Hoops in the heartland
Three ushers are chitchatting beneath Section 115 of the Ferrell Center, moments before the arena doors will open for the Baylor Lady Bears' Feb. 18 tilt with Texas Tech. One of the ushers, a middle-aged woman, is relaying a disturbing news item: "Fat Man Dies Eating Six-Pound Burger." Her two male counterparts, aging sentries perched atop metal folding chairs, shake their heads in wonder.
As the ushers discuss the physics of biting into a cat-sized burger, a smartly dressed woman approaches. Diane Jee, Baylor's assistant athletic director for operations, is wearing a headset and gestures for the group to gather.
"We have extra security because of that thing that happened a couple of years ago," Jee says cryptically, as if discussing that thing in specific terms is taboo. And it might be.
She waits for the light bulbs -- a-ha, that thing! -- to go off.
"Ohhhhh," one usher nods at another, like dominoes falling.
"I think everyone is mature enough to handle this," Jee continues. "Last year when we went to Lubbock, it got kind of ugly. But they had extra security, too."
"What number is she?" one usher asks.
"I think she's No. 14 … Jordan Barncastle."
The ushers have gathered just a bounce pass from Texas Tech's bench. For the next three hours, they'll stand facing the sellout crowd, ensuring no one gets too nasty with Barncastle, who two seasons ago absorbed a clothesline punch from the balled-up fist of Baylor's beloved superstar, Brittney Griner. Fans of the Lady Bears say Barncastle provoked Griner; Red Raiders supporters believe Griner snapped.
Video of "that thing that happened" has 1.5 million views on YouTube.
"When she walks on the court," one usher says, "Jordan sure is gonna hear it."
"Gonna keep hearing it, too," says another, "until the day Brittney leaves."
Welcome to Waco, current mecca of Big 12 women's basketball -- a place where, while driving the few miles of backroads from airport to hotel, the cabbie makes sure your hotel room is pre-booked, because "there ain't no rooms available."
And why are there no rooms available? Because the Lady Bears are playing. Because the surrounding communities have spilled into Waco to watch No. 1 Baylor take on its in-state rival.
When Title IX became law 40 years ago, it created a new world of opportunity for female athletes. It guaranteed that on a Friday night in February, Baylor University could host a women's basketball game. But Title IX never guaranteed that anyone would watch. That part has always been the challenge of each program.
And no conference is better at putting fans in the stands than the teams of the Big 12.
In 1996, four teams from the Southwest Conference merged with the Big Eight to form the Big 12. Football drove the unorthodox marriage. Corn-fed universities collided with Texas swagger because it made sense on the gridiron. But as north gradually blended with south, the merger proved a boon for one secondary sport: women's basketball. Attendance at Big 12 games has steadily increased since 1996-97, growing from 523,957 during that first season to an NCAA-record 1.1 million during the 2009-10 season. In 2000-01, the Big 12 became the first conference to draw more than 1 million fans for women's hoops. The league has now hit that milestone five times, leading the nation in attendance for 12 consecutive seasons.
In 2009-10, the average attendance for a Division I women's game was 1,584. That same year, the Big 12 drew 5,247 fans per contest. As Big 12 associate commissioner Dru Hanock puts it, the conference hasn't just led the country in attendance, "We've smoked the country." The Big Ten and the SEC flip-flop between second and third place, drawing roughly 720,000 to 740,000 fans per season.
When it comes to women's hoops, the Big 12 is the ultimate Title IX success story, largely because it has discovered a working formula for driving attendance.
Ambassador + Community + Product = Fans.
Lots of fans.
You won't pack an arena without the Ambassador. Don't even try. Women's basketball fan bases are built by charismatic leaders. While players leave town after four years, the Ambassador cultivates the community's connection with each class, tearfully waving goodbye to the graduating point guard while introducing her next-big-thing replacement. A significant segment of the team's supporters attend games to watch the Ambassador, not the players. That's a good thing, because she (or he) doesn't have an NCAA-mandated expiration date.
Inside the Ferrell Center, it's 10:15 at night. Baylor's victory is an hour old. Coach Kim Mulkey is back on the court, surrounded by hundreds of lingering fans. Her tailored white jacket is ripped at the base of the neck, as if she morphed into the Hulk midway through the game, which is not far from the truth. But the victory high has faded, and so too has Mulkey's enthusiasm. She admits fatigue, pointing toward her heels.
Who can blame her? She's been shaking hands and taking pictures for a decade. Though Mulkey would never admit it, this part of her job is arguably more important than her actual coaching. She drives Baylor's attendance, which in turn wows blue-chip recruits -- and blue-chip recruits win games.
Mulkey dutifully signs every request, turns for every picture, makes small talk. Fans leave her orbit grinning. Some pump their fists. One mom whispers, "Yesssss," while snapping a photo of her two kids with Mulkey.
