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Volume 21 No. 13

In Depth

Photo: getty images

Bill Fennelly still has a copy of the stat sheet from his first game as women’s basketball coach at Iowa State University. The attendance read 310.

 

Fans were so sparse that arena workers wrapped yellow tape around certain sections to keep them off limits. They wanted fans to sit as close together as possible to make the crowd look bigger.

 

“It looked like a murder scene,” said Fennelly, who was hired as the Cyclones’ coach 23 years ago by then-Athletic Director Gene Smith, now at Ohio State. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

 

Iowa State in many ways reflects the progress across women’s basketball over the past two decades. While Connecticut clearly resides at the top of the sport, having won an astounding 111 in a row from 2014-17, other programs like the Cyclones are proving they can draw fans and build a brand of their own.

 

Even before South Carolina won the national championship last season, the Gamecocks were drawing crowds of 13,000-plus that could rival and often top the men’s attendance.

 

Kentucky drew more than 5,000 fans on average for home games despite a sub-.500 season.

 

Other nontraditional powers Oregon State and Michigan State are bringing in big crowds and developing uniquely loyal fan bases without the history of a UConn or Tennessee.

 

Women’s basketball is different than the men’s game and not just the product on the court. The audience is different as well. There’s very little overlap. The fan base for most successful women’s programs tends to be a mix of young and old — students are less likely to show up.

 

“What’s different about our sport is that it’s a family business,” Fennelly said. “It’s a lot of small-town grip and grin. … The thing about women’s basketball is that we don’t get students. I don’t know a program in the country that gets students. So, we have to look for other ways.”

 

So, what comes first? Do the crowds follow the winning, or can fan bases be built through crafty marketing before the wins come? There are examples of both.

 

What follows is a look at how some of the nation’s most successful women’s basketball teams, including some nontraditional powers, have built their programs. 


Iowa State led the Big 12 in average attendance this season with 9,870, third in the nation.
Photo: Courtesy of Iowa State

IOWA STATE

 

Fennelly’s father was a small-town politician, so the Cyclones coach grew up in a family where evenings were spent at civic meetings or stuffing envelopes with his dad’s campaign posters.

 

That’s where he learned the game of grassroots marketing. Shortly after Fennelly got the Iowa State job, he put those lessons of his youth to work.

 

He and his wife attended PTA meetings where their two children went to school. They visited a home for senior citizens, where the widow of a longtime Iowa State booster lived.

 

Anywhere they went, they created a buzz about the women’s basketball team. Fennelly even told prospective fans that he’d give them their money back if they didn’t have a good time, even though that policy didn’t officially exist.

 

Bill Fennelly has coached Iowa State women's basketball for 23 years.
Photo: Courtesy of Iowa State

Ultimately, the young and the old formed the nucleus of the Cyclones’ fan base in the early days.

 

“We’ve done some marketing, but it’s really been one day at a time, one person at a time,” Fennelly said. “Watching my father run for office, he took the approach that every single vote counted. To me, every single fan counts.”

 

Over his two-plus decades as coach at Iowa State, the formula has been modified a bit, but it hasn’t drastically changed. He and the players connect with their following. Fennelly and the players even run basketball clinics for kids on game day.

 

“Now, a men’s basketball coach would never do that,” Fennelly said with a laugh. “But in women’s basketball, the head coach has to be ultra-involved in marketing the program.

“Marketing and recruiting are like breathing. You do it every day or you die.”

 

OREGON STATE

 

Scott Rueck normally doesn’t worry about what he’s going to say to his team after a game. Most of the time, the Oregon State coach doesn’t even give a postgame speech.

 

Scott Rueck and Oregon State’s community outreach has gained support from sponsors.
Photo: getty images

That’s because Rueck and the Beavers players stay on the court to hang out with their fans — win or lose.

 

Oregon State calls it the “8-minute mingle,” an eight-minute period after every home game when fans take selfies with the players, get autographs and ask questions.

