Few things go together as well as beer and sports, which is probably why Milwaukee, population 578,887, is the birthplace of four of the world's largest breweries (Schlitz, Pabst, Miller and Blatz), and home to two professional teams (Brewers and Bucks) and two competitive Division I schools (Marquette and UWM).
Without a population in the millions to draw from (like other multi-sport cities), there are often more sporting options than fans. Attracting a consistent crowd for Marquette basketball games at the Bradley Center has been a lesson in creativity for the athletic department.
Marquette's student population of 11,000 hardly makes it one of the largest schools in the Big East. The Golden Eagles, however, always have attracted a faithful crowd to their games.
"Historically, we've always drawn pretty well," said associate athletic director Mike Broeker. "Our location is our biggest challenge. We are competing with pro teams, not to mention other entertainment options. We don't have the luxury of being in a college town or one-horse town."
Instead of using the team's location as an excuse, Marquette's athletic department -- specifically, the tickets and marketing department -- has put a premium on finding creative ways to draw new fans. Once they get the fans into the game, Broeker's staff works equally hard at making sure they come back again. With more than 18,000 seats to fill and approximately 3,500 student ticket holders, the group has their work cut out for them.
Marquette is one of a growing number of sports organizations to offer smaller, more cost-effective ticket plans.
"In the last couple of years, we've diversified our ticket plans and introduced mini plans," explained Broeker. "We try to tailor these packages to specific groups; weeknights might be better suited for young professionals, whereas weekend plans might appeal more to families. We're trying to create something for everybody who enjoys basketball."
The mini-plans were instantly successful and currently represent between 1,500 to 1,700 of the tickets sold.
"You're seeing smaller, more targeted plans at the pro level. For us, we have to have a professional mentality. Do we have those resources? No. So we have to be unbelievably creative," said Broeker.
Creativity, however, can only get you so far. Without a strong product to sell, it's near impossible to become successful. Although the Golden Eagles consistently have supplied a quality product, the school's move to the Big East following the 2004-2005 season gave the athletic department even more ammunition.
"Joining the Big East has helped tremendously," said Broeker. "Wisconsin is always our biggest draw, but we've built rivalries with Louisville and DePaul."
Louisville, DePaul and Notre Dame were among Marquette's biggest crowds of all-time. The Irish were once a longtime rival, but the schools hadn't played in more than 10 years. Now, because of the Big East, the rivalry has been revived on an annual basis. Marquette's game against Pitt last year drew the largest crowd in Wisconsin for a college basketball game. On average, the Golden Eagles drew an average of 16, 575 fans for each Big East contest.
As the team has stepped up its plan on the court, the athletic department has stepped up its work off the court. According to Broeker, the Golden Eagles have played host to everything from giveaways to theme nights and are constantly introducing new ways to keep the atmosphere fun and exciting for the fans.
"We pride ourselves on the environment we create," said Broeker, whose résumé includes a stop in the NBA's league office. "We have a kids' area, an engaged pep band -- we have something for everybody."
Although Broeker sounds like a Mark Cuban disciple, he says his team pays attention to all sports when trying to come up with new ideas. Among the most successful ideas was a Dwyane Wade jersey giveaway night; the item was so popular, it is now one of the best-selling items at the campus bookstore.
Marquette's on-court success under coach Tom Crean (the team has gone 141-76 in Crean's seven seasons, including a trip to the 2003 Final Four) has helped fuel the program's growth.
"Tom has done such an unbelievable job," said Broeker. "He's put Marquette on another level. It's a great product to sell."
Broeker's public relations experience in the NBA league office and pro women's tennis tour have given him a unique perspective.
"[The women's tennis tour] was a smaller circuit. I got to see how promoters work to create environments. It's appealing not just to the hard-core tennis fan, but to the average fan, too. It's the total entertainment mentality," explained Broeker.
Getting the fans into the Bradley Center is just half of Broeker's job; he also has to make sure they come back for more. Giveaways like bobbleheads, posters, magnets and T-shirts ensure fans leave the game with something to remind them of their experience.
"We want the fans to walk away with a good feeling, and these things remind them of that," said Broeker. Marquette also has introduced a number of events that allow the public to meet and get to know the Golden Eagles players and coaches. These events include open workouts in the fall, Marquette Madness (a Midnight Madness event), a picnic for incoming freshmen, and Haunted Hoops (open house/scrimmage/safe Halloween event for community kids).
"We take a football mentality toward marketing our basketball team, since we don't have a football team," Broeker explained. "We might not get the 80- to 100,000 people that turn out at football fan days, but these events are attracting a lot of new people. Our goal is to stay fresh and relevant. How we manage out basketball program affects every part of our business."
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at Lauren.K.Reynolds@espn3.com.