|Friday, January 25
Updated: January 31, 12:56 PM ET
Women's programs packing the house
By Melanie Jackson
On Sunday, Kansas State scored its second sellout in school history, Louisiana State hosted its second-largest crowd ever and Minnesota played before the largest crowd to see a women's college basketball game in state history. And two weeks ago, South Carolina played before a sellout crowd that nearly doubled the previous home record.
The most notable sellout came Jan. 5 for a game between Connecticut and Tennessee that drew a women's NCAA Division I record 24,611 fans to Knoxville's Thompson-Boling Arena. That the Huskies and Lady Vols packed the house is no surprise. At tipoff, they were ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, and were both unbeaten, which set up high expectations for the biggest rivalry in women's college basketball.
Fans have consistently flocked to see the Huskies and Lady Vols for years. Tennessee has led the nation in attendance in six of the past seven seasons, and averaged more than 15,000 fans a game in 2001. UConn's Gampel Pavilion, meanwhile, has recorded 61 consecutive sellouts since December 1997.
But January 2002 has featured several sold-out games around the nation. And in one of the biggest attendance turnarounds of the season, South Carolina had 12,168 watch its game against Tennessee on Jan. 17. The record crowd nearly doubled the Lady Gamecocks' previous best crowd of 6,219, which was set in 1981. This season, South Carolina had only averaged 902 fans at its previous 11 home games.
Skeptics might argue, however, that South Carolina set its new attendance figure only because it reduced its regular $5 ticket price to a promotional $1 price.
Beth Bass, CEO for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), says never mind what attracted the crowd.
"At the WBCA, our mission is to grow the sport, put the best product out there on the floor, and that's what we're doing," she said. "Let's not overanalyze how the fans got there. We need to promote awareness and look at revenue second.
"For now, let's open the doors and let people either get more entrenched in the game or be exposed for the first time."
While attendance at men's Division I basketball games dipped slightly last season, overall attendance at women's games has slowly increased every year since 1992. For the 2000-01 season, 6,519,667 fans, or an average crowd of 1,524, attended women's college basketball games, including NCAA Tournament games. Both are NCAA records, and represent a 2.5 percent increase over the 6,356,729 fans, or 1,491 average, in 1999-2000. And since the first NCAA season was held in 1982, when games drew an average of 432 fans (and 1,147,954 for the entire season), there has been an 252.7 percent increase in attendance. Even 10 years ago, women's games only averaged 931 fans.
The NCAA doesn't release its attendance figures until after the season concludes, but unofficial statistics charted by sports information directors Tam Flarup and Dan Uttech at the University of Wisconsin indicate that home attendance this season is up at six of last season's top 10 biggest drawing programs. The largest jump in attendance is at Notre Dame, which is averaging 7,570 fans this season, almost 1,200 more for the 12-7 Irish than than during the 2001 NCAA title run. Purdue is averaging about 1,000 more fans than last season, and Texas Tech is drawing almost 700 more fans per game.
The Big 12 has led the nation in attendance for the past two seasons, but Iowa State and Texas Tech, among the top four programs in average attendance in the country, most likely have helped elevate the overall league numbers. Now, Baylor and Kansas State are adding to the mix. On Jan. 12, 10,031 fans -- just 26 short of the Ferrell Center women's attendance record -- helped sell out the Oklahoma-Baylor matchup. The Big 12, which averaged 5,030 fans per game in 2001, got another boost on Jan. 12 when Kansas State attracted its first sellout and a record crowd of 13,466 for its win over Nebraska.
The Big Ten and SEC ranked second and third, respectively, last season in average conference attendance. But it's not just Purdue and Tennessee bringing in the fans anymore. Wisconsin fans set a school and Big Ten record as 17,142 -- the third largest crowd of the season -- showed up at the Jan. 20 game against Minnesota. Gopher fans responded, and for Minnesota's win over Indiana on Sunday, 11,389 showed up, nearly doubling the previous record attendance for Minnesota, which was 6,746 and set in 1993.
And in addition to SEC schools South Carolina and LSU attracting larger crowds, Auburn drew 6,614 fans, the third largest turnout in school history, for its game against Tennessee on Sunday.
