I’ll start by telling a tale of two programs.
The USC women’s basketball team, located in the center of Los Angeles, struggled to attract 1,000 people to home games in a 14–16 season in 2016–17 in a metropolitan area of 13 million. In contrast, the University of Arizona, located in the much smaller Tuscon, population 500K, saw an average home game attendance of 1800 the same season. Its win/loss record? 14–16.
Both teams were in the same conference, had the same win/loss record, were served by the same Pac-12 television network to provide coverage of their games. Both schools had men’s teams with similar levels of success that year. Frankly, it’s difficult to find teams with a greater number of controlled variables.
That comparison showed clearly that the size of nearby populations does not perfectly correlate with high women’s basketball attendance when win/loss ratios are controlled for, showing that marketing, team branding, and intangibles play a significant role in women’s basketball attendance.
Winning is undoubtedly the single largest contributor to a women’s basketball program’s attendance. The top 50 programs by attendance in 2016–17 is a who’s who of NCAA tournament women’s basketball teams, and none of the top 10 programs by attendance are in cities with populations over a million.
However, high attendance itself can contribute to success on the court. Home court advantages are immense in women’s basketball, compared to men. Nationally, the average attendance at a D1 basketball game is about 1,500. Of the 347 D1 programs nationwide, 200 play in front of under 1,000 people. 90 programs play in front of under 500. In contrast, men’s games see an average attendance of 4,600. Men’s basketball players are accustomed to large, loud crowds every single night. Most women’s teams are not, and a large crowd and its noise can impact performance. Therefore, it is in the best interest of an coach and program director looking for home game wins to increase program attendance dramatically.
Although I’m an environmental economics major, I’ve always been fascinated by collegiate women’s basketball. I grew up watching the Oregon State team, and throughout my childhood, I saw the program struggle to draw 1,000 people to a game in an era of scandal, before watching attendance surge to 3–4 thousand per game in only a few years. That growth wasn’t just because of the program’s dramatic rise in the national rankings, either. The program’s turnaround in the public eye included multiple strategies that weren’t only about team success on the court.
Here are the strategies I witnessed the OSU women’s basketball team use from 2010–16 to increase their game attendance.
Strategy 1: Host a “Beyond the Classroom” Event
In a “Beyond the Classroom” event, the basketball team invites elementary and middle schools from anywhere within 100 miles to a matinee weekday game. Before the game, students tour the university, and in the halftimes/time outs, various educational quizzes play.
Not only does such an event enormously benefit the program, as a fraction of the kids drag their parents to future games, but it trains players on the team to play with noise, a useful skill for tournament play, and it is also beneficial for the community, as many of the students who tour the university have never been to a university before in their lives, and the tour may inspire many kids to pursue college later in life.
Keys to a successful “Beyond the Classroom” Event:
· The game must be a low attendance weekday matinee.
· The opposing team must be a pushover. The kids should see a winning game, preferably a blowout, for maximum enjoyment.
· Coordinate with the college to plan school tours before the event.
· Add extra security, make sure the pre-game music is clean, and coordinate with teachers to make the event runs as seamlessly as possible, to ensure that schools come back the next year.
Strategy 2: Use the Players Themselves as Goodwill Ambassadors
Men’s collegiate sports, particularly football and basketball are notorious for bad behavior and crime. One way to draw fans to market women’s basketball as a “cleaner,” more wholesome alternative to the men’s sports. An environment where young families would feel safe bringing their kids. One way to create that appeal is to have the players interact heavily with children, young families and charities. Potential activities to increase community goodwill include a 10 minute meetup/autograph session after every game, involving players in youth basketball coaching clinics, involving players in charity work around the local community, and booting any players who commit criminal acts, immediately.
Those actions produce two major positive outcomes for the program. Firstly, the emphasis on community in the truest sense of the word will set the program apart from others in recruitment, and creates a high-quality recruiting class of women who avoid illegal activity, understand the value of teamwork, and work hard, all of which are essential attributes for a winning team. Secondly, the program’s goodwill will attract fans who will keep coming to games, regardless of if the team wins or loses. There are many sports competing for a fan’s attention. To be successful, the program must be unique.
