When Muffet McGraw first took over the Notre Dame Womens basketball team in 1987, she could almost count the number of fans in the seats during a time out. At its best, the number could be counted during pregame warm-ups.
Today, however, it is a far different story.
Over the past month and change since the exhibition season commenced, I have attended 14 of the 17 basketball games -- both men's and women's -- played at Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion. As a general rule, for the men's games, I drove unimpeded into the parking lot, parked in the nearest lot, and had an unobstructed walk into the arena. In contrast, for the women's games, I had to endure a 15-minute (or longer!) traffic backup that extended for a good half a mile, parked in an outer lot (the closer ones long since full), and then had to wend my way through the crowds to get to my seat at the press table.
My, how things have changed.
Having followed this team from a relatively close distance (meaning, Im not a fan, more like a curious writer) for the last 15 years, I can attest to the growth in womens basketball in general, but at Notre Dame in particular.
Last season, according to a report issued by the NCAA, the Irish men's team outdrew their female counterparts -- by a hair! The Notre Dame men averaged a crowd of 8,402 per game, while the Irish women pulled in 8,377. (And that's if you discount the widely perceived inflation of attendance figures on the men's side of the house. As a first-hand observer, I can attest that the women's numbers are far more realistic.)
This season, the Irish women are actually pulling in more fans than the men -- a lot more, in fact. The smallest crowd the women have drawn at home this season was 7,466, at their exhibition game against Michigan Tech. The men have fallen short of that mark in all but one (their most recent game against Gonzaga) of their seven home games to date; their lowest turnout, against Chicago State, saw a turnout of 6,252 (or more than 1,200 fewer than the women's smallest crowd).
The men's best turnout -- 8,570, or 94 percent of the 9,149-seat capacity of Purcell Pavilion* -- came this week against Gonzaga. The women's best -- a full house of 9,149 -- came last week against Purdue, and attendance at this week's women's game against Creighton (8,848 -- or 97 percent of the house) also surpassed the men's top mark.
Nor are these figures anomalies. This season, the women have averaged crowds of 8,343, more than 91 percent of Purcell's capacity; the men, if their numbers are to be believed, have drawn just 6,989, or 76 percent of the house capacity, on average this season.
Notre Dame Men's and Women's Home Basketball Attendance — As of December 12, 2010
|Georgia Southern (season opener)||8,165||89%|
(* - Note: Though the official Notre Dame athletics website still lists the capacity of Purcell Pavilion as 11,418, according to a school spokesman, the arena was renovated two years ago. After bleacher seats in the upper level were replaced with chairbacks, the capacity was reduced by roughly 2,300, to 9,149. This article has been updated to use the revised capacity figures and percentages.)
None of the foregoing is intended to denigrate the Notre Dame men or their fans. There are programs all over the country that would salivate at the prospect of filling more than 75 percent of their house in an average game. And while the Irish men are not in the same league attendance-wise as Kentucky (24,111/game), Syracuse (22,152/game), Louisville (19,397/game) or Tennessee (19,168/game) -- the top-four drawing men's teams in Division I last year -- they ranked in the top 100 drawing teams in the country (No. 60, to be exact) and their average attendance of 8,402 was well above the men's Division I national average of 5,245 butts in the seats per game last season.
Nor could anyone sensibly argue that women's basketball attendance across the board is anywhere close to the men's on average. Women's ball is unquestionably growing as an attraction: Last year's national attendance figures were the second highest in history, down just slightly from the NCAA record set in 2008-09 -- and despite a major economic recession, 2009-10 marked the third consecutive year in which women's basketball attendance topped 11 million nationally. But women's average DI attendance of 1,637 fans in 4,918 games is still just a fraction the men's mark (27,539,459 in the stands for 5,245 games), even though the men also experienced a year-over-year attendance drop last season.
Still, that's a lot of folks watching women's basketball. And at least some women's teams, the Irish among them, have found the right recipe for drawing crowds that rival, and in some cases exceed, those of their male counterparts.
Last year -- and, it would appear that they are heading in the same direction again this season -- the Irish women's average crowd of 8,377 was more than five times the Division I national average. At No. 4 in the nation, Notre Dame women were outdrawn only by women's hoops dynasty Tennessee (No. 1 at 12,896 per game), repeat national champs Connecticut (No. 2 at 10,182 per game) who were putting together their second straight undefeated season (placing them in a position to top John Wooden's all-time winning streak for basketball of either gender this year), and Iowa State (No. 3 at 9,316 per game, who were en route to one of the best seasons in school history, including their highest Big 12 finish (No. 2) in 10 years. (By the way, if you need any evidence that Hoosiers love their women's hoops, Purdue came in at No. 5 with an average of 8,159 fans per game.)
