Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why American Quidditch Needs to Start Thinking Small

By Kyle Carey

The following piece represents the opinion of the author and not of the Quidditch Post.
For the fourth year in a row, USQ team membership has hovered just above 150 teams. During the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, the number of registered teams in the United States stood at 162 and 169, respectively. In USQ’s inaugural 2014-15 season, after the split with the IQA, the count was 161. For the 2015-16 season, thus far, the count is currently 173; 170 if you do not include high school teams. During the early years of quidditch, the sport expanded exponentially, moving quickly beyond Middlebury College’s campus and across the United States. However, since 2012, membership has plateaued, begging the question of why expansion has cooled down. In answering this question, it is important to first think about the geography of teams that currently comprise USQ.

There are 16 states without an official quidditch team registered within their borders. Of the remaining 34 states, 25 of them have five or fewer teams. If you assume that the average team has around 20 members, then most states host fewer than 100 active quidditch players. American quidditch membership is largely concentrated in nine states containing six or more teams: California (18 teams), New York (17 teams),  Texas (17 teams), Florida (10 teams), Pennsylvania (9 teams), Ohio (9 teams),  Virginia (8 teams), Massachusetts (8 teams), and Michigan (6 teams). In fact, more than half of all USQ teams are clustered in and around major urban centers in these states.

Last year, these nine states dominated the competition. Thirteen of the Sweet 16 finishers at USQ World Cup 8 were registered in these states. The exceptions were Maryland Quidditch (UMD), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Arizona Quidditch Club all of which had access to major out-of-state tournaments. Teams located in states heavily populated by quidditch programs have an inherent advantage over teams that are isolated. First, the presence of local competition means the travel time and travel costs are less than those incurred when playing out of state. Second, there is greater collaboration and sharing of quidditch knowledge among teams that are located closer together than those that are far apart. Lastly, community teams function better when they are located near college teams that they can draw graduates from. Isolated programs will always underperform against teams located in clusters, no matter how much talent they possess.

Graduates from UMD have gone on to join community teams like Quidditch Club Boston. | Photo Credit: Nicole Harrig Photography

Not only are certain states dominating quidditch, certain types of colleges are as well. 68.1 percent of university-registered teams come from large colleges, with student bases that are larger than 15,000 students. Furthermore, 70.6 percent of teams come from public schools. These calculations do not include college teams registered officially as adult community teams, such as Emerson College Quidditch, nor does it double count schools with B teams. Around 25.4 percent of four-year institutions in the United States are public, meaning USQ’s ratio of public schools to private schools is almost opposite the national ratio. The average size of a four-year institution in the United States is 4,446 students, which would be classified as a medium-sized school verging on small, whereas the average size of schools with a team in the league is about 26,000.

The majority of college teams are based at large state schools, in spite of the national averages in school size and type. One possible reason for this is that state universities often have well-established athletic and club cultures, so they naturally attract students who participate in intramural and club sports. Furthermore, their size makes it easier to start and maintain a program. Because the average college team comes from a school that has a total enrollment of 26,000, most teams have a massive student population to draw from. Based on USQ rankings, as of Mar. 22 only three of the current Top 20 college teams are from medium-sized schools with an enrollment between 4,000 and 15,000. Categorizing an institution as large, medium, or small can be useful in determining where a team’s peak is. However, there does not seem to be a correlation between school sizes and their affiliated teams winning within the tier of similarly sized schools. Just because the Penn State University Nittany Lions hail from an institution with an enrollment of over 40,000 undergraduate students (enrollment reaches over 90,000 when considering the graduate population) does not mean that the team will necessarily be better than Bowling Green State University, which has an enrollment of around 14,000 undergraduate students. However, Penn State will almost always be better than a team from Skidmore College, which has less than 4,000 students. This is not say that medium or small-sized schools cannot have a good stretch of years with a strong class of athletes. They absolutely can, but they usually cannot sustain the success as long as larger universities can. 

Team leadership from large state schools worry less about getting numbers and more about getting athletes. Their time and energy can be spent developing quidditch strategy and advanced techniques as opposed to recruiting and training basic athletic skills. There is far less of a trade off between being competitive and building a program when your school has tens of thousands of students. On the other hand, smaller schools constantly face a choice between winning and developing players. In order to succeed at tournaments, these teams often have to rely on their starting lines to carry them, stunting the development of the team as a whole. There are numerous examples of mid-sized university teams that remain significant because of the efforts of a handful of players. One just has to look at the 2014-15 Harvard Horntails, who succeeded because of the outstanding efforts of Jon Jackson and Carli Haggerty. Large schools such as the University of Texas at Austin are afforded the luxury of two or three solid lines, and the team may have stars, but their depth is ultimately what defines them.

