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Friday, June 14
The Indiana Daily Student

sports

Fan support near bottom of Big Ten

Marketing aims to improve attendance for women's hoops

An IU cheerleader posed the eternal question revolving around women's basketball as she looked at the stands a minute before the IU-Penn State game at Assembly Hall.\n"Where is everybody?" she said.\nThe most loyal Hoosier fans filled the short, courtside bleachers, but the south bleachers remained almost completely vacant before tipoff.\nSpectators wearing cream and crimson sprinkled the first dozen or so rows of seats on each side of the court. \nThe final attendance that Thursday night: 789.\nMainly composed of families and retirees, the fan base for women's basketball home games continues to hover near the bottom of the Big Ten and unveils the vastness of the 17,257-seat Assembly Hall. Northwestern, a 4-21 team with little tradition, is the only Big Ten team to draw fewer fans per game (610). \nAnd the Hoosiers home attendance average of 1,068 pales in comparison to regional powers Purdue (8,868) and Wisconsin (7,244). Even the Big Ten average of 4,313 at home games largely outweighs the number of Hoosier fans.\n"I just wish more fans would come," said center Jill Chapman, who has played in front of an average home crowd of 1,060 fans in her four years. "I just hope in the future that people will see that women's basketball is a lot of fun to watch, that more people will fill the stands so we can be up there with the big teams."\nStill, IU attendance has made major leaps since Coach Kathi Bennett was hired in March 2000, partly through more aggressive marketing. Bennett said she hopes to continue to make improvements -- a daunting task in a 65,000-person city with no local network TV, no established tradition and little student interest.\nThe Hoosiers' total home attendance (15,606) last season, for a 20-11 record under Bennett's first season, was the program's fourth best mark in 10 years. After 12 home games this season (12-13, 6-8 Big Ten), the total home attendance has dropped 18 percent to 12,811.\nBut the Hoosiers have one last chance to boost that attendance. Invitations were sent to more than 300 high schools for Sunday's 2 p.m. contest against Northwestern, IU's last home game.\n"I think it's a little better, but we've got a long way to go," Bennett said. "I feel like every Big Ten team we've faced has tripled our attendance or more. There were 12,000 fans at Minnesota. There will be eight or nine (thousand) at Ohio State. There were eight (thousand) at Wisconsin. There will be eight, nine (thousand) at Purdue. We've got work to do."\nHome, sweet, home\nChad Giddens, marketing assistant in the athletics department, attributes small attendance to three factors -- no local player, network TV or winning tradition. \nIU doesn't have a player from a hometown within 30 minutes of Bloomington after Martinsville native Kristen Bodine tore her ACL three games into the season. IU even catered a community night around Bodine and fellow former Martinsville High School star April Traylor of Florida State for a Dec. 19 game against the Seminoles, which drew 1,093. Fans could get in for $1 with an ad from the The Reporter-Times.\nNext year, marketing can center its focus on freshman-to-be Cyndi Valentin, of Bloomington High School South, but local talent doesn't always equal local support. The volleyball team boasts three players from Bloomington, but its average home attendance lingered at 544.\nGiddens also attributed the low attendance to no local network TV, unlike Champaign, Ill., and West Lafayette. \n"It's frustrating because we have to compete with these people, but it's not necessarily a level playing field," Giddens said. \nThe Hoosiers do benefit from playing in a small community, while teams such as Northwestern and Minnesota get lost in the shuffle of major cities, he said.\nPlaying Thursday-night games also hurts the chance of drawing huge crowds, Giddens said. The Big Ten used to play Fridays and Sundays, a more family-friendly format. Thursday Big Ten games at IU averaged 1,269 this season, while Sunday games averaged 1,465.\nThe women's program has also had trouble drawing students, who seem to prefer the faster-paced, more physical and more successful men's team.\n"I wish I knew the key for getting students out," Giddens said. "We work with the Student Athletic Board to get the word out on campus. We remind them that they can get in free with a student ID. Part of that is the team telling classmates they have a game. It's been shown that other students are likely to attend if they know someone on the team."