Of the top-five drawing women's teams in the country, the Irish (by far) came closest to equaling their brethren in attendance. They did it in a year in which they fielded an excellent team, consistently ranked by multiple polls, including Full Court's among the top 25 in the country, but were by not (in a year in which UConn had already been pre-anointed repeat national champs by consensus) considered national championship contenders. (The Irish finished in fifth place in the Big East with a 12-4 conference record, 29-6 overall, ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation by all but the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, which had them at No. 11, with a visit to the Sweet 16 to their credit.) And the Notre Dame women drew those impressive crowds in a collegiate environment in which football remains king, in a town that is two or more hours away from the nearest major metropolitan area, and in a locale where the good old boy network is alive and well in the traditional sports media. (To cite just one example, local media all but ignored Notre Dame's NCAA championship women's soccer team until I paid my own way to cover it.) Head coach Muffet McGraw deserves huge credit for breaking into that football/men's basketball-dominated media milieu.
So what then is the secret to the Irish success when it comes to drawing the crowds to women's hoops? As a business professor at a local college (not Notre Dame), I sometimes use the Notre Dame's women's team as an example of an extremely well-marketed product. Lets look at six pragmatic characteristics that have enabled the womens program to catch and at times exceed the mens program at the box office. (Small businessmen and women should take note. It aint all basketball here.)
- A high-quality product First and foremost, the product must be a good one. Under McGraws tenure, the Irish have won one national championship and made it into the Final Four in another season. Despite being in a very tough Big East Conference, McGraw is able to put a high quality product on the floor and is able to win enough games to be a consistent choice for the NCAA tournament. As any business person knows, the quality of your product, in the final analysis, is the biggest determinant of your eventual success or failure, and if that quality is high enough, people will go out of their way to get their hands on it. (Aside: There is a doughnut shop in downtown South Bend, Indiana, that has the best darn double chocolate doughnuts in the world. They are so good that I am willing to pay three times what Krispy Crme charges and drive 20 minutes just to get that doughnut. If the doughnut wasnt the best around, I wouldn't waste my time).
- A squeaky-clean image Ethics ARE important. While Notre Dames athletic philosophy is to combine academics and winning, its success in the Big Two sports of football and basketball has been somewhat limited, especially in the past 15 years. Mens basketball coach Mike Brey has been able to maintain a clean image but the football team has had some very public issues and has seen several coaches come and go. With women's basketball now third on the visibility list, McGraw has recruited women who not only are excellent basketball players, but are also solid role models, visible, in a positive light, in the community.
- Local networking -- Become part of your community. In the early years, McGraws team busied themselves doing as much for the community for as it could possibly do, and doing it largely for free -- giving away free tickets, standing in line for hours after a game signing autographs for little kids and parents who love the ability to just stand on the floor with these local heroes, to name a couple of examples. In fact, in Nice Girls Finish First, a book I authored chronicling Notre Dame's 2000-2001 National Championship season, I remarked upon how active in the community rising superstar Ruth Riley was, and the same was true of her teammates.
- While you're at it, develop a strong support system that complements your own abilities -- In the long run, your friends will get you through tough situations. McGraw is married to a very extroverted man (Matt) who offsets Muffet's own shyness and solidifies the family image that the program pushes. Matt is a one-man public relations team for the squad and the two complement each other well. I go to a church where we regularly change ministers every seven years or so. The best ministerial experiences have always been where there is a husband and wife combination in which one supports the other on an active basis. This is the case with the McGraws. With Matt at her side, when Muffet goes out into the community, their fellow citizens get a chance to know them as the quintessential modern American family, as close to mom-and-apple-pie as one can get. It is fantastic. And the attention they, and the entire Notre Dame team, give to the real fan base (not just the students, but the surrounding community of families who want to give their daughters a positive role-model experience) has been of huge benefit in establishing a solid, recurring core of fans.
- Have something for the kids to enjoy -- I.e., Know your target market. With a fan base at Notre Dame consisting mostly of families and kids, Notre Dame knows that it has to give the kids something that they like to do. A few years back, I had the great fortune of covering the Womens World Cup Soccer tournament when it was in Chicago. I stood outside the press box for much of the game and watched in fascination as the parents spent $10.00 for ice cream floats and fizzies. The next booth over, the beer booth, was staffed, but devoid of business. The lesson, of course, is that kids rarely go to the game to watch the game (though admittedly, a few do). Rather, they view it was an opportunity to eat some food and have some fun.
