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UMN student groups look to increase attendance at women’s athletic events

The Ski-U-Crew is spearheading efforts to elevate the student section experience at women’s basketball and hockey games.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
Janay Sanders dribbles the ball on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. The Gopher’s Women Basketball team faced off against University of Connecticut, and lost with a score of 62-44.

The Ski-U-Crew, a University of Minnesota student-run organization promoting Gophers athletics, is working to grow student attendance at women’s sporting events. Historically, the Ski-U-Crew has focused on football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.

The Minnesota men’s basketball club, also known as the Barnyard, works mainly on game-day operations. Their duties include handing out information sheets and costumes for students to wear, finding people to participate in half-time competitions and assisting with various giveaways.

Max Kunz, the president of the Barnyard, works with three additional board members to ensure that games run smoothly and Williams Arena is as rowdy as possible.

“I’ve found that it’s really easy to look stupid if other people are looking stupid first, and I’m always okay with being the first one looking stupid,” Kunz said. “If I can do it, I can get the rest of my board members to do it and, hopefully, everyone else will follow.”

The Ice Box works similarly to the Barnyard, focusing mostly on game-day operations for men’s hockey. They work closely with the athletic department’s marketing staff to make the student section fun.

Members of the Ice Box put out information sheets, hand out flags to students to wave, engage with students by asking them questions on a whiteboard and, most recently, assist with Gopher Lights, a cell phone flashlight show through the Gopher Sports phone app.

“Just seeing the number of people that are eager to be at a hockey game is the best part,” said the head intern of the Ice Box, Sydnee Hanson. ”Compared to a lot of other sports we have a very big student section presence.”

This year, Kunz and Hanson worked together to expand on promoting women’s sports. Since women’s basketball plays at Williams Arena, there are no conflicts with the men’s team and their schedule. Women’s hockey games, however, occasionally overlap with the men’s team, making scheduling difficult for the Ice Box.

Last year, Women’s basketball had a total attendance of 57,003, averaging a 22.9% capacity per game at Williams Arena. Women’s hockey had a total attendance of 40,444 throughout the season, averaging 59.5% capacity at Ridder Arena.

So far, Kunz and Hanson have worked with the coaching staff of both sports and the athletic department’s marketing staff to target specific games to attend. These “pop-up” games have been a success in women’s basketball, hockey, soccer and volleyball games, according to Kunz and Hanson. In the spring, Kunz and Hanson hope to include pop-up softball games in this rotation.

The two have been working on implementing practices seen at men’s games during women’s hockey and basketball games, including chants, costumes and giveaways.

Taylor Stewart is a fifth-year Gophers hockey transfer from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. In her first year attending the University, Stewart found that playing in the atmosphere at Ridder Arena was like no other.

“[The best part of playing at Ridder is] for sure the fans,” Stewart said. “The fans hear you. You can’t make it up. It’s so incredibly challenging to be an opponent in this building.”

Junior Ella Huber, on the other hand, has higher expectations for fans. Huber said in the three years of playing hockey for the Gophers, Ridder Arena has felt quieter this year.

“I feel like I’ve seen more out of the Ridder fans, but I think it will pick up as the season goes on,” Huber said. “We’re early [in the season], so I have faith in them.”

Women’s basketball had a strong 3-0 record to start the season before losing to UConn on Sunday. With the addition of new head coach Dawn Plitzuweit, Gophers fans have hope that this success will continue in the future.

Kunz said he met with Plitzuweit and other members of the Gopher women’s basketball team to discuss how to improve the atmosphere at Williams Arena and remain consistent.

In addition to attending games, Kunz worked with the women’s basketball team to host an open practice. Around 100 students, the Minnesota cheer team and the marching band showed up to the open practice, according to Kunz.

Looking toward the future, Hanson hopes to have student leaders for each sport and to see the student section’s attendance increase, creating an inclusive and interactive atmosphere. For now, the Barnyard and the Ice Box will continue working in tandem with Ski-U-Crew to schedule pop-up games and encourage fan participation at women’s events.

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