The marketing zeal with which Darryl Gross operates is a double-edged sword. It raises awareness, but also expectations. And while Syracuse Athletics has pushed women’s basketball for years, attendance is still pathetically low. Meaning the flashlight we shine on an empty Carrier Dome lights up the open swaths of seats even brighter.
Log onto SUathletics.com and more than likely you’ll see a banner ad for “Q-Ball” – good seats are always available for Quentin Hillman’s troops. You’ll see online interviews with the women via streaming video alongside their brothers on the men’s squad. Head to the Dome, inevitably you’ll hear a promotion over the P.A. about the Big East Women’s Tournament.
So, it’s only natural to ask why it’s not working. This week’s piece by the Associated Press dissected the fan apathy surrounding the women:
“The final buzzer sounds and the cheers of the sparse crowd echo faintly off the concrete walls of the cavernous Carrier Dome.
In a 77-61 loss in early February to then-No. 10 DePaul, just the Orange’s second setback at home this season, one could almost hear a pin drop despite the courtside cheering of university chancellor Nancy Cantor and athletic director Daryl Gross.”
Ugh. While the men average nearly 22,000 fans per game, the women bring in less than 1,300. To be fair, there are few women’s programs in the country that are truly difference-makers for an athletic department; UConn, Tennessee, Stanford. Some women’s teams like Rutgers and Oklahoma are relevant on campus, but are still far from cash cows. But Syracuse, despite being ranked this season, is miles away from relevance on the CNY sports scene. And the greatest hope to change all that has already been dashed.
“It’s little wonder why local star Breanna Stewart, a 6-foot-3, 16-year-old junior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has spurned the Orange. After all, she has the talent to change the face of a program. She can already dunk. And she seemingly has it all. Which is why she’s going to UConn.”
Stewart would have been a game-changer. No, 10,000 fans wouldn’t automatically appear at the Dome for women’s basketball. But one of the top players in the country, Syracuse-born, making SU a top-15 team while dunking on other chicks in her backyard? Yeah, even casual fans would have to peek every so often.
“But Gross and the Orange trudge on, with visions of the day when Syracuse can regularly attract crowds of 5,000. Gross says, ‘It’s hard, but we’re trying. We’re doing everything in marketing, and we’re going to keep trying,’ It’s one of those things – the mindset of people. I think eventually it’ll build. I really do.”
Gross has made it a personal challenge to grow the Olympic and non-revenue sports, but is women’s hoops a lost cause? Would it be better to focus that attention on another team? The bar has been set so low, sophomore guard Elashier Hall says a few dozen fans make a difference. “It isn’t about who’s there and who’s watching, but it feels good when you have home court support, even when you go away. Just to get those 10 or 20 fans, it’s always good to have people in your corner.”
Every school starts somewhere. Once upon a time in Storrs, CT a few hundred fans would show up for women’s basketball. Of course, that’s 30 years and 7 National Championships ago. So, in 2041, after 15 Final Fours, multiple consensus players of the year and a 90-game win streak, Syracuse women’s basketball will finally matter.
In all seriousness, it’s hard to imagine CNY ever truly embracing the women. Syracuse fans already have an elite basketball team – a Final Four-caliber winter product woven into the fabric of generations of fans. Which is something UConn and Tennessee did not when each began building their success. Women’s basketball does have a national television deal with ESPN and schools in the conference have made it work. But Stewart was SU’s best hope at relevance within the next five years. For the foreseeable future, Gross’ banner ads will run in silence.