While South Carolina received a lot of press for its $1 tickets, the Gamecocks are hardly the first program to cut prices as part of a promotion. Tennessee has used the same ploy, and early in the 1980s, $25 got Texas fans a season ticket and admittance to a members-only, post-game club where they got a chance to meet the players.
But gimmicks aren't enough.
"You can give out all the T-shirts you want, and get clowns and the circus to come, but the bottom line is that if it's not a winning product, than it's hard to get the fans to come," Texas coach Jody Conradt said. "The one factor that is necessary to build attendance is winning. It's easy (to draw fans) when you're winning because everybody loves a winner and everything is new and fresh."
Winning is what Baylor, Kansas State, Wisconsin and South Carolina have done for the majority of the season to ascend the Top 25. And even unranked teams from "mid-major" conferences are seeing a growth in fan base. New Mexico -- a budding program but one that hasn't been ranked all season -- has ranked fifth in home attendance for two straight years, and Lobos fans packed The Pit with 17,215 fans on Jan. 6 for the second-largest crowd of the season. New Mexico notched its third sellout in program history last March when the Lobos hosted Ohio State in the WNIT championship game.
Now that the fans are coming, what's next?
"I think the next important and somewhat critical step in the women's game, in order for us to really grow, is to get these types of turnouts," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said in her weekly teleconference. "I know there has been a lot of talk about neutral sites in the postseason, and this is the level of support we need to eventually get to that. I think it is important for programs across the country to continue to market not only their league games, but also the big rivals that they have outside of the league."
Tennessee hasn't had a problem promoting its rivalries, and the Lady Vols haven't lost more than 10 game in a season since 1976. But what happens if South Carolina or Kansas State win just a handful of games next season? Will the fans continue to come?
"The hard part is sustaining it (increase in attendance), and having that loyal, hard-core support that's with you even in those years where you're not so successful," said Conradt, who also served as Texas' director of women's athletics for nine years until last April.
And even after working to increase its attendance for the better part of 20 years, Texas and most of the programs around the country are "a long way away" from turning a profit.
"But I think we're at the point where we can offset some of the expenses of running a program at a high level," Conradt added.
But in the end, you get what you pay for, said ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman.
"People have been putting money into marketing in hopes of creating this type of excitement and fan support for years at programs like Tennessee, Connecticut, Texas Tech and Southwest Missouri State," said Lieberman, a former All-American who also played and coached in the WNBA. "Now, other programs are figuring out you need to have people internally who know how to market the game.
"People are now realizing this can be a money-making proposition. Increasing attendance means more merchandise, more concessions, more parking. But you have to promote the game."
Schools are catching on. At LSU, credit the sixth annual Pack the PMAC for drawing 8,153 fans -- the program's second-largest crowd -- for Sunday's game against No. 5 Vanderbilt. Since Pack the PMAC, a yearly effort to expose the game to the public, first debuted in 1997, LSU has had the school's 10 largest crowds, which includes eight crowds of 5,000 or better. Before 1997, the LSU women had never played before a crowd larger than 2,500.
According to Bass, the demographic of the average women's college basketball fan tends to be families and the elderly, probably because the game is "cost-effective entertainment."
"But we don't do well with the student body," Bass said. "We need to get the students more involved in in-arena attendance."
Regardless of individual school promotions, Bass said no one is a better spokeswoman for the sport than the players themselves.
"The key influencer might be that these coaches and student-athletes are very positive role models on our society," she said. "And last season's semifinals in St. Louis couldn't have played out any better. We had new teams and exposed the public to some parity.
"I truly think people want to be involved with sports on the ascent, and women's basketball is up and coming. People want to be part of a groundswell, and there's not a lot of those around. For now, women's basketball is fresh and accessible."
And as a result, Conradt points out, women's basketball is "becoming something that brings prestige and recognition to the school. It's becoming a source of school pride."
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.
Melanie Jackson is the women's college basketball editor at ESPN.com and writes a weekly notebook, the Quick Dish. Click here to send her any suggestions, corrections or story ideas.