 

It’s a tradition that Rueck started organically at George Fox University, a Division III school in Oregon where Rueck used to coach. After games at George Fox, coaches and players would stay courtside to greet friends and family.

 

When Rueck arrived at Oregon State in 2010, he figured, “Why change?”

 

“Building a community, building relationships was the No. 1 thing from the get-go,” he said. “I knew that if we allowed the community to get to know our student athletes and we recruited high-character people, that would go a long way toward gaining their support.”

 

And what better way to build the relationship with the community than by talking to the fans after the game.

 

“It’s like a big family reunion every time we play,” said Rueck, who patterned his approach to building a fan base after Iowa State’s Fennelly.

 

The Beavers have added more personal touches over the years. One is a field-trip game, where Oregon State hosts 7,000 to 8,000 children from area schools for a game. The school also has developed relationships with eight assisted-living facilities around Corvallis, and each facility brings its residents to two games.

 

Like many other programs, Oregon State hosts a pink-out game to raise money for cancer research. The school calls it “Dam Cancer,” a play on the Beavers’ nickname. After the game, a player volunteers to get her hair cut and fans are invited to the court for haircuts. The hair is donated to create wigs for women with cancer.

 

“We’re just constantly looking for opportunities to bring people in,” Rueck said.

 

The community outreach has paid off. Oregon State led the Pac-12 in attendance this season with an average of 4,979 in Gill Coliseum. In Rueck’s first three seasons, the Beavers drew fewer than 2,000.

 

The combination of crowd size and fan engagement has prompted interest from sponsors like The Corvallis Clinic, said Zack Lassiter, Oregon State’s deputy athletic director for external operations. The Clinic is a partner with OSU on the “Dam Cancer” game.

 

“Our partners see how this sport builds relationships,” Lassiter said.

 

Coach Dawn Staley has led the Gamecocks to four straight SEC titles.
Photo: getty images

SOUTH CAROLINA

 

The thread that runs through every successful women’s basketball program is the involvement of the coach on the marketing and fan engagement side.

 

South Carolina’s Dawn Staley has been known to write thank-you notes to students who show up to support the Gamecocks, who led the nation in attendance this season with an average of 13,596 fans. The South Carolina men, coming off a Final Four appearance, averaged 12,618.

 

Staley, who left Temple to take over the Gamecocks program in 2008, quickly established herself as one of the hardest-working coaches in college basketball. By 2013, Staley’s schedule of speaking engagements and community events outside of basketball had grown so busy that she hired Ari Moore to be the program’s first special assistant to the head coach.

 

Moore, who was in Staley’s first recruiting class at Temple, injected the program with a more strategic approach to marketing Staley and the program. During Moore’s first year, South Carolina established the “Drive for 5,” an initiative to average 5,000 or more fans at home during the 2013-14 season.

 

The Gamecocks, who had averaged 3,952 the year before, met the challenge by jumping up to 6,371. The following year, 2014-15, Staley went on her Twitter account and issued a new goal of 10,000. The fans again responded by averaging 12,293. South Carolina has topped 10,000 every year since.

 

South Carolina’s women’s team led the nation in average attendance this season with 13,596, nearly 1,000 more than the university’s men’s team.
Photo: getty images

“The idea was that if fans have a goal, they’ll be more likely to meet it,” Moore said. “They won’t want to let the team down.”

 

Moore now collaborates with Rebecca Piner, South Carolina’s assistant director of marketing, on programming Staley and the women’s program.

 

When the team gathers for the NCAA tournament selection show, they invite fans to a dinner with the team rather than the traditional watch party. Part of the evening includes a photo booth where players and coaches have photos made with the FAMS, which is what Staley calls their fans on Twitter.

 

She thrives on incorporating the FAMS, short for family, into the team’s events, like the summer community service project to clean up a park. About 150 fans showed up, and after they all helped with gardening, painting and cleaning, Staley treated them to a cookout with a DJ.

 

“What’s great about Coach is that she’s willing to try a lot of different things,” Piner said. “She brings the fans along for the ride and makes them feel like they’re part of the program.”

