Small college uses niche sport to boost enrollment


Adrian College anglers on the varsity bass fishing team pose with their catch. Image: Adrian College

By Stephanie Rauhe

The world of collegiate sports is ever-growing as new sports come into the spotlight, but one is emerging that might be a surprise – bass fishing.

Although it might seem like a niche sport for students, the world of bass fishing is more than meets the eye. Collegiate teams use science and technology to catch the heaviest fish.

Adrian College, a small private school in Lenawee County, Michigan, joined the ranks of about 500 varsity bass fishing teams and clubs across the country in 2015. Only about one-fourth of these programs are fully funded by their institutions, while the others operate under club status, generating their own funds and resources.

Adrian and Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac are both funded programs, while the University of Michigan has a club team.

According to the Bassmaster website, other Michigan schools with teams or clubs are Ferris State, Grand Valley State, Michigan State, Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State universities.

When the idea of starting a bass fishing program was first broached to the president of Adrian, Jeffrey Docking, the college’s enrollment was slowly dwindling with just over 900 students.

Docking said he was looking for ways to attract more students, but he hadn’t thought about the lure of bass fishing. Once he began considering the number of lakes in Michigan, the program started to become a reality.

“We are more of a rural community at Adrian, and we have kids that are into shooting and fishing,” said Docking. “There’s a bit of a fit here, so I thought, “We’re gonna do this.’”

He ran the numbers and decided that a program would be plausible, so the college bought two boats and hired a head coach, Seth Borton.

Borton, who grew up fishing and playing sports, said he wanted to continue working in the outdoor realm.

When the program was created, he said one of the biggest challenges was finding the space to facilitate the program, as bass fishing requires a lake, boats and equipment.

Borton said he was unsure if there would be enough student interest to keep the program afloat, but he soon had the answer.

Applications began pouring in from across the country from students wanting to join the team. Adrian had to build a warehouse to store the equipment and boats that students were bringing, and the program kept expanding.

Though it was a new addition to the bass fishing world, Adrian quickly established itself as a fierce competitor.

Adrian finished the 2022-23 season ranked fourth in the nation and has claimed several more victories so far this year, winning the state championship in August.

Not only is the team, which has about two dozen members, ranked among the top four in the country for the last five years, but it’s also the only Northern U.S. school to finish in the top five in year-end rankings, according to Docking.

When Docking came to Adrian in 2005, the school had only 16 inter-collegiate sports programs but now has 52, including varsity cornhole and hockey teams. Its enrollment has climbed to over 1,800 students this fall.

Docking said he took a leap in starting the program, but it’s paid off for Adrian in huge ways.

“We just have all kinds of sports that are maybe off the beaten path, but have a strong following,” he said. “About 70% of our students come into our college through a sport.”

Stephanie Rauhe reports for Capital News Service.

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