Part II: Charting a bold path forward, Brown Athletics reimagines the student-athlete experience

The second installment in a two-part series highlights the many ways in which fan participation and community engagement are front and center in a new era for Brown Athletics.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Since arriving in March 2021, Vice President for Athletics and Recreation M. Grace Calhoun and her colleagues and coaches in Brown Athletics have worked to reshape and strengthen the division.

Community engagement is a key pillar of a new five-priority strategic plan for the division, which is supporting a steadfast commitment by student-athletes and coaches to fulfill the University’s larger commitment to making a positive impact on communities both at and beyond Brown. It’s an approach that has resonated with Jaiden Stokes, a senior on the women’s track and field team.

“We’ve been afforded an amazing opportunity to attend this University, and part of that privilege is a responsibility to leave things better than we found them,” said Stokes, a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. “We get to wear the ‘B’ on our chest and compete for our school… We in particular have a larger obligation to serve, as we bring attention to our city and our state, and part of our responsibility is making sure that attention is positive.”

Student-athletes volunteer on Brown move-in day, lead clean-up and tree-planting events in Providence and even work internationally. Last summer, 26 student-athletes, coaches and staff led an international service project in a remote community in Panama, where they built a multi-purpose sports court with local residents.

They also volunteer at local schools, host children’s sports clinics and summer camps, and sign new members through Team IMPACT, which matches children facing serious illness with college sports teams. And all along the way, individual athletes conduct their own service projects. For Sexual Assault Awareness Month last April, Leah Carey, a rising junior and outfielder on the women’s softball team, connected with Sojourner House, a local nonprofit that provides services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bruno mascot wearing denim jacket
Softball player Leah Carey organized Brown’s first Denim Day, where all student-athletes wore denim to support victims as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“I reached out to their communications coordinator and asked, ‘What can Brown do? How can we best show our support?’” Carey said.

The conversation led Carey to organize Athletics and Recreation’s first Denim Day, where all student-athletes wore denim to show support for survivors of abuse. Regardless of the size or scope of the service, Carey stressed the importance of working in tandem with, and in support of, the local community.

“When we go to plant trees, all of these elementary school students get to see Brown students showing up and helping out,” Carey said. “They look up to us, and sometimes you’ll hear them say, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up!’ It is so impactful for the younger kids.”

Bringing new energy and refreshed brand

Brown Athletics unveiled a brand refresh designed to honor Bears history and generate excitement for a new era.

Getting the greater Providence community, along with students, faculty, staff, invested in sporting events is another priority when it comes to engagement, Calhoun said.

Ahead of the strategic plan’s launch, Brown Athletics unveiled a brand refresh designed to honor Bears history while generating excitement for its bold new vision. A stylized “B” design is the primary mark, providing a design grounded in the University’s primary colors with type that replicates Brown’s vintage varsity sweaters. The standing bear, “Indomitable,” is the other primary mark, inspired by the statue on Brown’s campus. The bear includes a fierce, aggressive face and a powerful stance to inspire competitiveness across all Bears teams.

New programs are also driving fan engagement — like Bruno’s Cub Club, in which young Bears fans receive a T-shirt, tickets to attend games and a birthday card from Bruno during their birthday month, all for free. Another successful attraction has been the Brown chocolate toss, in which custom Brown chocolates are tossed into the crowd during games while attendees sing and chant to rally the team.

There’s also the Brown Hype Squad, which was first launched by seniors Meadow Carman, a women’s ice hockey player, and Margaret Woodberry, a women’s lacrosse goalie. What started as a small group of students who would attend games to cheer on Brown’s athletes has transformed into a squad of more than 70 students who fill the stands, decked out in Brown apparel, waving flags and holding signs, and getting attendees going with activities like “the wave” and call-and-response chants. They’re also instrumental in generating awareness and excitement before games, motivating fellow students to attend.

“As a college athlete, there’s a lot of pressure — but we tend to perform better under pressure, especially when all our friends and family are in the stands,” Carman said. “It cultivates this atmosphere that just benefits Brown in every aspect of home games.”

hype squad at hockey game
The Hype Squad helped drive record game attendance during the 2022-23 season, doubling what the division saw the previous year.

The squad’s mission, combined with the amplified visibility and outreach put forth by the University, led a Spring 2023 men’s basketball game against rival Yale to be the team’s first sold-out game since 2012. The box office’s staff ended up turning hundreds of people away, as the bleachers were packed to capacity minutes after the doors opened. Stokes attended and said it was like nothing she had experienced in her time at Brown.

“It was just a completely different energy than some of the other basketball games,” she said. “Their coach said that it made a huge impact on the energy of the game and how his team played.”

But Carman made it clear that the Hype Squad isn’t just for sell-out games or the best-known sports.

“We went to a men’s water polo game and definitely turned a few heads,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the typical event where you’ll see people in bright red wigs and giant signs, screaming and yelling the whole time. But that’s the whole point — to show our support for every athletic team at Brown.”

The innovations are driving record game attendance. Overall attendance increased 58% in 2022-23 with a total of 3,993 students attending a ticketed athletics event, double what the division saw at the same time the previous year.

Joe Walsmith, the new senior associate director of athletics for wellness and performance, is a Class of 1994 Brown alumnus who played on the men’s soccer team. Upon returning to the University in 2023 as an employee, he marvels at how Brown Athletics has evolved so significantly while staying true to values that have always anchored its program.

“The Brown student-athletes I see now are so similar to the ones of my era,” Walsmith said. “You get the sense that there is truly inspired learning happening here, no matter what year it is. It crystallizes the essence of what a Brown student is: deeply curious, engaged, vibrant and always wanting to know more.”

Read Part I to learn how Brown student-athletes are accomplishing their goals through an institutional focus on health and well-being