other activities, the games aren’t all that appealing. Evan Lai ’26, who went to every one of his high school’s Friday night games in Dallas, did not attend the Big Green’s game during Family Weekend.
“I feel like [football’s] not really a huge part of [Dartmouth culture],” Lai said. “Coming here, Dartmouth’s [football culture] has definitely been underwhelming…I think people are just really busy.”
While the College’s football culture may be different than that which Ekern and Lee experienced, Teevens and his captains believe that support from both alumni and students has endured — and that’s all they ask for.
As for students who are unfamiliar with the players, Teevens said he hopes that won’t be the case for long. Regardless of how busy undergraduates get, Teevens said he works to integrate his team with the rest of the student body and make the players approachable.
“We do little initiatives,” Teevens said. “Sit with a stranger, get the guys to introduce themselves to people in their dormitories or their classes.”
At Dartmouth’s Homecoming game against Harvard on Oct. 29, perhaps Memorial Stadium will look more like it did in the ’80s, when Ekern said “all the freshmen and tons of students went to the home games.”
But for a team with a 2-4 record, Teevens said crowd size is not the first thing on his mind.
“There’s a lot of things going on,” Teevens said. “For us, just to come out and play is something we all look forward to — especially at home.”