In the Big 12, long-tenured coaches are celebrities within their small-market communities. Kansas State's Deb Patterson routinely rejects local appearance requests -- because there are just too many. Iowa State's Bill Fennelly could probably win his state's gubernatorial seat. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair has charmed thousands of folks into Reed Arena. And Sherri Coale wouldn't dare walk around Norman, Okla., without a smile and kind word at the ready.
"It's never-ending, and it's exhausting," says Patterson, whose Wildcats average, in a good year, more than 9,000 fans a game. "It is 10-fold what I believe is required of your male counterpart."
Everyone does the PR circuit and speaking engagements, male and female coaches alike. But Patterson is talking about something different: the daily effort required to connect, face-to-face, with people in the community. Patterson has days that include a 6 a.m. appearance at a local club and two different events, sometimes across the state from one another, after practice.
"If you're just an X's and O's person, you better have a damn good team, because you're not going to put butts in the seats," Blair says. "And then eventually, you're going to be let go."
Because unlike men's basketball fans, those who attend women's games aren't necessarily fans of women's basketball. They're fans of their team. More specifically, they attend because they feel a connection to the Ambassador and the Ambassador's players. They're one big family, heading out to support Kim and the girls.
When USA Basketball's national team tours, boasting 12 of the world's best players, it can't draw a crowd unless it plays the local team. When the NCAA women's tournament lands in a neutral site, or when the host team fails to make the bracket, the TV broadcast shows a near-empty arena.
"We'll play Texas Tech in Lubbock, and the fans come because it's Texas Tech we're playing," says Carol Callan, director of the women's national team. "They follow who they know. Women's basketball fans are very loyal to their team, not necessarily to the sport."
So a program must make the locals feel as if they're supporting a granddaughter, niece or sister. That means making personal phone calls to season ticket holders, spending a Saturday morning running a free basketball clinic for kids or Sunday giving testimony at church. And sometimes it means doing all three.
"There is not one thing that the NCAA can do to increase attendance on individual campuses," says Jody Conradt, who coached at Texas for 31 years. "It has to be happening in that community, and it has to be done by the coach and the players."
The Big 12, throughout its history, has had the country's longest-tenured and highest-paid coaches. Mulkey and Texas coach Gail Goestenkors (who recently stepped down) earned more than $1 million this past season, and the conference's average salary is upwards of $600,000 a year. The league featured four of the seven highest-paid women's basketball coaches this season. Other conferences -- such as the Big East, SEC and ACC -- have one or two marquee, richly rewarded coaches, but no league has the Big 12's depth.
In 2006-07, the year before Goestenkors left Duke to succeed Conradt at Texas, her Blue Devils played in Austin. Men's basketball coach Rick Barnes showed Goestenkors around the Frank Erwin Center, where the Longhorns play. Texas had poured millions into locker room renovations that included handcrafted wooden lockers equipped with flat-screen TVs.
"I was blown away," says Goestenkors. "It was clear the Big 12 went out and made a statement that they wanted successful women's basketball programs. When I was in the ACC, we wanted to emulate the Big 12, because it was so impressive. And it wasn't just one successful school. It was top to bottom."
Yes, other conferences -- specifically the SEC and Big Ten -- feature programs with many parts of this working formula. Other conferences have money to spend and eye-popping facilities. But what those conferences don't have is the state of Texas, circa 1995. Women's basketball was big in Texas much earlier than it mattered elsewhere. When the Big Eight welcomed those Southwest Conference teams in 1996, it was gaining two programs, Texas and Texas Tech, already drawing more than 8,000 fans a game.
This merger put Big 12 women's basketball ahead of the national curve, for a number of reasons. Conradt explains that at the time of the merger, the programs in the Southwest Conference "felt very strongly that we had a working model, and that we had to maintain that model." The Texas teams engaged in a "heated debate" with the Big Eight, demanding that the newly formed Big 12 adopt a Wednesday-Saturday scheduling format, which would include one home game and one away game for each team, rather than a Friday-Sunday model that provides back-to-back home games. The latter saves travel money, but hurts attendance.
"We knew you were more likely to get a crowd one time a week rather than being dependent on playing two home games that close together and hoping people would donate their entire weekend to women's basketball," Conradt says.
The Big 12 employed the Wednesday-Saturday format, bucking conventional wisdom. The league also received two more gifts from the merger. One of those sweeteners was the large pool of recruiting talent in Texas, which has fueled a national championship for all four Texas teams in the league. The second gift was something much more difficult to quantify -- a raising of the bar.
"Everyone wanted to get to where we were," Conradt says. "And we showed them how it was done: reaching out to the community, making women's basketball accessible, all of those lessons. We set the standard, and the rest of the teams copied us."
Blair, who left Arkansas seven years ago for Texas A&M, says no coach voluntarily bolts the Big 12 for a job in another conference. "It's because of the attendance base and the recruiting base," he says. "And because the athletic departments pay their coaches."
A Big 12 boss can sell the entire league to recruits. Each coach can promise a high school player that on most nights, she'll be playing in front of a full arena. When Goestenkors was at Duke, she'd highlight the support the women's basketball team received inside Cameron, but she could do little about the dozen games her team played at arenas with only a few hundred people. By contrast, Iowa State's rabid fan base isn't just a tool for Fennelly to lure players; it also attracts recruits to, say, Oklahoma State and Kansas, because they're assured of big crowds on the road.
