Panda Game shows potential in USports football fandom

Ottawa students sitting by the broadcast booth poked their heads overtop the wall below and shouted as Mark Lee and I were on air: “put your hands up and dance”.

Luckily we were in commercial: Mark had his up until the broadcast returned to the game. I kept mine up for a few seconds longer and bounced with the beat of the song like the rest of the crowd at the Panda Game.

Yours truly was doing colour analysis for CHCH with Lee on play-by-play for last Saturday’s epic showdown between the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees.

The annual matchup was tremendous, a 33-30 double OT thriller won by the Ravens. But more importantly, the Panda Game demonstrates the significant potential USports football has when rivalries are encouraged and students get involved.

Saturday’s contest featured the largest crowd in Panda Game history, with over 24,000 on hand, and it could serve as a jumping point for ways to make the stadiums around the country filled more regularly and outside traditional rivals: get the students in the building.

That’s exactly what the Panda Game has done successfully: students are a vital part of it. There are stories from back in the day about greased pigs with “Ravens” spray-painted on being let loose at Lansdowne or man-made catapults being brought into the stadium to launch water balloons at the opposing school. Some rather harmless fun and memories that add to the lore of the game and ones that students will never forget.

Students are the ones who create the atmosphere. They’re the ones who bring the passion for their schools. They’re the ones who want to make it loud for the opposing team so Pedro can come home to their campus. So cater to them.

The Panda Game provides a unique setting as Ravens supporters fill one side and Gee-Gees the other. Students with Carleton and uOttawa shirts provided the backdrop for Saturday’s thrilling affair in the nation’s capital, faces painted and chanting creeds all in the name of fun-natured school spirit. That’s how the attachment to an institution of higher learning can be strengthened through athletics, enhancing the student experience.

On a beautiful sun-drenched fall afternoon, Pedro was contested. Fourth quarter drama, what’s become commonplace in Panda Game’s, had supporters either erupting with cheers or silent, emotions contrasted by the split of faithful on opposite sides. Carleton won in overtime on a walk-off touchdown run. Ravens supporters flew out of the seats and onto the field which quickly became covered in Carleton colours – the heroes, swarmed by teammates and fans. A moment those players – and students – will relive for the rest of their lives.

Once the on-field celebrations subsided student-athletes made their way to the locker room. Underneath TD Place in the tunnels which lead to each locker room, both head coaches, Steve Sumarah and Jamie Baressi, shook the hands of players from both teams and shared a post-game message with the competitors wearing opposing colours.

That’s Canadian university sports at its best: rivalry, pride, entertainment, heroics and respect.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.