 

A combination of rivalry and community outreach boosted Michigan State’s turnout to 12,000 as it defeated Michigan last month.
Photo: Courtesy of Michigan State

MICHIGAN STATE

 

With Michigan State mired in a six-game losing streak and its season slipping away, more than 12,000 hearty Spartan fans showed up to watch the women’s team take on rival Michigan last month. Not only was it a matchup of cross-state foes, the game featured pink uniforms for the annual cancer awareness effort and Girl Scout Day. The Spartans prevailed 66-61 over a Michigan team on its way to a 20-win season in front of the season-high crowd.

 

The game proved to be the high point in an otherwise downer of a season that included a 7-9 mark in the Big Ten. But along the way, Michigan State’s fans provided the answer to a challenging question. Which comes first, the wins or the fans? The answer typically is the winning. But that’s not always the case.

 

Michigan State finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten, yet led the conference in attendance with an average of 6,227 fans at Breslin Center.

 

Iowa State, likewise, endured a disappointing season and finished with a rare losing record at 14-17, but still managed to lead the Big 12 in average attendance at 9,870, which ranked third nationally.

 

Kentucky created a unique brand for its women’s team — UK Hoops — and priced tickets to appeal to families.
Photo: Courtesy of University of Kentucky

KENTUCKY

 

Kentucky had been an evolving force in the SEC until this season when the Wildcats went 15-17. Despite the difficulty on the court, UK managed 5,187 fans on average, good for fourth in the SEC.

 

“Over time, we’ve communicated to our fan base that women’s basketball is important here,” said Jason Schlafer, UK’s chief revenue officer.

 

That messaging began more than a decade ago when Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart traded offices with then-coach Mickie DeMoss. The women’s basketball staff took an office suite that mirrored the men’s coaches, while Barnhart moved to an office in the basement.

 

The school also created a unique brand for women’s basketball by calling it UK Hoops and season tickets were priced at $25 so they’d appeal to families. When boosters bought women’s basketball tickets, they received bonus loyalty points, providing further incentive.

 

While programs like Kentucky and Michigan State haven’t established themselves as annual powerhouses just yet, they have sent the message through their commitment, funding and facilities that women’s basketball is a priority.

 

And that programs don’t necessarily have to win at a UConn clip to build a fan base.

 

“When fans feel connected,” Iowa State’s Fennelly said, “they feel like they’re part of the team.

 

Val Ackerman

Commissioner,
Big East

While her influence is spread across both the men’s and women’s games now, no one wields more sway in women’s basketball. Any of the other people on this power list would call Ackerman before making an important decision.

 

 

Debbie Antonelli

 

Analyst, ESPN

She has emerged as the Jay Bilas of the women’s game. The former North Carolina State athlete has opinions on everything from the structure of the women’s NCAA tournament to marketing, and she isn’t afraid to share them.

 

 

Geno Auriemma

Head coach, University of Connecticut

When the game’s most successful coach speaks, everyone listens. His thoughts on leadership, motivation and defining success are words to live by, whether you’re a coach or a CEO.

 

 

Danielle Donehew

Executive director, Women’s Basketball Coaches Association

In her fourth year, Donehew manages the operations and marketing for the coaches, and acts as the liaison with other entities like USA Basketball, the NCAA and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

 

 

Rich Ensor

Commissioner, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

He just started his role as vice chair of the women’s basketball oversight committee, which manages the development and branding of the women’s game. He also works with the tournament selection and rules committees.

 

 

Lynn Holzman

Vice president of women’s basketball, NCAA

The former West Coast Conference commissioner joined the NCAA in December. A team captain at Kansas State, she has maintained an active role advocating for the women’s game over two decades and now will direct the tournament.

 

 

Dawn Staley

Head coach, University of South Carolina

The coach of the defending national champions has become the model for marketing a women’s basketball program. She’s active on Twitter, she engages fans at the game, and her teams are visible in the community. By no coincidence, the Gamecocks lead the nation in attendance.