\nWinning proves a major motivator to generating fans -- and IU has yet to produce a victorious tradition. The Hoosiers drew their largest total home attendance (23,184) in the last decade when WNBA player Quacy Barnes and former coach Jim Izard guided the team to the WNIT and a 21-12 record in 1997-98. \nThe non-home game, playing host to Purdue\nIU has played in front of some of its largest home crowds against in-state rival Purdue. Yet, the number of Boilermakers driving down to Bloomington has dwindled, drawing a disappointing 2,016 Jan. 17, down from 3,414 last year and 5,503 in 1999.\nThe marketing team tagged a "Pack the Hall" theme to the game, choosing to draw fans solely based on the rivalry and advertising. \nAttracting students also was a focus, as quarter-page flyers were stuck in more than 12,000 dorm mailboxes. Players also invited greek houses to attend. Still, families outnumbered students, and Purdue fans took up at least 50 percent of the crowd.\n"I'm not sure what to allude that to," Giddens said. "We've done far less in the past and have done better in the past."\nThe Hoosiers traveled to three "Pack the Place" games this season, including a crowd of 11,389 at Minnesota Jan. 27. The Gophers marketing team chose to package several promotions, setting a school attendance record. Promotions invited high schoolers and two WNBA players and celebrated star player Lindsay Whalen's hometown with free posters.\nGiddens said IU marketing chose not to layer promotions for the IU-Purdue rivalry because attractive giveaways -- such as bobblehead dolls -- are usually geared toward less attractive games.\nMinnesota (20-5) averages 3,587 fans per home game after averaging 1,087 the previous 8-20 season. Natasha Freimark, director of marketing for women's sports at Minnesota, said the school hasn't changed promotions much to increase attendance but has geared attention around first-year coach Brenda Oldfield. Promotion of women's sports relies on community appearances to increase public awareness, unnecessary for many men's sports, she said.\nFreimark said she credits marketing, sports information using the media, fundraising, Oldfield and a winning record all for increasing attendance.\n"We haven't had strong basketball tradition, so this market is hungry for that," Freimark said. "The team doing well obviously helps. It's easy to sell corporate sponsorships."\nSome other Big Ten teams have managed to maintain steady attendance despite dismal records -- thanks to loyal fans and solidified programs. One such school is Ohio State (12-14), which draws 6,704 average home fans.\nBuckeyes Coach Beth Burns said she credits the fans' loyalty, apparent in their attendance ranking among the top 10 for the past three years. The fans tend to follow local prep players into their college careers, she said. Plus, Ohio State plays in Columbus, where 711,470 people live and no pro team plays. \n"We had a manager that got eligible to play because of our injury situation from a town called Urbana," Burns said. "She got cleared from the NCAA clearinghouse and got into uniform for the Minnesota game. Her town brought up two buses of people."\nMoving on since Izard's departure\nAfter a 10-18 record in 1999-2000, the athletics department looked to step up marketing to attract a premier coach, Giddens said.\nThe marketing team placed print and radio ads for a handful of home games during the Izard era with the two major promotions being cheerleading clinics and a speaker for National Women in Sports Day, Giddens said. \nBut with Bennett at the helm, every home game has been advertised. Promotions this season included $1 admittance for donating a book to the Red Cross for the Penn State game, inviting girl scouts to the Minnesota game, which featured the Big Ten's "Dream Big" festivities, and handing out magnets for the N.C. State game.\nAlso, contests have occurred every two to three timeouts during a half during the Bennett era, compared to half-time only galas during Izard's tenure.\nMarketing also has used more personnel, moving away from two student interns promoting home games to the full staff at work in the past two years. Giddens said the marketing budget for women's basketball has tripled since Bennett's arrival.\nA fan since 1997, Bloomington resident Gloria Noone said she sees advantages to attending the women's game over the men's version. She and her husband, Bill, can leave the parking lot quickly, sit in row eight compared to row 24 and receive "nicer" white NCAA towels.\n"I've seen an incredible improvement in the last three or four years. They know how to play defense," Bill Noone said. "It takes a long time to build up a new program. They're not going to win right away."\nAnd you can't fill an arena right away either.

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