- When possible, recruit a local star onto the team. In marketing, it is called the Hook, the thing that sets you apart and the reason you are special. Quite honestly, Notre Dame struck it rich with the recruitment and eventual rise to super-stardom of current sophomore Skylar Diggins. Diggins has a confident, yet humble, personality off the court but turns into Larry Bird on the hardwood. McGraw worked long and hard to get her to stay home and play for the Irish; the fact that Diggins is family-driven and lived within 10 miles of the campus were factors in her decision to sign.
McGraw and her staff, using the draw that is Notre Dame, have been able to combine the recruiting success with the coaching need to maintain a consistent high quality product.
In this regard, players emulate the example set by their coach. Despite being a bit of an introvert, McGraw has become an integral part of the community. (Surprisingly, many high profile coaches are forced to, or choose to, stay out of the public eye). Together with husband, McGraw can often be found out in the community, volunteering for local charities, participating in civic events and taking an active part in fundraising efforts to support worthy causes. And when they're engaged in these activities, they behave, not like celebrities, but like normal people (which, quite refreshingly, they are).
The men have always had a team, always will have a team, and are part of the perceived establishment, and the men don't sign autographs. The inflated ticket prices and perceived snobbishness -- in short, the elitism -- of the men's basketball team over the past 30 years when juxtaposed with a women's program that is integrally involved in the community, accessible to fans, allows local women and children into a high quality game for $7.00, and lets them watch nice girls who sign autographs after the games all contribute to the creation of an "Our Girls" syndrome. The effect is that the people who attend the women's games on a regular basis feel like they have been part of a building project and are very ego-involved. It is THEIR team.
|Photo Caption: Irish Coach Muffet McGraw has built a loyal following by venturing off campus and into the surrounding community, alongside her husband, her staff, and her team. Fans are impressed by the team's squeaky clean image, its dedication to community causes, and the accessibility of positive role models for their daughters.|
|Photo Credit: Courtesy Notre Dame Media Relations/Mike Bennett|
So, timeouts at Notre Dame games are full of T-shirt launches and the dreaded chicken toss (where 4-6 year old kids are supposed to throw a fake chicken as far as they can, and yes, a few have landed in the middle of a team huddle). Notre Dame just installed a brand new state-of-the-art video scoreboard above the floor of the arena and now the camera operators can focus on the crowd during halftime, which is always a crowd favorite. In short, the Irish know their market is family-fans, not necessarily sports fans, and they have catered to that.
Diggins is just the latest in a long line of local stars that include, among others, Ruth Riley (from Macy, Indiana, about 50 miles south of campus) and Jackie Batteast (South Bend Washington High School). But while both of them had some pulling power from local-area high school connections, neither comes anywhere close to the star power of Diggins, whose presence most likely accounts for some 2,000 season tickets held by fans who have followed her from middle school and on.
|Photo Caption: It never hurts to recruit a local hero -- like Skylar Diggins, for example. Everyone benefits -- the athlete brings with her a loyal crowd of enthusiastists, the athlete benefits from the local media attention, and the local fan base has someone to take pride in.|
|Photo Credit: Courtesy Notre Dame Media Relations/Mike Bennett|
Recruiting a local star creates something of a symbiotic relationship that benefits not just the school, in terms of crowd appeal, but also the athlete, in terms of developing their own notoriety and star power. A few years back, Shanna Zolman, who set Indiana scoring records at a school about an hours drive from Notre Dame, chose Tennessee and, after having been all but canonized by the local media while in high school, became a secondary name while playing for Pat Summitt nearly 500 miles away in Knoxville. In contrast, Diggins has become the focal point of the local media, which helps to promote not only Diggins but the team as well.
Bottom line: Just because you have a good team does not mean the fan base will support you. (See, e.g., the Texas Rangers as compared to the Chicago Cubs). While Notre Dame has the advantage of brand name (called brand equity, which is the value that the name Notre Dame adds to any product), McGraw and her staff and players have worked hard to build something special in South Bend. Their efforts have yielded big results, even in a market that is dominated by an iconic football team.
Editor's Note: Mark Bradford, a sports writer since 1977, is the author of Nice Girls Finish First: The Remarkable Story of Notre Dame's Rise to the Top of Women's College Basketball, a behind-the-scenes story of the 2000-01 Notre Dame women's basketball team and its journey to the national championship, culminating in the defeat of Purdue, 68-66, in a heart-stopping final game. Mark is also a sports reporter for the South Bend Tribune and a regular contributor to Full Court Press.
Updated: Mon, December 13, 2010