 

 

Carol Stiff 

Vice president of women’s sports programming, ESPN

She leads the network’s efforts on programming women’s college basketball and the WNBA on its linear TV channels, while also coordinating women’s content across ESPN’s other platforms.

 

— Compiled by Michael Smith


 

An unmistakably loud and resounding chorus now is demanding that college athletes be able to profit from their own name. That’s one of a handful of changes needed to restore credibility to college athletics at a time when the enterprise is reeling from an FBI investigation.

College leaders since 2014 have addressed the issue of student-athlete welfare with half-measures that were welcome at the time, but proved to be insufficient — a cost-of-attendance stipend, more meals, scholarships in perpetuity and health insurance options that extend past their playing days. While those important upgrades provided athletes at power five schools with a better training environment, it did nothing to change behaviors.

 

It’s the system that has created a tipping point in college athletics. Perhaps the actions of a minority brought us here, but they’re damaging the game and the business. The current rules and deterrents are clearly not enough, and we believe significant changes must be made. The current NCAA model works for 98 percent of its 460,000 student athletes. That is great. But we believe it can work for the other 2 percent as well, without taking away from the experience for the majority.

 

The NCAA has empowered Condoleezza Rice to be the agent for change. The response from the NCAA commission she chairs will influence the future of the college game for decades to come. So what should they do?

 

Here’s a three-point plan for significant change that will help everyone connected to the college game.

 

1. The NCAA must loosen rules banning agent/adviser contact with football and basketball players. College baseball and hockey athletes are allowed to have representation when they’re draft-eligible. Football and basketball players should, too. It’s long past time to shine some light on these shady back-room relationships. This is something all of the conferences can get behind and implement easily. We’d suggest a system that would have student athletes register their agent and related commercial activity with the athletic department, just like they have to register their car on campus.

 

The idea of the NCAA trying to monitor and police every meal between an athlete and an agent has proved impossible and a pointless endeavor.

 

2. The NCAA should adopt an Olympic-style set of rights that permits athletes to monetize their name and likeness. What’s the harm in allowing a local auto dealer to invite a star tailback to his lot during a sale and pay him a fee for the appearance? Some will argue that this scenario is ripe for abuse if boosters recruit athletes based on appearance fees. That’s worthy of debate, but this is a modern-day solution for a modern-day problem. 

 

While the change in agent rules is a layup, player name and likeness will test the NCAA’s resolve to evolve. Allowing compensation takes college athletics a giant step away from the amateurism model. Attitudes are shifting, and the billions of dollars coming into the system through TV contracts have been the catalyst. How can the NCAA espouse an amateur model when the rest of the enterprise has been professionalized?

 

More than ever, college coaches and administrators are willing to have a discussion about compensating players. It was taboo as recently as five years ago to even have a conversation with an athletic director or a commissioner about providing athletes with more than a scholarship. Remember Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s rant in 2013 about his conference going Division III if that happened?

 

Well, change is coming and it’s time that it did. The FBI’s revelation of an underground economy, one that transfers payments from agents to young athletes and their parents/handlers in exchange for signing with a certain school, irreparably has scarred college athletics. Everyone knew it was happening — coaches, media and the NCAA. But it took a federal investigation to prompt college leaders to act.

 

Giving athletes rights to their own name and likeness is good business for the schools, too. That way, the compensation comes from the autograph signing or the endorsement, not a salary paid by the school. Because the compensation is coming from outside the athletic budget, funding of Olympic sports wouldn’t be threatened — an excuse often used in the argument against paying players.

 

Athlete name and likeness also could turn into a revenue-generating opportunity for the school’s multimedia rights holder because that same auto dealership would likely want school rights to go with the athlete’s appearance. Similarly, any school that wants to sell a star player’s jersey with his name and number should give the athlete a cut. Again, this is sound financially. An authentic jersey would sell for a higher price than a generic one. The school’s licensing agent would strike a deal with the player’s agent on a royalty fee.

