Forward Mackenzie Pridham celebrates with fans after Cal Poly won the Blue Green Rivalry at home in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Athletics Director Don Oberhelman can’t pick a favorite Cal Poly sport — to him, it would be like a parent trying to pick their favorite child.
But he also can’t deny the obvious: Soccer is on the rise.
“And it’s going to continue to go; it’s going to continue to rise,” Oberhelman said of soccer’s increasing popularity among Cal Poly students — which he largely attributes to men’s soccer head coach Paul Holocher.
Holocher’s marketing tactics are near-famous on campus; a student who participated in a Mustang News survey about Cal Poly athletics wrote, “A lot of people don’t realize that it is Coach Holocher who really puts in the effort to fill those seats at every game. It is really because of his efforts … that drives the popularity of our soccer team.”
During an interview with Holocher in his cluttered, bustling office (four people knocked on his door during the span of a 20-minute interview), a half-listening midfielder George Malki interjected only once — at the mention of Holocher’s marketing strategies.
“The best in town,” Malki said, nodding at his coach.
But Holocher, a former business major and professional soccer player, doesn’t fit the archetype of a marketing expert. He isn’t aggressive or pushy; in fact, he speaks softly, and his sentences are full of thoughtful pauses.
“When I came here, there wasn’t a lot of fan support, maybe a few hundred people per game,” Holocher said. “So we saw a great opportunity to develop the product on the field, develop the quality of play and also develop the fanbase.”
So he did.
On Oct. 17, 2007 — 18 months after becoming head coach — Holocher broke both the attendance record for Cal Poly soccer and a 12-match losing streak against UC Santa Barbara. More than 7,000 people showed up to that match, and the Mustangs won 2-1.
“The next year, we had 11,000 people,” Holocher said, meaning Alex G. Spanos Stadium was at maximum capacity.
According to both Oberhelman and Holocher, the Blue-Green Rivalry was virtually nonexistent prior to that win.
“We lit the fire for that rivalry,” Holocher said. “We were getting beat by them for 13 years and basically we said, ‘Enough of this. We can beat you. We can play with you.’”
And Oberhelman credits soccer’s overall popularity increase to the annual home match against UC Santa Barbara.
“I think it totally has everything to do with (Holocher) and the job that he’s done in creating, masterfully, this rivalry with them — in creating this energy and this buzz around this one game,” he said.
But Holocher isn’t satisfied yet.
“We hope, in the future, that we can create even more rivalry feels against UC Davis, against Northridge,” he said.
And in order to do that, he hosts marketing meetings once a week with the Manglers, now an official Cal Poly club, and a group of student marketing interns.
President of the Manglers and biological sciences junior Kean Vaziry said those meetings consist of planning ahead and brainstorming outreach ideas with the coaches.
“(Holocher) is super passionate about getting a large, loyal turnout to all the games,” Vaziry said. “He’s just like one of us; he’s excited to be out there. He loves the sport, he loves the team, he wants the Manglers to personify all the happiness and love he feels.”
“We feel everyone is a potential fan of soccer,” Holocher said, revealing the logic behind his strategy. “At some level, everyone’s played the game. Maybe you played a couple years of soccer growing up. Maybe they just need to revisit the game and see more people out there to catch the bug.”
Oberhelman believes that assumption — “everyone’s played the game” — is another factor contributing to the rising popularity of college soccer.
“What’s different now versus 20 years ago is you all played soccer,” he said. “And, my generation … very few of us played soccer.”
And the vibe on campus reflects that.
That’s why, much to Oberhelman’s frustration, Cal Poly is often referred to as a “soccer school.” In a survey of 59 Cal Poly students, 52 — or 88.1 percent — wrote they consider soccer to be the most popular sport on campus. Four said football and three said basketball.
“I don’t want to be associated with just one sport,” Oberhelman said. “I want to be Cal Poly. And I don’t want to be pigeonholed into somebody thinking we’re only decent in one sport, because we’re pretty good across the board.”
Not only is it frustrating to Oberhelman to be “pigeonholed” — it’s confusing. Both he and Associate Athletics Director Chris Baker are quick to point out football is still the lead in terms of student attendance.
On average, approximately 2,000 students attend each home football game, while 1,200 attend soccer games, according to Baker. Those numbers, based on the 2012 season, were gathered by counting the number of student tickets distributed at the entrance of each game.
And while Baker has witnessed soccer’s popularity increase since Holocher took over, he believes the game against UC Santa Barbara skews the big picture.
“The student interest, for the most part, is based on one soccer game,” Baker said.
Of the 52 students surveyed who chose soccer as the most popular sport on campus, 18 of them cited the UC Santa Barbara game as proof.
Still, there’s a clash between the data collected from Cal Poly Athletics and the general feeling on campus. There are a number of variables that could contribute to the conflict, including the days of the week each team plays, the number of games they have before students arrive on campus and the accuracy of the ticket-counting method.
The student attendance numbers don’t peg soccer as the most popular sport on campus, but the rise is undeniable.
In 2006 — Holocher’s first year as head coach — an average of 486 people attended each home game. By 2012, that number increased by more than 500 percent to 2,709 fans.
“It was always a vision to increase the fan support,” he said. “I didn’t know that it would get this big.”