Can we keep the student spirit alive if we’re social distancing?

Students all over the country were left disappointed when Covid-19 cancelled countless Varsities.

The 56th Roses tournament between York and Lancaster was no different. I am lucky enough to have taken part in “the biggest Inter-University Varsity in Europe” three times. From the minute new Freshers arrive at York, the entire season is spent building up to Roses.

Friends, family and alumni travel to the host University to cheer on competitors in 150 fixtures. For one weekend a year, our clubs are brought together under the White Rose of Yorkshire. The pride and passion they display echoing a distant memory of a battle fought long ago.

Community emerged as a key theme of Roses in 2019, having flown under the radar for a long time. So it was this community element that sparked an idea between me and my Lancaster equivalent when Covid-19 hit. Would it be possible to bring the two universities together, merging two communities whilst at our most distant?

Enormity

Planning for Roses usually starts the year before, so immediately time was against us. We had only three weeks to pull off what we had jokingly suggested should be titled “the biggest Virtual Inter-University Varsity in the World”.

Amongst the things on our To-Do list were:

  • Determining the participants and the activity. Initially I was worried students would not want to take part in a Virtual Roses at all, but the uptake blew me away. Overall, 40 York clubs responded they wanted to take part.
  • Where would we host the event? We decided to create a Facebook page hosting individual events the appropriate club pages could be made co-hosts of to help us boost interaction with their members.
  • Graphics and other promotional material including scorecards and a trailer video.
  • Timetabling
  • A scoring system. This needed to encourage participation within the wider Roses community, whilst not reducing the value of points scored by clubs.
  • Salvaging. Could any fixtures still go ahead and could we live-stream them?
  • Fundraising. Both Sabbatical Officers were keen to make sure Roses fundraising went ahead to help support the community.

Over the Roses weekend, York and Lancaster took part in 44 head-to-head challenges, and 6 fixtures which were migrated online, 4 of which were live-streamed. This included the Roses staple – Saturday night Darts – which saw our Darts clubs do battle from various rooms of their house including the Garage! Amongst these challenges were 14 open to anyone with a tie to either university. Several challenges recognised participation in their scoring to encourage engagement. These included a Social Distancing Flash-Mob, Swimming and Ultimate Frisbee Relay challenges which utilised brilliantly skilled students in their editing, and a Great Roses Bake-Off.

Big impacts

Alongside the benefits to the student community past and present, Virtual Roses also impacted community, regionally and nationally. Many clubs host Charity events throughout the year, with lots of small sided tournaments, games, and quizzes happening in term 3. We recognised this presented a great opportunity to bring clubs together in one big fundraising effort.

By allowing clubs the freedom to fundraise for charities of their choice under one total, 16 clubs came together for one busy weekend of activity alongside the tournament. The Netball club organised a huge Marathon fundraiser for the NHS Charities Together involving 10 University and College Clubs. York Sport Union brought together students from all walks of life to help those less fortunate. Not to mention they absolutely smashed the £1,000 target for the weekend, raising £4,437, something every student involved should be immensely proud of!

Wider lessons

So what have we learnt from this? Aside from the crash course in computer skills, social media can be a powerful platform to unite us even when we are at our most distant. But more than this, it has given us food for thought on how we shape future tournaments. In the week building up to the weekend, and the weekend itself, the Virtual Roses page was engaged with by 33,937 people.

This was all generated organically. No boosted posts were paid for. In a time where we are all engaging with our community more, it seems this is a way to branch out that we had previously not utilised to its potential.

I am not suggesting that sport should entirely migrate online, but it seems for now there is the potential to retain club and Union spirit in virtual competition. This spirit can be harnessed and channeled into a collective cause, for our students the White Rose of Yorkshire.

Through our collective cause – Roses – students were brought together for a weekend of fun challenges and live sport, creating momentary escapism from the current pandemic, whilst simultaneously leaving behind a lasting legacy to the community through fundraising. I believe adapting our regular event calendar will be crucial in creating a student community with a York identity, when many may be studying remotely next academic year.

What even is “normal”

Looking to the future of university sport, it remains unclear exactly when normality will resume. But, it will be important to think creatively how digital platforms can be used beyond “business as usual” social media content.

A lot can be learnt about wider community engagement, including alumni and supporters, through the generation of exciting, innovative content that remains sympathetic to current trends, such as our Baking Challenge.

With the creation of engaging content, digital platforms can be used for public good, in our case to raise awareness of fundraisers supporting real issues becoming all the more apparent as a result of Covid-19.

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