SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Artificial turf carpets one room on the fifth floor of Seton Hall University’s Jubilee Hall – the home of the Center for Sports Polling.
The center is the world’s only university-based sports poll, according to Rick Gentile, director.
In addition to the faux grass carpeting, the center sports neon orange chairs and flat-screen televisions always tuned into ESPN. The center has been in operation since 2006 and conducts polls that try to understand Americans’ sentiments about the multi-billion dollar sports industry, Gentile said.
“There are a lot of college polls that deal with commerce and politics, like Rutgers and Quinnipiac,” Gentile said. “And of course, some big companies like the Associated Press do their own sports polling.”
The findings have been cited by every major media outlet from ESPN to the Alternative Press and Bloomberg Businessweek.
Exactly which questions are asked, and how they are worded, is up to the senior staff.
“I sit down with the staff and I say ‘here’s what I’m thinking for topics,’” Gentile said. “Then we talk about it and everyone hashes out what they have to say, and after a few days we have our questions.”
Theresa Fortune is a recent Seton hall graduate who continues to work at the center. She said that she thinks coming up with topics to discuss with interviewees is fun in itself because it presents the challenge of trying to read the public’s mind and see what the American people are most interested in talking about.
“We have to come up with questions that appeal to the entire population,” she said. “The polling is nationwide. We start the polls on the East Coast and roll west as the night goes on.”
Past poll topics have included Yankees player Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from baseball, driver Danica Patrick’s impact on NASCAR racing and the controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong.
Aside from a handful of administrators, the polling center is staffed entirely by Seton Hall students who do everything from calling people to ask questions to compiling the data for release. For a few days each month, students sit at the center’s 18 computer screens and talk with people across the country.
Students do the bulk of the work in order to keep costs low, Gentile said. He added that students gain valuable real-world experience that will give them a huge leg up once they graduate.
“Doing this allows the students to develop their patience and articulation,” Fortune said. “These are things they’re going to use after graduation.”
Gentile says that through polling, the students are able to hone their confidence and persuasive skills.
“This really gives our students good experience dealing with people,” he explained. “You have to get to know the people in about a minute and convince them to take the poll. Sometimes (people are) really courteous, and sometimes they can get quite hostile. So the students learn to persuade people and to have thick skin when they can’t.”
Fortune said a lot work and planning goes into the process of simply getting a person to answer a few questions.
“Not everyone is open to being polled,” Fortune said. “Sometimes people are uneasy with being questioned, sometimes so much that they become openly hostile. And even when they aren’t, a lot of people don’t think they know enough about sports to answer any questions about it.”
In fact, one rule pollsters must follow above all others: Never say the questions will be about sports until it’s time to ask them.
“If a person isn’t interested in sports, or if they don’t think they know enough about sports to answer any questions, then they may not agree to participate,” Gentile said. “So that’s why we always tell them that the poll is about current events. It’s not as specific, so people seem to be more at ease.”
Strictly speaking, labeling the polls “current events” is accurate because the polls ask questions about current or upcoming sporting trends and national events. Even when they aren’t directly dealing with sports, the questions always have a sporting spin on them.
Once the poll takers get their interviewees talking, though, is when the fun of the job starts, according to Fortune.
“You get blown away by the things people have to say, especially when they’re really interested in the topics,” she said. “Polls are only supposed to take a few minutes out of a person’s day. But sometimes it’s actually hard to cut a person off. But that’s when you get the best information and get to ask the best questions.”
Fortune said the Center is “always buzzing” when there’s a poll in progress. “Between the bright colors, and the TVs and the computers and everyone talking at the same time, it’s exciting,” she said. “And it’s always fun to get people involved in the polling process.”
The reporter is a student participating in hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.