Steps taken by the NCAA to address the ongoing attendance concern at the women’s NCAA Tournament are working, at least in some places.
Buoyed by two moves in particular — to once again have top teams host first and second-round games and scheduling more weekend games — overall attendance was up. Average attendance for those 48 games was 4,709 fans, nearly 1,000 more than last season and the most since 2008.
Still, it could have been better.
“Making those two changes have been impactful and a positive for us,” said Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships. “Some of the places we are disappointed in. There are places that are hotbeds that have to do more to market their teams.”
Browne also acknowledged that some undesirable game times also impacted attendance, a concern shared by coaches.
Some arenas where host teams usually have robust fan support had more empty seats than usual, a problem coaches say was created in part by the starting times.
Duke played its two games at noon on Friday and noon on Sunday. The Blue Devils drew 2,000 fans less for each game than they did the rest of the season.
The Blue Devils weren’t alone.
UConn and Stanford also had sparse crowds. The Cardinal had an afternoon game on Monday which drew the lowest home attendance of the season with an announced crowd of 2,532 — more than a thousand fans below the season average of 3,693.
Stanford failed to reach 3,000 fans at home four times this season with two of those occasions coming in the NCAA Tournament. The first-round drew 2,830 fans on a Saturday afternoon.
UConn wasn’t much better drawing under 4,000 for each of its two routs — less than half their normal attendance. The Huskies had both of their games start at 9 p.m.
“It makes no sense to me or to our fans,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “If someone said to me before the tournament, what’s your ideal situation? I would have said Saturday at four and Monday night at seven, if it has to be Saturday, Monday. Friday at seven and Sunday at two. You look for windows where, you know who our fan base is, that we could get 8, 9, 10,000. But I don’t make those decisions.”
While UConn’s lack of a crowd didn’t look awful on television, where ratings were equal to last season’s NCAA Tournament in the opening two rounds, Auriemma was annoyed.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” he said. “We took great pride in who we are and what we’ve done and how we’ve done it all these years and for that to happen, I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, I just think it’s embarrassing.”
ESPN sets the start time for all NCAA Tournament games and by putting the Huskies at 9 p.m. on Saturday, it allowed the network to show the game nationally. The Huskies were the only game to start at that time.
“We want to provide maximum exposure for the sport — for avid fans and, hopefully, new fans,” said Brent Colborne, ESPN director, programming and acquisitions. “We try to showcase storied brands and key matchups while looking to avoid potential territory and scheduling overlaps.”
Despite those sites, there were definitely some bright spots for attendance.
South Carolina, which led the nation in attendance, drew over 10,000 fans in each of its games. Maryland, Iowa, Oregon State and South Florida also had great crowds.
“Really, really proud of our fans,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “We have passionate fans and we had an excellent timetable, when you talk about a weekend and the time that was set. When you look at the other venues and what maybe didn’t come out, I think we’ve shown and proven every year that we’ve had the luxury to host that we draw extremely well.”
The Terps drew close to 16,000 total for their two games, that’s nearly 6,000 more than they had when they hosted last year.
Last season the NCAA allowed teams to host regionals and the attendance was great with just over 9,000 fans attending each game. It was the second highest total ever. This year the regionals are back at neutral sites and it will be tough to match the success from 2014.