I wrote a couple weeks ago about the interesting promotions colleges and universities were using to draw fans to their women’s basketball programs, and one of the most intriguing ideas was the one the University of Kentucky dreamed up for its December 21 match-up with Duke, one of the top programs in women’s basketball. UK Hoops, as I noted then, was giving every fan who came to the game a chance to win a year-long stake in a race horse.
Apparently, it worked. When the 5th-ranked Wildcats took on No. 2 Duke on Sunday, the game drew an announced crowd of 23,706 fans, a number that rivals attendance figures for the school’s storied men’s program and set a college basketball record of sorts: it was the fifth-highest attendance figure in women’s college basketball history, and never before have so many fans attended a women’s college game that didn’t involve Tennessee or Connecticut.
That so many fans showed up for the game drew the attention of both UK Hoops coach Matthew Mitchell and Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, both of whom seemed awestruck after the game. “It was a great crowd, super crowd for women’s basketball,” McCallie said after the game. “I think that’s really important. We were thrilled to be here.” Mitchell, now in his seventh season of building the UK women’s basketball program, added, “I really tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn’t help it right before tipoff. It was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it’s culminated.”
But was it the promotion that worked, or the fact that the UK program, buried in the heart of a men’s college basketball hotbed, is in better shape than it ever has been? As Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay told it after the game, the quality of the team probably has more to do with the success of the promotion as the promotion itself:
There are reasons Kentucky women’s basketball is no longer a cult following. Mitchell goes out of his way to thank former UK president Lee T. Todd Jr., Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and his predecessor and former boss, Mickie DeMoss. “Visionaries,” he calls them. And winning has much to do with it.
There’s also something about the way this team plays, the way Mitchell’s teams have played since he arrived from Morehead State in 2007. They might not be the most athletic or the most gifted — though they are closing the gap on both accounts — but no team leaves more perspiration on the floor.
I think that’s right. These promotions have been successful at other places too, like the University of Louisville, which offered fans a free beer voucher for attending a game earlier this year. But it isn’t the promotions that are driving the success — it’s the quality of the programs being promoted. The promos work because schools like Kentucky and Louisville (and before them, schools like Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford, and Duke, to name a few) have made concerted efforts and investments toward developing quality women’s programs that fans enjoy.
So the lesson other schools should take from the “record” Kentucky and Duke set or the success some of these efforts have generated isn’t that they need better promotions to market women’s basketball, even if this particular promotion helped draw such a great crowd. Rather, it’s that women’s sports can be something fans want and enjoy. The promotions are merely a way of selling a product that received enough investment, attention, and effort to make it worth selling in the first place.