by Staff Reporter
When Connecticut, Tennessee, Georgia and Stanford met at Target Center in Minneapolis for the Women’s Final Four last April, the impact was supposed to reach five women’s basketball programs directly.
Obviously, the four teams involved in the last two rounds of the NCAA tournament were expected to gain enormous amounts of recognition and revenue from the highly publicized event. Chris Voelz, the women’s athletics director at Minnesota, hoped the same would hold true for the school located just minutes from the event’s site.
Indeed, all the pieces seemed to be in place. The Gophers, on the heels of Apple Valley native Carol Ann Shudlick, had been to the NCAA tournament for the first time just a year before. Attendance at Minnesota home games was the highest it had ever been. Sellouts at the final four proved that major women’s college basketball had not only caught on but caught fire in Minneapolis.
Voelz said that the department hoped the sellouts at the final four would solidify Minnesota’s position on the women’s basketball scene. “In many other championships that has indeed helped launch programs,” she said.
Almost a year later, however, the women’s basketball program is still waiting for liftoff. Attendance at the Sports Pavilion is down an average of 562 fans from last year. The Gophers, 4-21 overall and 0-15 in the Big Ten, could become just the second team in history to go winless in the conference with a loss at home to Northwestern on Sunday.
Several factors — inexperience and injuries to name a couple — have combined to keep Minnesota winless in the conference. But regardless of the reasons for Minnesota’s dreadful season, the effects are far-reaching. Considering women’s basketball is exploding around the nation and one of the best crops of in-state recruits Minnesota has ever seen is next year’s senior class, the Gophers’ free fall could not have come at a worse time.
Attendance boom hitsa recession in Minnesota
The last six Women’s Final Fours have been held in cities near major college campuses. Of the six schools — Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, UCLA, Georgia, Virginia and Minnesota — located near tournament sites, only UCLA has a lower average attendance than Minnesota this season.
Expecting the Gophers to win a title immediately after hosting the final four would have been unrealistic, considering Minnesota hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as schools like Tennessee or Louisiana Tech.
But it is obvious from attendance figures that hosting a sport’s major championship and being successful in that sport are both necessary in generating fan support.
Attendance at Gophers women’s basketball games jumped from 963 in 1991-92 to 1,903 the following year. The increase in attendance coincided with an improved record on the court.
Attendance rose again two years ago and peaked at 2,110 last year. Attendance on a national level also reached an all-time high last year, with nearly 4 million fans attending Division I games, an average of 1,241 fans per game.
This season, however, as the national average prepares to hit another all-time high, Minnesota is averaging 562 less fans through 11 home games.
The Gophers lag behind six Big Ten schools. Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue — three of the premier teams in the conference — rank in the top 10 in attendance nationally.
The Badgers are averaging almost 8,000 fans a game this season. Sunday’s Iowa/Wisconsin game in Madison sold out the UWFieldhouse. That same day, Minnesota drew 2,350 fans for a game against nationally-ranked Penn State. That total was the third-highest this year at the Sports Pavilion.
All of these statistics add up to a lot of frustration for Voelz and Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald.
“We ended up in a situation where, were it two years ago, I think you would have seen sellouts,” Voelz said. “The teams that are winning are drawing huge numbers.”
The major thing holding the program back is the team’s record, she added.
Hill-MacDonald said there are more to the small crowds than just the Gophers’ play.
“There are lots of pieces to putting people in the stands. Marketing is one of those pieces. Performance is one of those pieces,” she said. “Certainly the performance of the team has not drawn the fans in this year.”
Hill-MacDonald also said that while Minnesota’s contract with Midwest Sports Channel increases exposure — the Northwestern game will be Minnesota’s seventh appearance on MSC this season — some fans that used to go to games are watching them on television instead.
High schoolers affectedmore than grade schoolers
Chrissy Wagenknecht, a sixth-grader who plays on a Mounds View Basketball Association team, was at Minnesota’s game against Purdue last Friday night with 10 teammates and three coaches.
She said she doesn’t mind when Minnesota loses. “I just love to watch them do the moves they do,” she said. “As long as they play hard, that’s all I care about.”
Pre-teen fans are more interested in the players than wins or losses, said Greg Alton, one of Wagenknecht’s coaches.
But Alton added that Minnesota’s struggles may be hindering the advancement of girls’ basketball in the state, particularly at the high school level.
“For these girls, this is really the third level of basketball,” Alton said. “Unfortunately, the lady Gophers are having a bad year, which doesn’t help.”
