Elevating their game
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 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.