The Ackerman Report (3): Attendance, even with a winning team, is not mandatory

August 19, 2013 - 11:45am
Top 25 programs Notre Dame and Maryland played in a sparsely populated arena during the 2012 NCAA Regional. (Photo by Orin A. Day)

Top 25 programs Notre Dame and Maryland played in a sparsely populated arena during the 2012 NCAA Regional. (Photo by Orin A. Day)

(This is the third in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on NCAA women’s basketball.)

The Syracuse women’s basketball team won 24 games and lost eight in 2012-13. The Orange advanced to the NCAA tournament behind the star power of WNBA first-round draft choice Kayla Alexander while scoring 72.0 points a game.

The Syracuse women’s average home attendance? Six hundred and sixty-two paying customers.

The Syracuse men were even better, but it would be hard to argue that they were so much better that the average attendance for a men’s game was 2.5 times greater than the total attendance for the entire 14-game women’s season.

That’s right, the total attendance. Game by game, the men outdrew the women by slightly under 23,000 every time out.

That disparity, of course, is an outlier, but there are others. At Brigham Young, the men drew 15,424 a game; the women 657. At Ole Miss, the men drew 5,770; the women 903. Clemson: 7,828 to 967. At Arizona, 13,602 to 1,445.

Of course, there are success stories on the women’s side. Tennessee brought in 11,390 fans per game last year, and New Mexico, hardly a power, managed 6,450. Twenty-five teams, in fact, averaged more than 4,000 fans a game – which isn’t too bad until you realize that 30 NCAA women’s Division I team averaged fewer than 350 fans a game. Not 3,500; 350.

The bottom line, which is precisely what we’re talking about here, is that fans much prefer men’s college basketball to women’s college basketball, and in huge numbers. Twenty years ago, there was a feeling that as the quality of the women’s game improved, and fans were exposed to it in person and on TV, they would realize what they were missing and flock to the games.

Marketers, however, will echo one of the many Yogi Berra aphorisms: If the fans don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.

By now, only a very small segment of the potential ticket-buying population has not been exposed to women’s basketball, and it’s pretty clear that those who have, have made their choice. Now, can better marketing and more aggressive sales tactics make a difference? Absolutely. Can those 30 teams drawing fewer than 350 paying customers a night do better? No question.

The issue, though, from an athletic director’s standpoint is how much better? Or, to use a business term, what’s the return on investment (ROI) going to be if the AD puts more resources into women’s basketball?

As always, the answer isn’t as simple as it seems. First and foremost, the most effective way to boost attendance is to win. Put a talented, successful team on the floor and most of the time you’ll capture an audience – but in places like Rochester, N.Y., for example, that still might not help much.

And there’s no proven formula for getting a winning team, though the first step is almost always a significant financial investment in the head coach and his or her staff. Highly paid assistants, a sizable recruiting budget and an obvious commitment to women’s basketball will generally lead, in time, to a team that wins.

So now you have a winning team? Who’s going to watch? Sadly, not the students – and that’s where the problem lies. College attendance, and the electric atmosphere of college basketball, is driven by students, and students don’t come to women’s basketball games. Maybe it’s because young guys, who are the biggest sports fans on campus, realize the women are better than they are, and don’t want their masculinity questioned, or maybe it’s because young women don’t feel right cheering for anyone but men. Or maybe … well, no one really knows, but the hard truth remains that students (except in rare situations like the Big 12) don’t show up, even if the tickets are free.

That leaves an audience made up of the local lesbian community, folks over 50 and young families with daughters who play basketball.

This, obviously, is a limited market, and so many athletic directors decide the game isn’t worth the candle, and throw in the towel. They invest in football and men’s basketball, where the real dollars are, and if there’s another strong program (baseball, say, or maybe gymnastics), they put some resources there.

On the other hand, women’s basketball can generate some income, which is more than be said for field hockey or water polo or cross country, so there is more than a little logic in trying to make some money. Or, to put it another way, a D-1 school has to have a women’s basketball program that will cost it a couple million dollars, so is it better to not get any of that money back through ticket sales, or improve the program and cut the deficit, maybe even in half?

Different athletic directors have different answers, but as Yogi said, if the fans don’t want to come, you can’t stop them. So what attracts fans? Wins, of course, but also entertaining, fast-paced games with talented, athletic players. So yes, SEC teams win a lot of games, but those games are painful to watch – the very athletic players in the SEC take advantage of the way the game is officiated and thus defense dominates, leading to low-scoring, foul-filled games that coaches appreciate but casual fans find soporific.

That’s where rule and officiating changes come into play, as those are the best avenues to make the game more fun to watch, but even those are tweaks rather than systemic fixes. It would also help to play in smaller arenas – don’t play in the Carrier Dome just because the men do, for example – and make the experience more exciting. (One thousand people in a 5,000-seat arena are going to generate a lot more enthusiasm than 2,000 people in a 12,000-seat arena.)

In the end, though, significant attendance growth requires male students to suddenly get excited about watching women’s basketball games, and it’s unclear if that’s a reasonable goal at more than a small minority of Division I schools. If the male students don’t come, then probably 5,000 is about the best that can be expected, though it’s also possible that a strong program could wind up drawing half that no matter what else is done.

At this point, it is expected that the writer will unveil the grand plan that will transcend the present difficulties and point the way to glory and in this case, full arenas. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Just because women’s basketball is pretty good basketball doesn’t mean people are going to want to come watch it – after all, badminton and table tennis feature great athletes playing what can be exciting sports to watch, and yet it’s unlikely that anyone reading this article has ever paid a dime to see either one.

It is certainly possible for the bottom-feeders to do a better job, and athletic directors need to be educated on the benefits of a successful women’s basketball program, both in terms of direct and indirect revenue (sponsorships, donations, etc.). But marketers need an attractive product (not to mention a winning team), so growth is dependent on the games becoming more fun to watch, which in turn is dependent on better athletes, better skill development for young players, and better officiating – none of which an athletic director or marketer can control.

And even then, if that 19-year-old male in the dorm would rather watch the NBA on TV, or God forbid, study, the arenas are going to remain pretty empty.