Missouri ‘homecoming’ boosts sport, sentiment and coffers
America Letter: City of Columbia holds annual shindig amid concerns over college sports
Alabama Crimson Tide and Notre Dame Fighting Irish during a college football game. Research suggests former students who attend games are more likely to donate. File photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
It’s a crisp week day morning in the small city of Columbia in central Missouri. Like many towns across America at this time of year, shopfronts and homes are filled with an array of pumpkins, flowers, and “fall foliage” arrangements in anticipation of Halloween.
Preparations are also under way this week in Columbia for another autumnal American tradition. Columbia is preparing for Homecoming Day – an annual celebration that welcomes back college alumni and former residents to the city.
The week-long schedule of festivities culminates with Saturday’s homecoming football game between Missouri and Memphis universities. Beforehand a parade will take place in downtown Columbia featuring local marching bands and floats.
Around the impressive campus of the University of Missouri, bunting and flags are already aloft. The university’s fraternity and sorority houses – recognisable by their distinctive Greek lettering – have signs outside welcoming former members.
Nearby, returning and current students will attempt to bag their car-parking spots early for their tailgate parties – the American tradition whereby food and alcohol are shared from the back of a vehicle.
Missouri proudly holds the claim of being the first American university to hold a homecoming game.
The university itself is one of the oldest public colleges in the country. Founded in 1839, “Mizzou” as it is colloquially known, was the first public university to be built west of the Mississippi river. Missouri was then a new state, joining the union only in 1821. Columbia was a small, rural outpost, located about two hours west of the industrial centre of St Louis.
The idea for an annual reunion took hold, and the homecoming tradition was born, with colleges across the country holding their own annual games. Around this time colleges began to adopt institutional colours and mascots, and over the decades the homecoming game became an important way for universities connect with their alumni.
The endurance of the homecoming tradition is one of the many examples of the role played by sport in American university life.
College football continues to be one of the most popular sports in the country. Generally considered as the second tier of football after the professional National Football League (NFL), it rose in prominence with the advent of television in the 1950s, reaching an audience of many millions. The 2018 college playoff between Georgia and Alabama saw the second-biggest audience in cable television history.
But the sport is not without its problems.
In recent years there has been growing concern about the scale of money in college football, the wellbeing of players and whether sport is displacing academic excellence as the main focus of a university education. With football bringing in huge cash for some colleges, the pay of coaches has skyrocketed, with many earning multiple more than college presidents, deans and researchers.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, the highest paid coach in the country, made more than $11 million last year.
Questions have been raised about the academic standards required for athletes admitted to universities.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was embroiled in a scandal involving basketball players, when it was revealed that students had been in enrolled in “paper classes” – in effect phantom classes that never met and required only one test.
Other critics of the outsized role played by sport in some schools point out that student athletes often jeopardise their academic career by focusing on sport in the hope of securing professional contracts when they graduate, a career progression that is not always guaranteed.
Also of concern to the universities is falling attendance at games. With the rise of live streaming, attendance has been gradually dropping, replicating a trend at NFL level, despite huge investments in stadiums and facilities.
This is likely to have a knock-on impact on alumni donations, as research suggests that former students who attend games are more likely to donate.
In Columbia however, the mood is upbeat. A crowd of up to 60,000 is expected to descend on this sleepy college town on Saturday for kick-off . With an expected knock-on impact on local bars, hotels and restaurants, the annual homecoming game promises not only to be a celebration of community, history and tradition, but a welcome pre-Christmas boon to the local economy.