Hoop dreams come true

Victory on the court has raised attendance and revenue for women’s basketball.

During the last four years, the Gophers women’s basketball team has seen marked improvement not only on the court, but on its bottom line.

The athletics department projects women’s basketball’s gross revenues will reach $980,000 this year, up from about $35,000 in the 2000-01 season, said senior associate athletics director Liz Eull.

The revenue influx is the result of improved play, Eull said.

“I think you’re seeing it on the court with the success the team has had,” she said. “They’ve captured the attention of fans across the state. People really want to watch this team play basketball.”

A big factor in the team’s on-court success has been senior Lindsay Whalen, who played her last Gophers home game Tuesday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Whalen has generated excitement for Gophers women’s basketball, athletics director Joel Maturi said.

“Her abilities, charisma she plays with, her willingness to engage with fans and the Minnesota community is such that she has just electrified this state with women’s basketball here at the University of Minnesota,” he said.

While the team as a whole has performed well, Maturi said, Whalen deserves a lot of credit for the program’s turnaround.

“You don’t like to single out individual players, but the fact of the matter is she probably has had a greater influence on not only women’s basketball, but probably any sport at the University of Minnesota as any individual athlete I remember in my lifetime,” Maturi said.

Whalen has helped draw attention to Gophers women’s basketball and the University, he said.

“More people are aware of Minnesota women’s basketball, and to a great extent, University of Minnesota intercollegiate athletics, because of the great visibility that has been placed on her and the sport,” Maturi said.

That attention has also helped draw more fans to women’s basketball games, dramatically increasing attendance each year Whalen has played.

This season the Gophers had an average attendance of 9,437, eighth in the nation for women’s basketball, Eull said.

Last year, the Gophers ranked seventh nationally for attendance, drawing 7,800 fans per game and in 2001-02, the Gophers ranked 19th at 4,360.

In 2000-01, the Gophers had an average attendance of 1,087. Eull said she does not know where the Gophers ranked nationally that year because the NCAA only lists the top 100 schools and the University did not qualify.

“At one time we’d be stretching to get 2,000 to a (women’s) basketball game,” University President Bob Bruininks said. “It’s really exciting to get this

attention for women’s sports that they so justly deserve. It’s exciting for the team and the University.”

With Whalen graduating, the Gophers will have to maintain that excitement without her next year. But officials remain optimistic about the program’s future.

“I think the coaching staff is the kind of staff that will continue to bring great players into Minnesota and keep good players in the state,” Eull said.

Maturi said he is also confident coach Pam Borton will be able to preserve a strong program for years to come, building on the excitement Whalen created.

“We would hope people have begun to embrace women’s basketball at the University, not just Lindsay,” Maturi said. “Though we will never forget Lindsay, we would hope the numbers would not only continue to be maintained, but continue to grow.”

Increased women’s basketball revenues will help the University’s athletics department as a whole, Maturi said.

This year’s projected revenue exceeds University expectations by more than $200,000, Eull said. But the team still stands to lose about $225,000.

In the University’s 25-sport athletics program, only football, men’s hockey and men’s basketball turn a profit, Maturi said. Women’s basketball could soon join that group, he said.

“It’s a situation where it’s great to see women’s basketball get to the point where it’s almost self-sufficient,” Maturi said, “and I don’t think that day is too far off.”