 

Coaches will worry about a have/have-not system that rewards the celebrity tailback and not the offensive lineman, but we don’t think that’s reason enough to deprive athletes of their name and likeness rights. Implementation of a system like this has been the primary challenge for college leaders, although one alternative would be to create a group licensing model like the pros have to distribute licensing revenue evenly.

 

3. Let the most talented basketball players go straight to the pros and end the one-and-done business. College leaders understandably hate the message one-and-done sends, even though its damage to the college game is debatable.

 

This is an area where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in particular, needs to show some conviction. One-and-done is an agreement between the NBA and the players association that requires a player to be a year removed from high school before entering the draft. The NBA and players union will have to agree on any rule change, but it can be done.

 

The baseball rule makes the most sense. It permits a player to be drafted straight out of high school. But if the player elects to go to college, he has to stay for three years before he’s draft-eligible again — or any time if he goes to a junior college. This gives the athlete at least the appearance of being a serious student by spending three years on campus, while allowing them to develop their skills and prepare them for the rigors of the pro game, something Silver is concerned about.

 

With the ability to make money through name and likeness, maybe some elite high school players will opt for college over the pros. There are many examples of first-round picks in baseball, using the advice of an agent, forsaking the signing bonus to go to college. And when was the last college baseball scandal you heard about?

 

The NBA appears to be moving in that direction, based on reports last week that have the league exploring a path straight from high school to the pros.

 

One additional element from TV analyst and ex-agent Len Elmore: If a player goes pro and flops or goes undrafted, he can return to play in college. His clock — five years to play four — would start after high school. 

 

Silver can get this done. It’s understandable that the NBA doesn’t want to get younger. The NBA game has benefited by the best players spending a year in college basketball before they matriculate to the pros, but the NBA now has a developmental league capable of grooming the younger players with a sound basketball education. It didn’t always have that. 

 

Meanwhile, Rice’s commission is deciding the future of college basketball behind closed doors — the first round of suggestions on how to reform the game will be revealed in April. In the interim, the NCAA is left with a fragmented and indistinct voice to respond as public perceptions swing in a new direction. While NCAA President Mark Emmert has admitted system failure, all he can figuratively say for the time being is: We’re working on it. Check back with us in a month. 

 

The ongoing FBI investigation brought us to a point where the current state of college athletics no longer is tenable. Collegiate leaders, both at the NCAA and on campus, will have only themselves to blame if they don’t take substantial action. History tells us that it’s only going to get worse in the win-at-all-costs atmosphere that cloaks the college game. It’s easy to imagine similar probes like the FBI’s regularly damaging college athletics.

 

Surely the leaders in college sports recognize the crisis. But are they emboldened and brave enough to chart a new course? Our suggested rules changes would represent a dramatic shift for college athletics and move it away from the restrictive amateur model.

 

Institutional leaders have an opportunity to bring college athletics into a new, modern age. Emmert is adamant that the Rice commission will propose vigorous changes and the NCAA’s leadership of college presidents will be receptive.

 

Failing to act now would be a gross miscalculation and negligence in leadership.

 

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Michael Smith can be reached at msmith@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

Inside college basketball

 

Photo: getty images

It’s their name and likeness. It’s not ours, it’s theirs. They should be able to make money. Maybe the school manages it, maybe the money goes to their parents for travel. And maybe there’s a limit on what they can do, and the rest they get when they leave here. It’s all stuff that can be done easily.”

— John Calipari, Kentucky coach

We shouldn’t be a place where somehow we’re a semi-pro, half-college this, half-college that … It’s all college. It’s college basketball. There’s a deep fundamental problem that we have to solve.”

— Michael Crow, Arizona State president, as told to The Arizona Republic

If their likeness is being used for profit while they’re playing college basketball, some of that should get back to them for sure.”

— Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State coach, as told to The Oregonian

Photo: getty images

“We’re really serious about … making really systemic change starting this spring and going forward through the summer.”

