Women's basketball harbors empty feeling

Women's basketball harbors empty feeling

CHAMPAIGN — In the summer before her freshman year at Illinois, Jaelyne Kirkpatrick traveled to the Czech Republic as part of the Canadian National Team to play in the FIBA U-19 World Games. There, the Ontario native played in front of packed houses.

“Being able to play in that kind of environment was so exciting for me,” Illinois’ sophomore point guard said.

Unfortunately for Kirkpatrick and her teammates, that kind of atmosphere has been hard to come by at the 15,544-seat State Farm Center, where the Illini regularly play in front of sparse crowds oftentimes in the hundreds, despite what official attendance figures would indicate.

In the meantime, their arena-sharing counterparts on the men’s basketball team have played in front of more than 10,000 in all but one of their 12 homes games this season.

“We joke about it sometimes and we’ll say, ‘If just a quarter of the fans from the men’s game came, we’d be happy,’ ” sophomore forward Alex Wittinger said.

“It’s not a huge deal, but we do joke about it,” Wittinger added.

As it stands, though, the attendance at Illinois women’s basketball games this season hasn’t been a joking matter. Entering the week, the Illini drew an average of 1,421 fans to their 13 home games, a figure that ranks 13th in the Big Ten. Only Northwestern’s 1,284 was lower.

On average, Big Ten teams were drawing 3,726 fans to their home games, with Michigan State (6,061), Purdue (5,811) and Maryland (5,573) leading the way.

The announced attendance in the Illini’s most recent home game was more than 400 fans above the average, as a Feb. 5 tilt against Purdue drew 1,889. Illinois’ two home games prior to that — Jan. 26 against Maryland and Feb. 1 against Michigan — saw just 1,126 and 1,156 come to State Farm Center, respectively.

Prior to that, wins against Iowa on Dec. 28, Rutgers on Jan. 7 and Nebraska on Jan. 15 saw the attendance climb to greater-than-average heights.

Against the Hawkeyes, the attendance was recorded at 1,584, and versus the Scarlet Knights, it was 1,482.

The average attendance figure took another boost against Nebraska as 2,675 made their way to State Farm Center for the annual Pack the House game, for which tickets and parking were free to all. Last year’s Pack the House game against Penn State drew 3,776 fans.

“It was noticeable and it was fun because we also had a good game,” Wittinger said of the Iowa crowd in a 70-65 Illini triumph. “You can definitely hear it when you make a good play coming down the court.”

As exciting as that was for the Illinois players, the Iowa, Rutgers and Nebraska crowds paled in comparison to the 5,757 who showed for the New Year’s Day game at Michigan State.

“That felt a little different,” Illinois coach Matt Bollant said.

Problem dates back
Attendance has been an issue for Illinois long before Bollant took over the program in 2012.

And when it’s come to recruiting, the Illini have missed out on some top-flight prospects because of the home-court atmosphere — or lack thereof.

“They don’t come out and say it, but it’s definitely one of the variables in recruiting,” Bollant said. “When they went to a game at another Big Ten school and there were 6,000 or 8,000 fans there, it makes a difference.”

It hasn’t helped that Illinois hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of success on the floor, as the Illini are 60-89 under Bollant in four-plus season. It’s a fact that’s not lost on the coach or his players.

“We know we have a part to play in that and the more you win, the easier it is to get attendance,” Bollant said. “We’re trying to control what we can control.”

“Playing in front of a bigger crowd is exciting and obviously more fun,” Kirkpatrick added. “We’d like to draw bigger crowds; that kind of ties into winning. We’re working on our part, but we do appreciate our fans who come out and support us.”

There are loyalists who are at State Farm Center for just about every game, led by the program’s fundraising group, the Courtsiders.

Jen Shelby is in her third season as president of the club, whose membership numbers are currently around 100. The aim is for that figure to be much larger, but according to Shelby it has more than doubled during Bollant’s tenure.

In addition to raising funds to support the program, the Courtsiders are active in their effort to attract more fans to home games.

Shelby and treasurer Todd Lindsey appear on WDWS during halftime of games to encourage those listening to come out. They’ve also increased their mailing list to include folks who were once involved in the program but are no longer active to come back, and they’ve had announcements made at games.

“I don’t know what it is, and I think it’s a shame because I think the team is fun to watch,” Shelby said. “Yes, they’re young and they’ve had some struggles. They’re still student-athletes, and why this community doesn’t do a better job to get out to support the student-athletes is beyond me.”

More than basketball
It’s not just an issue with women’s basketball, but with athletics in general at Illinois, according to Shelby.

For instance, when Lovie Smith was hired as the football coach, season-ticket sales spiked and the attendance at the first two home football games was a marked increase from last year’s totals.

“But as soon as we lose something, people just drop off the face of the Earth, and I don’t think that’s how you support student-athletes,” Shelby said. “If you want to do that for professional athletes, that’s one thing.”

And like Bollant, Shelby knows those empty seats at State Farm Center are doing Illinois no favors when it comes to attracting blue-chip prospects.

“That’s what I preach if I write an email or get on the radio is that if people want a winning program, you cannot have a recruit here who’s watching a game and these poor young women are playing to 100 people,” Shelby said. “That doesn’t excite a recruit to get here if they visit somebody like Purdue or Nebraska that packs the place — that’s exciting.

“We’ve got a really cool locker room, we’ve got amazing conditioning equipment. We’ve got a good, solid coaching staff. But when the fans don’t come out and support you, that’s a huge detriment to recruiting and the team in general.”

In conjunction with the Illinois marketing types, the Courtsiders have been creative in efforts to increase attendance. The season-opener saw this year’s highest attendance total of 2,358 against Memphis as children from local schools were invited to help pack the arena. There have been Girl Scouts nights and Cub Scouts night and even invitations to kids who have participated in past Illinois basketball camps.

“The promotions side of the university has done a great job,” Shelby said.

And while they would love to see more fans in the stands, the players and coaches appreciate those who do come out, especially those who are there on a regular basis.

“It’s nice to know there are people who come out to support us,” Wittinger said.

The extra lift from the fans at the end of that Iowa game was a difference for the Illini.

“Our Courtsiders are great and we’ve raised a lot of money in different ways with people helping out. That’s been awesome, and we appreciate it with the people being loyal and sticking with us,” Bollant said. “They’re into it and it means something to them, and that’s neat to see.”

One of the positives of having a small, core fan base is it leads to more personal relationships between the players and fans that might not occur otherwise.

“It’s great. (Recently) I was at Wal-Mart and I ran into one of (our fans),” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s nice to build that sense of community and to have them support us and to build those relationships with them and support them as well.”


Good seats available
Heading into today’s second-to-last home game (7 p.m., Penn State), Illinois’ women’s basketball team ranks second-to-last in Big Ten home attendance:
Team    Home games    Att.    Avg.
Michigan State    12    72,727    6,061
Purdue    13    75,541    5,811
Maryland    13    72,448    5,573
Ohio State    17    87,416    5,142
Nebraska    13    61,508    4,731
Iowa    15    68,118    4,541
Wisconsin    13    46,969    3,613
Minnesota    14    44,768    3,198
Indiana    12    35,382    2,949
Penn State    14    39,064    2,790
Michigan    13    33,773    2,598
Rutgers    13    24,867    1,913
Illinois    15    21,308    1,421
Northwestern    15    19,263    1,284