Portland State is home to 14 different varsity teams, including football and basketball. Of those 14 programs, only three of them are on campus—while the outdoor programs like football and softball are played two cities away, at the stadium in Hillsboro, Oregon. Because of this, PSU has faced issues with getting fans to attend games and make the sports culture in Portland more lively.
PSU has an underrated sports history, often unknown or not talked about. Portland State, as a program, started as a Division II (D-II) school until proving their worth and rising up to Division I (D-I), joining the Big Sky Conference in 1996. PSU’s D-II resume consists of 7 national championships with volleyball claiming four of them and the (now defunct) wrestling team earning three. PSU football, during its time in D-II, made it to the national championship game back-to-back in 1987 and 1988. Sadly, they lost both years to Troy State and North Dakota State. The football team’s most recent D-I playoff appearance was in 2015, losing to Northern Iowa in the second round.
The men’s basketball team had a GOAT on their team—shooting guard Freeman Williams—who led the most points scored in the NCAA in a single season in both 1977 and 1978. He was drafted in ’78 by the Boston Celtics and ended his career playing for six teams from 1978 to 1993.
The women’s basketball team was a runner up in the NCAA national championship in 1995 during their time in D-II. That loss was also to North Dakota State—there’s a pattern here.
They’ve also made final four appearances in 1992 and 1995. The women’s basketball team won the Big Sky championship in 2019, falling to our rivals Oregon State in the NCAA tournament.
Since joining Division I, championship appearances and playoff runs have been slower and fans are starting to fade out—but are not gone. PSU athletics attempt to switch it up and get students excited, as they will finally be seen in the stands again.
The recently renovated Viking Pavilion on campus, home to basketball and volleyball, has a capacity of 3,094 people. In the year before the pandemic, the men’s basketball team averaged 1,238 fans per game while the women’s basketball team only averaged 482 fans per game despite the fact that they had won the Big Sky Conference that year.
Even one of the NCAA’s most popular sports, basketball, could not bring fans to the Pavilion in Portland, even though it is in our backyard. PSU football used to play their home games at Providence Park, the stadium where the Portland Timbers and Thorns play soccer. This stadium, with a 25,218 capacity and located only a 20-minute walk from campus, still wasn’t enough to bring fans in. In 2016, the team relocated to Hillsboro Stadium with a capacity of 7,600.
On June 1, 2021, Portland State mass-emailed all of their students asking them to spend five minutes out of their day to answer a quick survey about the state of PSU athletics. The questions in the survey were oddly specific, like “I would attend more off-campus football athletic events if there was a shuttle available at 30-minute intervals for arrival/departure.” This question is related to the fact that the PSU football team hosts their games at the Hillsboro stadium and it is inconvenient to go to a game, especially when a lot of students don’t have a car on campus.
This was just the beginning of bigger things coming. Only a week later, on June 9, the Big Sky Conference agreed to sign a multi-year media rights agreement with ESPN. This is major news because the Big Sky Conference was originally partnered with a much smaller streaming service called Pluto TV. This ESPN deal will have 600+ live events on the streaming service ESPN+, as well as on the ESPN app.
PSU is no stranger to ESPN. When our softball team won the Big Sky Conference and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, the NCAA tournament was hosted on ESPN with PSU playing softball juggernauts like University of Washington and Michigan.
While the ESPN+ streaming does cost $5.99 a month, ESPN University (ESPNU) will air two Big Sky football games per year and one regular season basketball game. On top of that, they will also air the men’s and women’s Big Sky basketball championship games, hopefully having PSU as a contender.
A little less than a month later, Portland State Athletics announced on July 2 that they have partnered with Peak Sports Management to help with their marketing brand and oversee multimedia rights. Peak Sports has already partnered with 20 schools like Florida A&M and University of Central Arkansas.
PSU will be their first school partnership in the Pacific Northwest. PSU will also be Peak Sports Management’s first urban school partnership. PSU is ready to change things and put themselves on the map again—just like they were in D-II—and it all starts with the fans’ support.