— Mark Emmert, NCAA president

The most influential voices have the opportunity to persuade the NBA and the NBA players association that they ought to let high school players go to the NBA if they are ready. I think that’s one of the key pillars to the solution space here.”

— Larry Scott, Pac-12 commissioner, as told to Yahoo Sports

As we’ve had to adapt as coaches and players, the people running college basketball have not been adaptive to the changes. In that regard, I think it might be a good thing if we produce positive change, and then produce a system that changes gradually.”

— Mike Krzyzewski, Duke coach, as told to ESPN

Player representation, payment

 

Photo: nbae / getty images

“The professional leagues need to be involved. College football and basketball have been great farm systems for the professional leagues. They need to be footing the bill on paying these guys.”

— Jason Whitlock on FS1

I think we could figure out something workable along those lines (of compensating players). But direct payments? It is simply unworkable. … I truly believe we need a national summit conference of college administrators, athletic directors, player reps, and even interested politicians to answer the question as to just what is fair and reasonable to expect from our college sports.”

— Bob Ryan, The Boston Globe

The notion that allowing college athletes to be compensated in cash for the services they provide will disrupt the NCAA’s delicate balance is founded on a fallacy. That balance does not exist. Never did.”

— Tim Sullivan, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal

Is there any logical reason why athletes in basketball should not be allowed agency representation while they are collegians? Baseball players always have been permitted ‘advisers’ when coping with the entry draft process. This was expanded in January to include hockey players. The prohibition against representation is antiquated and illogical.”

— Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News

An area up for substantive change: Endorsement opportunities and/or name/image/likeness revenue. A cut of jersey sales, being able to profit from autograph appearances — this would give the stars of the sport a cut of the pie, and temper some of the outrage on that front. [It] would certainly give the NCAA less to police. And less policing might be a good thing.”

— Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports

Where responsibility lies

 

As long as the NCAA holds tight to the concept of amateurism, and denies student-athletes the ability to secure representation, or accept fair-market value, this black market that could potentially sully the names of multiple Hall of Famers, and theoretically lead to blue bloods playing with reduced rosters as early as this weekend, will never go away no matter how many smart people are placed on a committee.”

— Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com

Photo: nbae / getty images

“I can’t change the NCAA’s rules, but I can’t help but wonder why it is that an industry … that produces millions, if not billions of dollars, thinks that the culprit is the kid who makes no money, who helps generate the income, who takes something. What disturbs me is the focus on the players, rather than better focus on the system.”

— Michele Roberts, National Basketball Players Association executive director, as told to USA Today

Part of the NCAA enforcement response, I believe, should come from rethinking what there is for the NCAA to enforce. One partial solution is to pare down the kinds of things that are NCAA violations.”

— Josephine Potuto, Nebraska law professor and Committee on Infractions member, as told to Yahoo Sports

“Instead of villainizing the rule-makers; how about blaming the rule-breakers? Instead of lambasting the NCAA for some of its obviously archaic rules, why don’t [Jay] Bilas and [Dick] Vitale rip some of their buddies in the coaching profession for blatantly breaking some of the NCAA’s most basic rules? Like the one that says, um, YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO BUY PLAYERS!!!”

— Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel


Talk of a boycott

 

Wouldn’t it be a crazy thing if we saw players not just boycott a game in the NCAA tournament, but boycott a Final Four? Imagine how quickly the NCAA would realize it’s not just a business for themselves, but also a business for the athletes as well. That’s how you make change.”

— Jay Williams, ESPN analyst, on Twitter

If players boycotted the biggest moneymaker of the year, it would make an astronomical statement. But it would also take away the biggest moments of a lot of lives.”

— Jenny Dial Creech, Houston Chronicle

“So all the other 12 guys on scholarship on an NCAA team should ‘boycott the NCAA tournament’ because the one guy on the team that’s 1 and done can’t get a car or promote a fast food spot w/ their likeness … try running that by a team … idiotic.”

— Dan Dakich, ESPN analyst, on Twitter


— Compiled by Michael Smith