How my French university is embracing the U.S. college sports ideal

With some fellow French exchange students in the U.S., I did a road-trip throughout the American West over the winter break. This journey was the opportunity to discuss our experiences and to bring forward the sports identity that has been binding us together for three years now – the Storks. Here is the narrative of a true Hollywood-like story.

For the College of Charleston as well as for me, the 30th November of last year will remain a one-of-a-kind scene. On that date, more than 4,700 unleashed supporters stormed the TD Arena court together as one to celebrate Cougars’ stellar upset of nationally ranked LSU, entailing a lavish maroon and white mayhem surrounding the heroes of the hour. I was one of them, and with the double-hatting of a die-hard sports passionate and an exchange student, I must say such thrills and spills definitely help feeling a sense of belonging to one’s school and the teams that represent it. Plain and simple: it was one of those goosebump-producing occurrences one goes to the stadium for.

Later that evening, ESPN, Mashable and other major U.S. media broadcasted footage from the celebrations, turning what was at the outset a mere CAA basketball game hosted by a relatively innocuous college sports team into national hubbub. In addition, SportsCenter chose to show its 12 million Facebook fans a picture of Cougars’ No. 15 Terrance O’Donohue carried in triumph by the crowd as its ‘Photo of the Night.’

That was the pinnacle of the day College of Charleston’s world almost stopped turning, with a viral spread of reminders on social media, some articles portraying LSU’s headline-grabbing player Ben Simmons as the next NBA draft #1 pick and a ‘tailgate’ aiming to ignite the crowd before the game – a task it did an excellent job of fulfilling.

It is no mystery that the United States is the only country in the world where college sports attract almost as many followers as professional sports. An all-time record attendance of 113,411 spectators (more than F.C. Barcelona’s Camp Nou entire seating capacity of 99,354, to put things into perspective) was registered in 2010 on the occasion of the college hockey game pitting Michigan Wolverines against arch-rivals Michigan State Spartans. More recently, the CFP National Championship between Alabama and Clemson stirred quite a commotion, its audience becoming the sixth best in the history of cable with around 25 million viewers.

Such a consideration given to college sports, with the likes of singing in unison the Star-Spangled Banner before matches, or the fact that Texas A&M’s living dog mascot walks through a Guard of Honour before every football game of the college (okay, this one is a little bit of a cliché, but I really liked the anecdote), can understandably be considered as a form of pageantry from a European-centered point of view. But it is part of the folklore, and I have come to appreciate it. In a country where the intercollegiate sports level serves as a feeder system to the professional level, college athletes are getting used to stealing the show.

Given that, to what extent is the U.S. colleges’ sports model replicable to other countries, with other sports cultures?

In France, a country arguably still lagging pretty far behind in terms of giving importance to sports at any school level whatsoever, some universities seek to follow the path of U.S. colleges to make up their ground. That is the case of my school back in France, EM Strasbourg Business School, lately ranked as the 12th post-preparatory class management school of the country by Challenges magazine.

In September 2012, as he was about to enter EMS, Laurent Dieste – an eventual Northern Arizona University exchange student – hit on the idea of exploiting the untapped vein and came up with a tall order: create a brand new school sports identity based on the U.S. model.

“I met this girl during my high school years, and then she left to the United States to go play for the University of Oregon’s Women’s Tennis Team,” he said. “We kept in touch, and the unique experience she was living there inspired me the idea of the ‘Storks’.”

Emblem of the city of Strasbourg, the stork was chosen to embody the project, seamlessly integrated into a red capital letter ‘S’ derived from the logo of Stanford University. The dapper artwork was spread university-wide, and Dieste’s brainchild became at breakneck speed a source of great pride for both sportspeople and supporters, leaving everyone caught up in the hype.

In the three years of its existence, the three squads that succeeded one another into the EMS Sports Office contributed to make the identity grow through some of the following initiatives: tee shirts, caps, hoodies, headbands and other branded products were sold in droves to students; a mighty community of more than 1,500 fans was pieced together through the social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and was encouraged to post pictures from all around the world with a Storks outfit on; a website and a smartphone app were created in order to post game reviews, sportspeople interviews and to occasionally send push alerts; chants heaping praise to the Storks were written; posters and trailers enhancing the Storks identity were disseminated before great school sporting events, using the influence of several well-known sports advertisements (such as the one below, derived from Adidas’ ‘There Will Be Haters’); recently, a club of supporters going by the name of ‘Bad Storks’ was launched in order to bring as many students as possible to games.

It should further be noted that in that video as well as through their official hashtags (#GoStorks, #FearTheStorks), the English language is often used, evoking their American influence and their willingness to reach EMS’ numerous exchange students.

With their new logo on, the EM Strasbourg Storks worked their way through the final stages of several national colleges championships these past three years, putting themselves on the map of French business schools. Furthermore, some of their students made several inroads beyond The Hexagon’s borders. Axel Wattiez notably participated in the Brazilian national swimming championship with Botafogo, and Dieste, founder of the aforementioned entity, recently ran the Valencia Marathon in under three hours, securing himself a spot for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

Furthermore, the Storks are starting to storm the bastille in the media. After hoisting the TIGRES (an acronym for Strasbourg inter-school sports tournament) trophy for the second straight year, the daily regional newspaper ‘Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace’, read by an average 550,000 people everyday, devoted an article to bringing forward the Storks project. It was a great reward for the entire job done in three years, and a motivation to continue working along this line.

Obviously, the EM Strasbourg Storks are still a far cry from America’s spellbinding college sports world – as being an international student in the U.S. regularly reminds me. Nonetheless, what lies ahead for this project is exciting, to put it mildly, and hopefully the Storks keep flying – not as far as the Hollywood sign like in the picture, but at least far enough to change French colleges’ mindset on sports.

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