Preparing for future is tough when present looks bleak
Hill-MacDonald said the way she and her staff recruit players is not affected by the team’s performance.
“We go about recruiting the same way we always have,” she said. “We sell the Uni-versity. We sell the academic support. We sell the Big Ten, and we sell the potential of this program.”
But Minnesota’s 0-15 Big Ten record doesn’t make its sales pitch any sweeter.
The Gophers signed two players — Kiauna Burns and Andrea Seago — this season and are hoping to sign a point guard this spring.
But it’s next year’s recruiting class that could make or break Minnesota.
Considered by many to be the best recruiting class in decades — if not the best ever — this year’s high school juniors include twin guards Kelly and Coco Miller of Rochester Mayo, 6-foot-6 Carolyn Moos of Blake and a host of others.
Few people are more aware of how good next year’s crop is than former Rochester Mayo coach Bob Brooks.
Brooks resigned as coach after Mayo captured the Class AA state title last March. He left behind the Miller twins, who he considers “the best perimeter players in the state in two decades.” Schools across the country have been after the Millers for years.
NCAA rules say schools cannot send mail directly to recruits until their junior seasons.Conse-quently, Brooks ended up getting all the letters from programs interested in the Millers.
When the twins were in eighth grade, Brooks started getting 12 to 24 pieces of mail per week. “I used to keep them all in a box and give them out one by one,” he said.
It’s no secret that almost every school is interested in the Millers. The secret is what school the pair is going to choose.
The Millers have given no indication as to where they will play college basketball, Brooks said. Minnesota is one of the many schools in the running, but Brooks said he isn’t sure if the Gophers are making a strong enough pitch for the twins.
“There has to be a greater effort on the part of the U coaching staff in building a rapport with high school coaches in the state,” he said. “In the case of Coco and Kelly, they can go pretty much wherever they want to go.”
Minnesota has its location to build on but doesn’t have the legacy other schools have, Brooks said.
Hill-MacDonald agreed that the school’s lack of basketball history hurts when it comes to recruiting.
“Sometimes athletes think the grass is always greener,” she said. “(Gophers) women’s basketball has been kept too much of a secret in the past.”
The Gophers seemed on the verge of carving a niche with their tournament appearance two seasons ago, but their recent slide turned back the clock as far as recruiting goes.
The primary weapon — aside from location — that the Gophers can use to lure Minnesota athletes is the “come here and be a star” mentality.
“For some players, having the ability to turn the program around is really appealing,” Brooks said. “If (the Millers) come to Minnesota not only will they have the satisfaction of turning a program around, they’ll be doing it in front of family and friends.”
But to others — possibly a majority of high school players — going to a proven winner is preferable. Brooks likened the Gophers women’s basketball team’s situation to that of Minnesota’s football team.
The Gophers football team recently signed 14 recruits, but only four of them are from Minnesota. Many of the blue chip in-state football recruits got away.
Tracy Henderson is one of the most glaring examples of a local talent fleeing for a more established women’s basketball program. The former Minneapolis Henry standout is now a junior at Georgia. She played a key role for the Bulldogs during the final four at Target Center.
“It’s real difficult for a talented kid to turn down a bid from a Stanford or Georgia — schools that have been to the tournament many years in a row,” Brooks said.
Relief in sight?
There is still hope for the Gophers, despite their woes this season.
The high school class of 1997 is not quite Minnesota’s salvation, but it’s close. One player cannot make a team successful, but two or three might. If the Gophers can sign some of the best players in the state, they’ll have a foundation to build on as well as a precedent for future top-notch Minnesota prospects to stay at home.
If the Gophers don’t have a good recruiting year, however, the consequences could be dire for both the team and Hill-MacDonald.
The Gophers coach is currently in the second year of a four-year contract. Voelz has not said Hill-MacDonald’s job is in jeopardy, but she has said she wants to see the program turned around quickly.
More losing years could erase Minnesota’s already dwindling fan support. If it takes too long to turn the program around, the residual effect of the final four will also wear off.
Most importantly, though, it could send even more talented players packing for schools other than Minnesota.
“It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” Brooks said. “You can’t win if you don’t attract athletes, and you can’t attract athletes if you don’t win.”
Along those same lines, it’s difficult to attract fans when a team’s not winning.
That’s what makes Minnesota’s poor year so untimely. The program had the fan support from the final four and from years past. It had — and still has — a first-rate recruiting class waiting to pick schools. The current Gophers couldn’t bridge the gap between the past and the future.
“It all takes time,” Hill-MacDonald said.
But time may not be on Minnesota’s side.