This is the second part of a six-part feature series on Stanford women’s sports.
Arlene Rusche has dinner reservations, but since this is the last home game of the season for the Stanford women’s basketball team, the cheerful woman in Cardinal attire isn’t leaving Maples Pavilion until the very end of the post-game festivities.
Rusche is one of many fans in the arena on this night who have held season tickets for over 20 years, providing an unusually strong fan base for the Stanford women’s basketball team. In the 2012-2013 season, an average of 4,180 fans attended home games, more than double the Pac-12 average and almost equal to the attendance at Cardinal men’s basketball games.
But while some women’s sports programs on the Farm enjoy broad community support, others struggle to attract fans. So far in the 2013 season, the Stanford softball team has seen less than 450 spectators at each game. Across the street, the baseball team is drawing an average of more than 1,500 fans.
Certainly, success is a factor—popular teams like women’s basketball and women’s soccer have both qualified for the NCAA semifinals in their respective sports in five of the last six seasons. However, other successful teams wonder why they don’t receive the same levels of attention.
Last season, the Stanford women’s tennis team lost in the quarterfinals of the team tournament but captured both the singles and doubles national titles. Current junior Nicole Gibbs also appears on the pro tour and is ranked among the top 200 players in the world.
“It’s a very high level of tennis and we’d like to get more people out to realize it,” said Stanford women’s tennis head coach Lele Forood ‘78. “For sports like ours, it‘s constantly a challenge trying to get people to watch.”
Marie Vasquez, the assistant athletic director of marketing at Stanford, said that both on campus and within the Bay Area, collegiate sports have to compete with a multitude of other activities, both athletic and otherwise. Therefore, it takes targeted efforts to increase the audience for all sports, particularly for women’s games.
Stanford’s seven ticketed sports—football, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball—each have dedicated marketing associates to promote their events, while the other programs do not.
Vasquez said that the athletic department is working to increase awareness of the high-quality, free events offered at Stanford. Because of budget constraints, the marketing team emphasizes digital advertising using social media, email and the web to reach the largest possible audience.
“If we could throw additional dollars to the overall marketing of our programs, we’d do that across the board,” said Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir. “But we’re trying to be strategic.”
Stanford Athletics Senior Woman Administrator Beth Goode emphasized that while the athletic department works to support all teams equally, there are cultural differences that lead to varying levels of fan interest.
Goode said that traditionally, marketing for all women’s athletics has been “very grassroots,” with athletes relying on friends from dorms, sororities or classes to come support them personally, as opposed to men’s sports which often attract those who are just “fans of the game overall.”
For both men’s and women’s teams, the administration also tries to facilitate interaction with young fans through events like Autograph Nights and connections to local groups such as the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, a San Jose-based organization that works to expose young girls to sports.
Muir pointed to women’s lacrosse as a sport that will benefit from increased interest on the West Coast, especially at the youth level.
“Over time, you’ll continue to see that kids and their parents and families come out,” Muir said. “So we just need provide greater exposure to those programs, and yes, there’s still work to be done.”
Vasquez said that women’s soccer has maintained such strong attendance because of the University’s community outreach. The program often invites youth teams to walk the players out during the national anthem, participate in strategy talks with the team or serve as ball boys and girls.
“When you incorporate fans into the game experience, they are more invested in wanting to come,” Vasquez said.
Stanford women’s soccer coach Paul Ratcliffe said that his players work to cultivate those relationships because the stadium environment both energizes the players on the field and provides a big draw when it comes to recruiting.
“Every young player wants to play in front of a crowd and feel like they are loved and appreciated,” Ratcliffe said. “When you come to Stanford and see one of our games, you can see that our players have a lot of people supporting them.”
The women’s basketball team also benefits from a long-standing personal connection with fans, albeit of an older generation.
Patty White ‘62 and her husband Edward ‘60 MBA ‘62 have held season tickets to women’s basketball since the 1989-1999 season, the first year season tickets were sold. The Whites were also original members of the Fast Break Club, an unofficial fan club that played an instrumental role in developing support for women’s basketball.
Although the fundraising activities of the Fast Break Club have mostly been folded into Stanford Athletics’ Buck/Cardinal Club—which supports all Cardinal athletic programs at Stanford—the group continues to draw fans to the arena.
“When the Fast Break Club started, after games, we met in a tent outside the old Maples Pavilion,” Patty White said. “A real community built among those of us who went to the tent.”
Rusche said that she has sat in the same row with six or eight of her friends since they first bought season tickets together 20 years ago. Rusche continues to come to home games and travels to the NCAA Final Four even if Stanford doesn’t qualify.
“The character-building is outstanding,” Rusche said. “Throughout the 20-plus years we’ve been involved, you have the same feeling that these gals are going to do wonderful things and part of that is due to the athletics that they have participated in.”
Stanford women’s basketball star Chiney Ogwumike said her team is appreciative of the support provided by the Fast Break Club and other fans, especially when they take the time to get to know players off the court.
“We don’t have a huge arena filled with 30,000 people,” Ogwumike said, “but we have a solid 5,000 that come and support us for the entire duration no matter who were are playing and no matter what the score is.”
All administrators interviewed said the athletic department hopes to create that type of support for all teams on The Farm.
“We’re really trying to get people to come out and watch [all] teams because they’re very competitive at the highest level.” Muir said. “It may just be a particular game, or games, that we highlight, but we’re really trying to encourage people to come out and watch these teams.”
Contact Jana Persky at jpersky “at” stanford.edu.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s women’s sports feature series: