When the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team, ranked fourth in the country, takes on No. 2 Duke in two weeks, it wants its Rupp Arena to be a packed house. It normally plays in the smaller Memorial Coliseum, but the Duke game is its annual tilt at Rupp, where the men play. Because filling it will be harder, it’s offering a special promotion to fans, giving them the chance to win a stake in the next year of winnings for a thoroughbred race horse.
Outside Kentucky, it may seem an odd promotion. But in the state — and city — that operates as the center of the racing world, it’s a promotion that may help draw more fans to see a program that is trying to emerge as a national power not just in the nation but in a state crowded with other basketball powers. And it’s indicative of the types of deals schools are offering to draw fans to their women’s basketball games.
Up the road, the University of Louisville offered free beer vouchers to fans who came to see the Lady Cardinals play LSU in the preseason National Invitation Tournament. Kansas State offered students free bacon (it gave away 300 pounds). The University of Colorado, meanwhile, required students to attend a women’s game if they wanted guaranteed tickets to the men’s game against Kansas, the biggest game in the men’s program’s history. In other promos, the men’s team has participated: Kentucky and Baylor’s women’s teams met last Friday night in Dallas as part of a double-header that featured the Kentucky and Baylor’s men’s teams right after.
Promotions like these aren’t new. Teams have been giving away t-shirts, bobbleheads, food coupons, and other items to get people into stadiums and arenas for years. But they come at a big time for women’s basketball at the collegiate level. While the years of dominance by a small number of teams — primarily Connecticut and Tennessee, with a few other consistent contenders mixed in — are continuing, new programs like Kentucky and Louisville are emerging as national powers. The Lady Cardinals have made two Final Fours in the past five years and are again in the top 10. Kentucky has gone to three consecutive regional finals in the NCAA Tournament; it hopes that this season will bring its first ever Final Four.
It also comes at a time when the women’s game is, like the men, trying to improve its product after scoring hit record lows a season ago. The NCAA hired former WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman to help strengthen the game, and many recommendations in a white paper she released in June are already set for implementation over the next few years.
When the Wildcats and Cardinals met two weekends ago, no promotion was needed. They have developed a fierce rivalry that already exists between the two schools — particularly when it comes to men’s basketball — and has been strengthened by simultaneous periods of success (each team’s current coach is the winningest in school history). For other games, though, even those against teams like Duke that are traditional rivalries on the men’s side, the promotions can help put people in the seats.
The promotions haven’t always been met with appreciation. When Colorado announced its plan to require students to attend a women’s game if they wanted tickets to the men’s battle with Kansas, it was roundly criticized as demeaning to the women’s game. ESPN columnist Kate Fagan, who played basketball at Colorado, tweeted that the policy “sets up the idea that women’s basketball = eating your vegetables; men’s basketball = dessert.”
That may be true of the Colorado promotion, which is unique among the deals schools have offered. But the overall goal there, as it is with all of the special efforts, is to get new fans into seats with the hope that they’ll enjoy the product and come back.
“I thought it was a great idea,” he told the AP. “We just want fans to come one time and see how good our game is,” he said. “Hopefully, some of them will be impressed how talented the women are and want to come back again.”
The promotions have certainly drawn fans in the beginning. Colorado had more than 2,000 students at its game tied to Kansas tickets. Kansas State’s “bacon game” drew twice the number of students that attended games last year. Louisville had no trouble giving away 2,500 free beers when, according to AP, more than 8,000 fans showed up.
It’s hard to tell whether they are working over the long-term, but the logic of the approach that gets people into the gym to learn about the quality of the women’s game is sound. My attendance at a WNBA game in D.C. last year, while anecdotal, is evidence of that. And it only follows that, while inclement weather dampened attendance at the Kentucky-Baylor doubleheader this weekend, those who made it into AT&T Stadium were impressed with what the saw in the women’s game, when Kentucky outlasted Baylor in a record-setting 133-130, four-overtime win. Even if many fans showed up late or tuned in on TV only for the men’s game, the extra basketball meant they almost surely caught some of the women’s game too. At school’s where both the men’s and women’s teams are good, that can only help to spur interest in the women’s team too, especially since their game lacked neither in drama nor skill.
And that’s really what it comes down to. It may take a race horse or a free beer to get new fans in the door, particularly those who are otherwise biased against the game. But quality is the important part. And if those new fans are treated to games as good as some of the marquee match-ups have been, though, the allure of good basketball should be enough to keep them coming back.