Harvard Horntails qualified for USQ World Cup 8, a feat accomplished by their dedicated players that season. | Photo Credit: Nikki Smith Photography

The demographics of today’s USQ are a huge departure from the early years of quidditch. What started as phenomenon among small liberal arts colleges has become more closely associated with large state schools. But there are few marquee teams that are neither from a large nor public university. The most notable exception are the Tufts University Tufflepuffs, a consistently relevant program in spite of coming from a medium-sized liberal arts college. What separates a team like Tufts from other schools like it? Tufts is an old program that has been around for seven years and the team’s presence on campus as well as in the quidditch community is well known. It has a rich sense of quidditch culture, which differentiates it from teams of a comparable size. The reason Tufts is able to excel is because it is a well-established team with roots in the early years of quidditch. The team began at a time when quidditch was less competitive and was able to grow alongside the sport. Its location is as important as its past is in defining its success. Tufts is also accessible from Boston’s public transportation system, providing the team easy access to high-level quidditch nearby. As USQ became more competition driven, so did Tufts surrounded by other teams who were as focused on winning as it was.

Still, teams like Vassar College and Middlebury College were part of the quidditch community from its inception and have since fallen to the wayside. Quidditch in the US became too competitive too quickly for them. These changes were a product of all the new, large teams joining the sport, many of whom formed close together geographically, allowing them to play more and develop. The small liberal arts colleges were too small and not close enough to a cluster of teams to keep up with the new pace of the game. The sport they helped develop was no longer what they envisioned it to be.

Vassar College continues to play outside of USQ jurisdiction. | Photo Credit: Vassar College Quidditch

They never gave up on quidditch, but they gave up on USQ. Middlebury and Vassar continue to play quidditch along with a host of other unofficial schools who have opted out of being part of USQ. Who can blame them? If your team does not qualify for US Quidditch Cup or is indifferent about qualifying in the first place, why even be a USQ member? USQ’s insurance policy is probably the biggest plus for a non-competitive team, but if you are not playing top-level competitive quidditch, you are probably less worried about injuries. USQ ensures a certain level of referee skill and standardized rules. For teams interested in competing at US Quidditch Cup 9, this is paramount to making sure they have a fair chance at qualifying. For other teams, however, the rules and regulations of USQ can be seen as taking the sport too seriously. Generally, what you are really paying for with a USQ membership is access to tournaments.

Is access to tournaments worth the fees and requirements of a USQ membership? If your team is only interested in going to one or two tournaments a year, absolutely not. If your team consistently loses every game at every tournament, then absolutely not. That is, if your team is even invited, considering the favoritism often shown to top-tier teams over low-tier teams when it comes to tournament invites. If you are among the bottom teams in your region, there is a strong possibility you will never go to a USQ-sanctioned event other than a regional championship. USQ is not built with the casual or small school team in mind. Why should it? Those schools are a tiny minority in the whole of USQ. Consequently, smaller private schools are discouraged from joining or continuing to be members of the league.

However, quidditch cannot grow without small private schools’ participation. Their campuses are more numerous and widespread than public schools, representing an untapped source for team growth. Recruiting these schools would not only expand player membership, but also the size of the referee and volunteer pool. What they lack in traditional athletic culture, small private schools often make up for by cultivating their own sense of quidditch culture. Members of these teams are often the biggest advocates of the sport as a whole instead of their own programs. Small liberal arts schools’ students are likely to volunteer, blog, or podcast about the sport. That is the nature of who they are and the schools they come from. They give the community a sense of community.

Many people involved with quidditch argue that USQ needs a second division in order to grow the sport and to counteract the increasing dominance of community teams and top-tier teams within the league. If USQ ever wants to have a Division II, it needs to attract more small and medium-sized schools from all over the country. Current teams would be unwilling to join Division II unless there are teams close by to play against. The gaping holes that already exist in our single-division league will be magnified if the league is ever split. Division II teams would not want to spend the time or money travelling that Division I teams would be willing to spend. The answer to this problem is more teams, especially more teams that are a good fit for an eventual second division. We cannot create a new division and hope that teams will form to join it, or that unaffiliated teams will be attracted to it. There already needs to be a strong base of possible teams before USQ can even think about a split. 

The answer to recruiting small schools remains unclear. Perhaps there needs to be an adjusted membership fee and status for teams who are not interested in competing at national championships, or only want to go to a handful of tournaments. The answer could lie in the development of stronger conferences to encourage more casual and local competition. Perhaps there needs to be a fundamental change to the competitive mentality of the league before any progress can be made. Whatever the solution is, we need to find it if we ever hope to be a large and truly national sport.

Update 8:05 p.m. EDT : To see the raw data, click here.

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