Designing the Athletic Experience

Athletics and Recreational Development on College Campuses

The past twenty-five years have seen significant growth in athletic and recreational development on college campuses. Faced with aging facilities common to many campus structures, institutions have been forced to come to terms with the many factors changing the scope and physical requirements for athletic facilities and on-campus recreational provisions.

Beginning in the 1970s, colleges could no longer rely on their first-generation facilities to accommodate gender equality in varsity athletics. Traditionally, athletic buildings had been designed with male-only provisions, leaving women without equal access to activities and associated facilities. In 1972, Title IX federal legislation required institutions accepting federal funding to provide equivalent programs and facilities for students of both sexes. Although the legislation applies to all academic endeavors, requirements for “equivalent treatment, benefits, and opportunities” relate specifically to athletics. In a matter of only a few years, varsity athletics for women blossomed.

Enhanced Competition

During the same period, varsity sports for both genders experienced enormous growth in popularity, both on and off campuses. The professionalism of the athletes, the expanded competition, and the revenue-generation opportunities—all of these factors contributed to the need for new and larger facilities.

Today, the largest sporting venues in the U.S., in terms of spectator capacity, are college stadia, with four of the top five able to accommodate more than 100,000 visitors. For comparison’s sake, the five largest professional football stadia in the U.S. average fewer than 78,000 seats.

Image of Athletic Sub-precinct - Central Connecticut State University Master Plan

Athletic facilities that had been designed for sharing spaces and resources between varsity athletes and recreational users now lack to serve either function adequately. Coaches and athletes require dedicated facilities for training, while recreational users are looking for a more personalized experience. Often, scheduling issues create conflict, as athletes are given preferential access to resources.

A Village Within the Campus

Schools have responded to this challenge by making large commitments to facilities dedicated to athletics and recreation, respectively. Institutions like Rensselaer Polytechnic University and Boston University have built athletic “villages” that combine multiple venues with resources that include foodservice and student-life spaces. Aside from the aggregated operational benefits to institutions, these complexes attempt to frame the context for a campus culture that includes both physical and intellectual stimulation.

Fitness as a Field of Study

Today, fitness and group exercise are the fastest-growing activities on campus. Programs for yoga and Zumba are extremely popular, as are intramural activities, such as dodgeball and indoor soccer. Institutions favor these group activities, as they are inherently inclusive. The increased popularity of fitness on campus has also led some schools to expand their academic offerings in programs like sports medicine and kinesiology. Not only are institutions realizing major growth in these curricula, appealing to recreational students and athletes alike, they are able to enhance their research capabilities and foster synergy with health and wellness initiatives. The development of smartphones and their associated applications will only expand these research capabilities.

Building Recruitment Strength

Also, more recently, social changes on college campuses have paralleled those of society at large, as modern culture has become increasingly focused on recreational fitness. A generation of students—both male and female—who have grown up with myriad recreation and fitness options at their disposal expect those same options to be available at their college of choice.

To maintain leadership and enhance recruitment, institutions have made significant investments in exercise opportunities for those students not inclined toward varsity competition, but who nevertheless want athletics to be part of their college experience. The “student-athlete” is an attractive recruitment demographic for institutions seeking to move on-campus social culture away from alcohol-based distractions toward healthier activities. Today, many college and university websites boast of the percentage of their students participating in varsity and recreational club sports.