Women’s b-ball teams Maryland, Iowa St. had no trouble packing an arena
Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 22:01
The WVU Coliseum has the reputation of being one of the toughest places to play in college basketball – when fans pack the arena.
That hasn't happened for the West Virginia women's basketball program despite efforts to build a more consistent fan base.
The Mountaineers finished last season No. 10, yet did not finish in the top 40 in average attendance.
They were just one of five schools in the final Associated Press rankings to finish outside the top 50 in attendance, and West Virginia was the highest finisher to do so (Georgetown, 13; St. John's, 15; UCLA, 22; Hartford, 25).
However, other women's basketball teams aren't having that trouble.
The average attendance of the top 10 teams was 6,577; West Virginia drew just 1,947 fans per game.
Two schools that compare to West Virginia in terms of number of wins – Iowa State and Maryland – have found more success enticing fans to their home games.
Cyclones' grassroots effort built fan base
Iowa State women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly has a plaque hung in his office with the box score from his first game at the school in 1995.
It's significant not because it marked his first victory with the Cyclones, but instead because it shows how far the program has come.
Attendance at that game was 370. Since then, it has only gone up.
In the 16 years since, Fennelly has turned Iowa State into the third-best drawing women's basketball program in the country averaging 9,361 fans per home contest.
"It's like watching your child grow," Fennelly said. "It's amazing and humbling. I wish I could describe it to you."
The only teams ahead of Iowa State are perennial powerhouses Connecticut and Tennessee.
"Most people could probably guess (those two schools) would be at the top," Fennelly said. "I bet not many people would guess we were sitting right behind them."
It has taken a lot of dedication and work from Fennelly to get the attendance where it is today. Iowa State broke a program record when it drew 14,092 fans March 25, 2004, against St. Joseph's in WNIT.
"He really understands what is important," said Mary Pink, Associate Athletic Director for Marketing. "He believed that when he got here that he needed to get out in the community and engage with our fans."
Fennelly said he hasn't missed a speaking engagement in his 16 years at Iowa State.
Fennelly and Pink credit the school's kids club for a lot of the success. The "Lil Clones Club" started out as a club just for women's basketball, but its success prompted the athletic department to adopt the kids club for all of its sports.
For just $49, kids eighth grade and younger get free admission to every Iowa State home event with the exception of Big 12 Conference men's basketball games.
"We can get the kids really excited about coming to the game, and maybe they will bring a parent," Fennelly said. "It just helps create a favorable atmosphere for us when we play at home."
Over the last four seasons, Iowa State has won just six more games and lost one less than West Virginia.
The No. 20 Cyclones, a team West Virginia defeated 64-53 in November, has a significantly stronger fan base than WVU, though.
ISU has the third-highest average attendance in the NCAA with 9,316 fans per game and is consistently in the top 10 in the country in season attendance.
Iowa State is located in Ames, Iowa – a college city similar to Morgantown.
Fennelly said the town's atmosphere helps draw fans, because the focus is on Iowa State and not a professional sports team.
The biggest factor, Fennelly said, is creating a bond between himself, his players and the fans.
"There has to be a personal and emotional connection with the players and coaches that (the fans) can't get on the men's side," he said. "People want to be connected to the coaches and players."
Whether it be autograph sessions or mingling with locals when Fennelly goes to a restaurant, it's a grassroots effort.
"The No. 1 thing is I don't worry about the people that don't come," Fennelly said. "I just thank the people who do come and be really appreciative of them.
"Maybe they'll bring a friend next time."
'Terps improve over time
Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese allows a camera to follow her program around everywhere – road trips, locker rooms, practice to name a few.
She does it to give fans a unique look at the Maryland women's basketball program.
The footage is compiled into a behind-the-scenes TV and Internet series called "Under the Shell."
"It has generated a lot of interest, and fans can connect to players," Frese said. "Players are more than just players out on the court to our fans."
Frese, who also said the video series doubles as a recruiting resource, said it's been nothing but a success for her program.
"Obviously, in order to do it you have to be the type that wants to give complete open access, but that's always been my personality," Frese said. "We just want to get out in the community."
"Under the Shell" is just one of the many promotional tools Frese has started since arriving at Maryland to spur interest and climb among the NCAA women's basketball attendance rankings.
Maryland has ranked in the NCAA top 10 for women's basketball attendance three of the past four seasons.
Last season, even though it was a rebuilding year for the Terrapins, they ranked No. 16 in attendance, averaging 4,979 fans per contest.
When Frese arrived at Maryland in 2003, the program was ranked No. 45 in the nation in attendance, averaging 2,584 fans.
Attendance in the Frese era peaked in 2007 and 2009, as they averaged 9,533 and 8,889 fans per game, respectively, in those seasons.
That was good enough for sixth in the country in attendance in both seasons.
"One thing I evaluated before I took the job is that it seemed like it was a sports community," Frese said. "The (WNBA's) Washington Mystics were one of the leaders in attendance. I knew that if I could turn the program into a winner, the fans would follow."
It took Frese just three years to win a national championship. In the last four years, the Terrapins have gone 113-27.
"We are privileged to have a very successful program year after year, so there's a lot of buzz in the area surrounding women's basketball in this area," said Jessica McKesey, Maryland's assistant director of marketing.
McKesey said the program targets families and advertises affordable family entertainment.
"We have a very family friendly and fun atmosphere," she said.
While West Virginia has similar advertising strategies, McKesey said the difference with Maryland is that a women's basketball game in College Park, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., is cheaper than a movie in many cases.
Maryland also has the advantage of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which means it will host perennial powerhouses like Duke and North Carolina every year.
"Those games are sellouts," Frese said. "Our conference lends way to popular matchups."
Maryland only does promotional giveaways at one or two games a year. It uses those days as a "thank you" to fans, not as a way to attract fans to the games.
"We feel like (having a large crowd) is a tremendous advantage. It's a nice sixth man," Frese said. "The players love to be able to get the extra adrenaline, and it raises our intensity level."