Building Attendance: Hand Shakes, Hoarse Voices, and a Boost from the NCAA – February 2008

“If you build it, they will come.”

So goes the oft-repeated line from the movie Field of Dreams. In the film Kevin Costner’s character builds a beautiful baseball field where the greats of baseball’s past appear and play. Eventually, the one sees the headlights of cars stringing back in to the night, heralding the arrival of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Those who dream of packed houses for women’s basketball know the difference between Hollywood and their daily reality. “It doesn’t happen just by magic,” said Carolyn Femovich, executive director of the Patriot League, of high attendance numbers. “Just because you have a great team or a winning record or an outstanding coach, it doesn’t happen by magic. There is work involved, no matter what.”

Any coach aspiring to become a top-drawing site forgets that at their own peril and, perhaps, paralysis. Teams like Tennessee, Washburn University and Hope College didn’t suddenly sprout full houses. Somewhat reassuringly, in spite of all the changes the women’s game has seen over the last 30 years, the more you speak with high-attendance programs, the more you realize that all have used similar and basic marketing strategies to grow.

When Jody Conradt became head coach at the University of Texas in 1976, the program, not to mention all of collegiate women’s basketball, was in its infancy. The process of developing a fan base? Unexplored territory. Yet Texas grew into one of the nation’s top drawing teams, hosting 16,000 in the first sell-out of the 1985 Final Four.

“Like everyone else, we started out playing double-headers [with the men’s team],” recalled Conradt. “The women’s game would start at 5:00 or 5:30, and the thinking was the audience would come earlier. Obviously that didn’t work. After a year or so, we just said, ‘Hey, we have nothing to lose. Let’s play a game at a reasonable time when people can come. Let’s go out and sell our own season tickets.'”

To get people through the door, Conradt pounded the pavement. “All of those first years, I never said ‘no’ to a speaking engagement. I don’t know how many times I went out into the community, but I think I could have run for public office, shaking as many hands, kissing as many babies as I did,” she laughed. “I probably made personal contact with most of the people who became our fan base.”

Texas employed various marketing strategies, like picking specific games to ‘sell.’ “Games where the competition would be good and the play would be at a high level,” she explained. “Fortunately, at that time we had a rivalry with Stephen F. Austin. They were not ‘like’ institutions, but at that point in time, the teenie-weenies were better than the state schools,” admitted Conradt with a smile. Good friend Sue Gunter was the opposing coach and their collaboration drew crowds numbering in the high thousands.

“There’s no big secret to it,” insisted Conradt. “It was just about really working hard. (Then Athletic Director) Donna Lopiano and I have said it a million times: Men’s athletics are the bankers. Bank opens up at nine in the morning, it closes at four in the afternoon. The women are the insurance salesmen. You’ve got to find your audience and you’ve got to sell it.”

Last year, Oklahoma ranked 4th in Division I attendance, averaging 10,437 fans a game. But, when Sherri Coale arrived in 1996, she inherited 200 a game. “It was a dual problem, in all honesty,” said Coale. “The product we had wasn’t very good and there wasn’t a lot of publicity regarding it. The very first thing that we did was to try and recruit great kids and get them to play really, really hard and be something that people on our campus could be really proud of.”

“Then I said ‘yes’ to every single speaking engagement. Rotary Club, Lions Club, seven o’clock in the morning, at the noon hour, dinner at the Chamber of Commerce. If they would give me the floor, I would talk. I just tried to get the word out that ‘this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re trying to build, this is our mission, this is our vision.’ Tried to sell people on that, get them excited about that and to maybe think about sharing ownership in that with us.”

It quickly became a grassroots effort. “People would say to the people they sat by at church, ‘Hey, have you been to an Oklahoma women’s basketball game? We went last week and we had the most fun! Why don’t you come with us?’ I meet so many young people who say, ‘I had never, ever watched a women’s basketball game in my life. We went and we’ve been season ticket holders ever since.'”