In OSU’s case, players were doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge long before anyone else was, volunteering at kitchens, frolicing with kids after games, and the players were very public about their faith, with one player becoming known nationwide for praying on the foul line 10 seconds before tip-off. Another player became famous for joining a rocketry club, and firing off rockets in her spare time, when she wasn’t training.
Keys to Successful Community Outreach
· The coach must be an extremely nice person. That approachability in recorded press conferences is noted by the public and media and recruits. The coach stays, even as players come and go. Their reputation matters immensely.
· The community involvement aspect of the team must be advertised in recruitment, not only to attract the players that are community minded, but also weed out the potential recruits that are not interested.
· Maintain active social media pages documenting the charity work of the team, and bits of the team’s “behind the scenes” life, during travel and in preparation for games, to humanize the team, and build fanbase loyalty.
· Establish regular meetups between fans and players, to build the perception that the fans are part of the larger team family. Oregon State University did this beautifully by establishing an “eight minute mingle” after games, in which fans could linger to greet players and receive autographs on the basketball court after the game. After the eight minutes were up, the arena buzzer would sound and players would leave.
Strategy 3: Follow the Data
The best practices for improving women’s basketball attendance have been studied by researchers at Marquette University. Some of their findings were obvious, such as that the average attendance of conference games was higher than nonconference games and that the average attendance of rivalry games and in matchups against top-20 teams were good. However, some of their findings were insightful, such as that Saturday games sold better, that previous year’s win records were more correlated with wins than the success of the current season, that women’s basketball fans were disproportionately older, Caucasian, and mid-to-lower income.
Best Practices to Adopt to Increase Attendance, Partly Adapted from Marquette Study, and Also Seen Used by Oregon State University:
· Promote the best players on your team extensively, to build star power, which draws in fans. Market them as positive, charitable role models, not just as athletes.
· Schedule non-conference games on Saturdays, when possible.
· Keep tickets affordable. Many attendees are seniors on fixed incomes, and cannot afford steep ticket price increases.
· Invite a top-20 women’s basketball team to play a non-conference game at home.
· If there isn’t one already, create an official fan/booster club that provides extra rewards to donors and program superfans.
· Give season ticket holders extra perks to increase loyalty, such as a discounted membership to the team booster club and invitations to team events, or free swag at some games, or ticket purchasing priority if the team makes it to the NCAA tournament.
· Allow mobile ticketing.
· Maintain an active social media presence on multiple platforms, to increase outreach to fans, and fan loyalty.
· Know the demographics of your fanbase and your potential fanbase, and adapt your marketing campaign to fit them.
· Livestream games online that are not televised for a price.
· Experiment with holding doubleheaders with the men’s program, to improve the chances of capturing fans who otherwise would not have showed up to a game.
Fan loyalty matters. As explained in a 2013 NCAA white paper written by Val Ackerman, winning games alone won’t create a reliable fanbase that will withstand losing seasons and avoid being siphoned off by other sports such as women’s volleyball. Even the best teams have “bad” years. For long term success, fans must be enthusiastic about the values the program stands for, and must feel that they are experiencing something unique and special.
Not every recommendation is feasible for every program. Cal State Fullerton, for example, sees attendance under 300 at women’s basketball games and attendance under 1,000 at men’s games. Creating a full time social media position may be unaffordable for either program, and a fan booster club would be infeasible. But programs should never be scared to innovate and experiment to find new fans. There’s a large untapped market of fans, and the payoffs from success far outweigh the costs of a failed marketing campaign.
Lastly, I will say that women’s basketball faces larger issues at a national level that I did not address, from unfair television treatment to a disjointed and inefficient NCAA management structure to a lack of competitiveness between teams, particularly in tournament play. This essay was about strategies individual programs can implement to increase their attendance, despite the national issues surrounding the sport. None of the greater challenges facing women’s basketball are insurmountable at a local level, and the empty seats in women’s basketball games are an opportunity for athletics sales and attendance growth on a scale not possible in men’s sports.