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Women's Sports Marketing: What is to be Done About Women's Basketball Attendance?

Let me begin by saying I fully understand that in the grand scheme of sports, women's college basketball is still in a developmental phase and definitely experiencing growth.

However, I still found the following observation from the C and R Stanford Women's Basketball blog about last night's game at Oregon State University troublesome:

C and R's Stanford Women's Basketball Blog
During a time out, the announcers struggle for something to say so they concentrate on the game of music chairs being played on the court. They mention it is funny, but no one is there to see it, estimating there is only about 750 fans. Only 750 people came out to see the number two team in the country? I blame marketing. When Stanford came to Gonzaga this year, the school advertised this was the highest seed to come to their gym and they filled the place. Did Oregon State publicize this match-up? Oregon State took the lead, imagine if they had a bigger home crowd to cheer them on and help them gain momentum?

First of all, in the interest of "accuracy", the "official" attendance was 1,234 and although women's basketball fans have reason to be skeptical of such numbers, I've found that they generally match the eyeball assessment. Yet even that is the lowest attendance of any of Stanford's eight road games this season.

Second, it's worth noting that the OSU athletic department is not entirely ignoring women's basketball marketing: they are apparently marketing Saturday's game against the University of California, according to SBN's OSU site Building the Dam.

Stanford Too Strong Down The Stretch - Building The Dam
The Beavers host the California Golden Bears (9-8, 3-3), 72-62 winners over the Ducks tonight, Saturday night a 7 PM, on "Fill Gill" night, when general admission will be just $1.

Nevertheless, I found C and R's questioning persuasive enough to pique my curiosity and the fact that OSU drew the lowest official attendance for a Stanford road game is interesting. I'm not a marketing expert, but the situation still begs a few questions, most importantly, how can schools improve women's college basketball marketing?

Shouldn't Stanford be a draw even on a Thursday night? Why have a promotional night against Cal instead Stanford, even though Saturday night might be a difficult draw for women's basketball?

Certainly the thinking might be that Stanford markets itself -- that not much effort needs to be put into getting people to a Stanford game because everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the #2 team in the country who has dominated the Pac-10. Conversely, one could also say that if Stanford was heavily promoted, the payoff for that promotional effort would be greater than for any other game.

However, C and R's mention of Gonzaga made me wonder what was going on there and I happened to stumble across previous post from their blog about the West Coast Conference's marketing efforts:

C and R's Stanford Women's Basketball Blog October Archives
So I picked up the phone and had a wonderful talk with Rachel Engrissei, Assistant Media Relations Director for theUniversity of San Francisco Athletics Department. Anytime I get to talk women’s college basketball with someone equally excited, it’s a good day! We both acknowledged that there is a need to attract more fans to women’s games in general. She told me The West Coast Conference has launched an innovative marketing campaign titled the "WCC Fan Draft". She gave me some background on this new campaign.

Wait, first, go to the website listed below, pick a team and try it out. It is cute! Then come back and finish the rest of this post. In the quest to find the "No. 1 fan" for all eight institutions, fans should visit and enter their name and phone number to attend the virtual WCC Fan Camp and have a chance to win tickets to the 2010 WCC Basketball Championships on March 5-8 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (What happens in Vegas…hmmm, maybe C and R will go to the Final Four this year!)

The ad is based on a clever idea Gonzaga had last year that sparked a lot of buzz in the sport business/marketing world. The other colleges in the conference wanted to try it out, but marketing takes money, and we are talking about women's basketball… the WCC applied for a grant!

The program was funded by a 2009 -10 NCAA Women’s Basketball Marketing Grant. The West Coast Conference was one of only 18 recipients of the grant program, which dedicated approximately $750,000 nationally to increase awareness, exposure and increase attendance of women’s basketball.

The Grant that the WCC applied for is of course one of the NCAA's more prominent means of supporting women's basketball marketing. And like the WCC, schools are getting creative with it.

Earlier this season, smaller East Tennessee State University took the opposite approach of OSU and did a promotional event with nationally ranked Vanderbilt coming into town. The University of South Carolina has linked a community outreach project and comic books featuring head coach and women's basketball legend Dawn Staley to an attendance building effort.

Even from a small sampling of what schools are trying to do with the NCAA grant, it's clear that the common theme is creativity and leveraging both assets (such as Staley) and the occasional appearance of ranked opponents.

Without a grant, it's still about creatively building relationships in the area -- many schools reach out to area groups and target girls as part of their marketing efforts.

The University of Richmond women’s basketball team is currently 14-4 and has won all three of its Atlantic-10 Conference games so far. | The Collegian — University of Richmond
Jana Ross, assistant director of athletic marketing and fan development, said there was a marketing plan for the team. Ross works with area groups like the Girl Scouts of the USA and youth leagues to get them to attend games. Weekly e-mails are sent to the students to inform them about games and the giveaways and promotions during each game. "We definitely advertise to the students," Ross said.

As ex-college basketball player and Women Talk Spots founder Megan Hueter said in a post about women's sports marketing, "’s a complex issue that involves many social, cultural, athletic talent and (obviously) financial factors." There is likely no silver bullet or universal means by which we can tell whether a team is doing well with their marketing effort or poorly.

But ultimately, it's hard to disagree with C and R's sentiment: one would hope that more than 750 (or 1,234) fans would show up for a conference game against Stanford.