One of the first promotions was an “Elementary School Day.” The school that had the greatest percentage of attendees won a computer, earning the Sooners a loyal following of both students and principals. Seeking to involve women business and community leaders, 2003 saw the charter of the “Sooner Stilettos.” Its members “recognize the quality and the discipline and the work ethic that these players possess,” noted Coale, “and the ability to be part of a team. Which is, by the way, the number one sought-after skill in corporate America right now. They realize all that, and they want these kids [as post-college employees].

Not to mention their ability to relate because those professional women have fought and scratched and clawed on their own court to get where they are.”

Centered in professional sports-heavy Chicago presents Doug Bruno’s DePaul Blue Demons with a unique set of challenges. But, urged Bruno, “don’t come to work every day and talk about what we aren’t. You have to identify what you’re not. For example, we are not a BCS football school. That knowledge has to be there, but cannot be used as an excuse. Come to work with the attitude that BCS schools do,” he challenged “even though you don’t have their money.”

“One of the most important attitudes we have brought to our program is that marketing the product is always everybody’s job,” Bruno continued. “It’s not above every single member of this basketball staff. From secretary to managers, all the assistant coaches and head coach, the Athletic Director herself, and the marketing department — it is all of our jobs to market women’s basketball. If anybody has too big a ‘to do’ list on any given day to do that, then they don’t really get the big picture.”

“Yes,” he acknowledged, “our marketing department is a diligent, hardworking, earnest working group of men and women. Do they have a marketing strategy? Absolutely. Do they put it together in an organized fashion? Yes. Have they studied demographics? Yes, they have. And yet it still comes down to getting myself as head coach, or the assistant coaches, in front of as many groups as possible. To this day, I still go out to as many grammar schools as they can line me up with.'”

The payoff comes when Bruno schedules weekday, noon games. A fax is sent to every grammar and elementary school in the Chicago area. “All the schools had to do was fax back that they wanted a bus and we would send the bus. So,” he tabulated, “we incurred the cost of the bus.” Add on a t-shirt and a slice of pizza for each child (plus offering and organizing campus tours as requested) and the result is an arena filled with screaming kids – and future ticket purchasers.

Brownwood, TX, home of Howard Payne University, is a town of about 25,000. “When I first got here the program was in terrible shape. They hadn’t had a winning season in four years,” recalled Chris Kielsmeier, who became head coach in 2000. “Quite honestly, nobody cared about women’s basketball. The stands were almost an embarrassment.”

These days, Howard Payne is the top-drawing Division III team in the country. Averaging 1,494 a game, including over 15,000 fans for the last four game of the season, they enjoy the enthusiastic support of the local newspaper and some of the most influential people in town.

What happened? Well, the Iowa State University graduate (’99) interned under head coach Bill Fennelly. “What I learned from Iowa State is you’ve got to have your players accessible to anybody, anytime, anywhere. Back then, though, nobody really wanted to have anything to do with us,” Kielsmeier noted dryly. “But as the program grew and we became more known and won more games, people wanted to get to know our players.” Players now volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club and spend time at local Head Start programs. “The kids and parents get to know them, and that’s a huge draw.”

When they come, Kielsmeier gives young attendees the VIP treatment. “I’ll let them sit in there and listen to the pre- and post-game talk, if I know it’s going to be the right environment. Maybe some coaches wouldn’t let a bunch of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders run around in the locker room getting autographs,” he mused. “After games are over, when I go in to the locker room, we’ll have 15-20 kids running around, and I’m thinking, what am I doing? Am I trying to win games or am I a babysitter,” he laughed.

“But it’s neat those kids care that much about [the players]. Why not let them have a piece of it?”

Kielsmeier is somewhat dismayed at colleagues who don’t, or won’t, extend themselves into area of promotion. “As coaches you want to make sure that you’re doing everything – the X’s and O’s – right, and try to do everything in your power to give your team as much chance to be successful. But how much do you truly market your program? Your players? And if you don’t,” he asked, “who’s going to? ‘Cause you’re the only one who can.”

