The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 17, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU women reaching out for more fans

MORGANTOWN — The other day Mike Carey was in Fairmont to talk to the Rotary Club, part of a campaign to increase the interest and attendance at West Virginia women’s basketball games.

It’s a tough sell, something on the order of selling air conditioning to an Eskimo.

Understand at West Virginia, and virtually every school in the NCAA, there is great demand for football and men’s basketball tickets, the spotlight sports, but the fringe sports perform in a shadow of indifference, fighting just to get a paragraph in the local newspaper, a clip on a local TV broadcast.

It has been a hurtful thing for Carey and his women’s team in the decade he has coached at WVU, hurtful for he has built the Mountaineers painstakingly slowly, fought through injury after injury and setback after setback until now he believes he has a team that challenge on a national level.

They set a school record a year ago with 29 victories, went unbeaten at home and return everyone plus a recruiting class that excites Carey.

“We’re preseason Top 10,” he said. “We play in the Big East. We can compete with anybody. We just can’t beat Connecticut. Last year we played with them for about 25 minutes, but we just couldn’t hang with them. They haven’t lost in more than two seasons.”

The question is how to you go about selling a sport that does not have universal acceptance?

The man to ask is Matt Wells, who as the university’s athletic promotion director, is charged with doing just that.

It’s a hard battle, but in a way a rewarding one for the attendance at women’s basketball games has grown over the years and this year they get some help in the form of a $60,000 grant from the NCAA that allows to incorporate something new into the traditional promoting that they have followed.

In 2003 the women’s program drew a paltry average of 638 fans to 12 home games, a number that has grown to 1,947 last year in 17 dates. That’s a figure that was only surpassed in 2008 when the Mountaineers averaged 2,671 for a team that went 25-8.

“Over the past five years we’ve made it more of a grass roots effort and have engaged children with after school programs and elementary school programs,” Wells explained as to the approach that is being taken.

As noted, the numbers have gone up but the Mountaineers honestly believe this is their season, a time when they may well be at their best with a team that is led by Liz Repella, Sarah Miles, Korrine Campbell and Asya Bussie, familiar names and quality players.

The approach the Mountaineers are taking toward creating a demand for tickets begins with a winning team, but doesn’t end there.

They are pushing to get the word spread to as many people in the area as they can.

“We have an advertising plan — billboards, radio, newspaper ads. We’re using social media now. Our ‘Proud to be a Mountaineer’ page on Facebook has nearly 100,000 fans. We have the technology now to tape a 30 second message from Liz Repella or Sarah Miles and post it for those 100,000 fans on Facebook, inviting them out to the games,” Wells said.

But that is an in-the-moment effort. Far more important is the grass roots approach that is aimed at building long-term fans and that brings us back to the grant.

First a touch of history. The grants are given every year and schools make presentations why they should get them. WVU had tried for two years and failed to be chosen.

“After the second year they had a conference call and allowed us to ask questions of the panel that judged it,” Wells said. “They gave us that feedback. We took that and strengthened our proposal and won this year.”

The money is being put to a novel use.

“We worked with a group called Starbridge Media and they put together a comic book and an interactive website that is women’s basketball-themed but also has an educational element to it concerning recycling and a green initiative,” Wells explained.

The comic book has Coach Carey as a character along with a generic woman’s basketball player, NCAA compliance rules not allowing them to single out any athlete.

“There’s these school kids learning about recycling and they incorporate basketball into the lessons of recycling. It ends with them attending a women’s basketball game”, Wells said. “Then, the interactive site includes some of the games that branch off those stories.

“It’s targeted at elementary school-aged kids. We partnered with the 4-H Club. We’ve had a good relationship with them. They’ve had a 4-H day at a women’s basketball game the last several years.”

Then, to take it one step further they distribute the comic books to the 4-H clubs and elementary schools, including one to a game inside.

“That way, all 10,000 kids who get the comic book also get a ticket in their hands,” Wells said.

Then, when representatives visit a school, say, Liz Repella going out to read to the kids, they give out a voucher for a game and many of the kids get two tickets.

Add to that a strong effort to make the games affordable, a word that seldom goes with college sports these days, via a new flex plan where you can purchase 10 tickets for $20 and new general admission seating and you have a start to share what could be a great basketball team with the public.

What’s missing?

A strong effort to lure the student body, something that no schools really have been able to do on a regular basis, a student’s life being filled with far too many distractions to take part in this attraction.

“It goes back to your expectation level. You can get 150 students on average. If you’re looking for several thousand, that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at Connecticut or Tennessee. They’re into the few to several hundred students range,” Wells said.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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