“Coach Summitt,” underscored Bruno, “the winningest coach in college history, still goes out and works to bring people in to the stadium. That’s why when young coaches act like, ‘It’s the marketing department’s job….'” He trailed off. “You are the marketing department. You’re the front line.”

“Coaches are very busy people,” Femovich said. “Obviously their highest priority is to manage their current team and to recruit the incoming class. But I think first and foremost, there needs to be a willingness on behalf of the coach to say, ‘This is part of my job and I need to use my talents and abilities as best I can to help work in a collaborative way with the marketing people on my campus.'”

And if someone’s intimidated by “demographics” and “market research”? “It’s essential for coaches to know that they don’t have to do that work,’ explained Femovich. “If somebody says, ‘Well, I just don’t know how to do it,’ get on the internet, for goodness sake! We’ve come light years just in the last two years. If you go on the NCAA website for women’s basketball marketing, there’s so much up there. There’s just tons of ideas that work and resources that you can tap in to.”

“It’s what you do when you invite kids to come play for your program,” encouraged Coale. “When you get your team ready to take the floor against an opponent. Coaches can look at it as talking about that thing that they love. You don’t have to know all of the stats in the history of women’s basketball. You don’t have to know, even, the details of a particular community. Yes, it helps you speak to your audience better. But if you just stand and let your passion go, people will get wrapped up in that.”

Since the mid-70’s Bruno has watched the women’s game grow slowly, but surely. “It is still growing,” said Bruno. “It’s just not a fast grow. You can’t allow yourself to be frustrated by the slow pace that it’s growing.”

Bruno rightly preaches patience, but he also was part of an expansive NCAA Division I women’s basketball discussion group chaired by Dr. Myles Brand. The goal? To address the challenges to growing the game. “He made a strong thesis point,” said Bruno of Brand. “We are at a crossroad where we can really work to grow this thing or we can take it for granted and let it stagnate. You’re either moving forward or you’re stagnating.”

After months of wide-ranging discussions, an action plan has emerged: the NCAA’s commitment – both in resources and financing –to a grass roots marketing effort. The first step, explained Sue Donohoe, vice president of Division I women’s basketball, was to secure the services of Hawkeye Sports and Entertainment. “They’re assisting us in promoting and marketing our (2007-08) first and second round and regional sites.” Additionally, they will work with the NCAA and its membership on regular season initiatives, beginning with the 2008-09 academic year.”

The second step was the creation of a three-year marketing grant program underwritten by the NCAA to the tune of a million dollars a year. Designed to supplement marketing and promotional strategies, the goal is to dramatically increase attendance. “The grant program is absolutely focused on the regular season, and it’s open to both conferences and institutions,” said Donohoe “If a conference steps up and says, ‘For all our institutions, as a conference we’re going to commit X-number of dollars to this initiative to build attendance at women’s games.’ If we think the program is worthy, we’ll commit X-number of dollars. The minimum amount is $15,000, the maximum is $100,000, with grants to be awarded on an annual basis.”

“What I tell people is that we’re not talking about throwing t-shirts into the stands or handing out stress balls,” said Donohoe. “We’re talking about creative ideas to bring in people, get them to attend. Because I believe this: If they come and see the product, they’ll get hooked.” Grantees that are successful will have their plans posted on the NCAA’s marketing site as “Best Practices.” “We want to put a menu of activation plans out there where we can say, ‘Okay, here’s something that worked in this market. Does this work in your market? If it does, let us help you get it done.'”

“It’s absolutely critical that our coaches and student-athletes are involved in marketing and branding of our game,” stressed Donohoe. “They are the game. They are the brand. We’ve got great coaches. We’ve got great student-athletes with great stories. Posters, flyers, email blasts, radio pods and television ads are good.. But if you’ve got a coach and his or her student-athletes out in the community connecting, that’s the sell. And one thing I do know: Win or lose, if your community is connected to the coaching staff and, more importantly, connected to the student-athletes, that community will support our young women.”

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