But the Ambassador's duties take a toll. On March 19, Goestenkors resigned a year before the end of her contract, leaving about $1 million on the table. She told friends she was tired. She desperately needed to turn off her phone. She wanted to go to the coffee shop in the morning without makeup and a smile. She needed her life back. Those who spoke with her after she stepped down said she sounded relieved -- almost peaceful -- about her decision.
But there's always someone else ready to step up. Blair and his Aggies are defecting to the SEC next season, as is Missouri, a year after losing Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten. Those moves were driven by football and the conference realignment craze, but none of it has slowed turnstile traffic. Entering March, the Big 12 was once again on pace to break the million-fan mark this season. Rivalries do not drive women's basketball fans into the arena; the Ambassadors, and the culture they have developed around their programs, do.
Inside the Ferrell Center on Feb. 18, only the Baylor band concerns itself with Barncastle, yelling clever variations of her name whenever she takes the ball out along the baseline. But the ushers charged with preventing mayhem see none: The fans aren't here for Texas Tech.
Usher Dan Meinecke is stationed at Section 120 when the arena doors open. He's watching the seats fill with fans, which can sometimes be a drawn-out process because many are senior citizens or families with young kids. Meinecke remembers what Baylor women's basketball games were like before Mulkey's arrival. You could hear popcorn crunching and Diet Coke being sipped through straws. Asked if Mulkey is responsible for the sellouts, Meinecke responds, "Who else?"
"I'm not being facetious," he says a second later. "But who else do you think made this happen?"
Harvey and Barbara Wilson sit in Seats 5 and 6, Row 7, Section 116 of the Ferrell Center. They've been married for 56 years. For the past 15, they've attended Baylor women's basketball games, driving 45 miles from Itasca, Texas. When Mulkey took over as coach in 2001, the Wilsons were tired of the bland atmosphere and perennial losing.
"When Coach Kim came, I was about to give up my tickets," Harvey says. He and his wife arrive for the Texas Tech game as the doors open; they enjoy watching the hour-long warm-ups. Harvey tosses his thumb at Barbara and says, "She talked me into it, said we should give Coach Kim at least one year. Now, we'll never stop coming."
Barbara chimes in: "There's nothing fake about that woman. She tells it like it is. Folks 'round here appreciate that."
Harvey nods his head, "I wouldn't go across the street to watch the men play, but I'll drive an hour to watch Kim and the girls."
He has no time for what he believes is a bastardized version of the game, despite the fact that Baylor's men were ranked in the Top 10 for most of the season and reached the Elite Eight. Harvey prefers the fundamentals -- footwork, screens, movement -- readily present in women's basketball. And he likes what he sees off the court, too, that Kim's girls reach out to the community while their male counterparts come off as aloof.
That approach only makes a difference in an environment with a small-town vibe. Put Mulkey in a big city, and she'd be screaming into the wind. For Ambassadors (and their players) to work their magic, they need a community with a population somewhere in the women's basketball sweet spot -- between 50,000 and 250,000 -- a range that coaches generally believe is more conducive to building a fan base.
In this case, bigger is not better. Bigger is much, much worse.
Deb Patterson refers to this phenomenon as "the tipping point." Once the population reaches a certain level, a women's basketball program won't be able to piggyback off a close-knit sense of family and connectedness within the community. It's no coincidence that the five programs with the highest attendance in the Big 12 -- Iowa State (9,730 fans per game), Baylor (7,933), Texas Tech (7,043), Texas A&M (6,104), and Oklahoma (5,490) -- have hit a home run on the first two parts of the formula. Each of these programs possesses a dynamic leader. In the case of Texas Tech, head coach Kristy Curry has done wonders maintaining support after coach Marsha Sharp's 23-year tenure. And each of these Ambassadors operates in a town with a population between 58,965 (Ames, Iowa) and 229,000 (Lubbock, Texas).
On a game night, approximately one out of every six residents of Ames is inside the Hilton Coliseum. Bill Fennelly has coached the Cyclones for 15 years, and the man can't grab a gallon of milk at the grocery store without stopping to chat about his girls. "It's one thing to show up to a game," Fennelly says. "It's another thing to show up and be invested. It's the environment. It's not just the fans; it's the way people work hard to make this a special place for the kids."
No matter how vibrant the coach walking the sidelines, no matter how tightknit a community, few people will consistently come to watch bad -- or even mediocre -- basketball.
Conradt consistently fielded top teams at Texas during the 1980s and '90s. She "tediously" (her word) grew a loyal fan base, running pregame clinics for kids, introducing her players as role models at community events and generally displaying her charming personality to the people of Austin.
She was rewarded with an average attendance of 7,390 during the 1996-97 season. Conradt's community efforts, plus her team's success, helped Texas resonate in a city with a population nearly seven times the Big 12 average. Since her retirement in 2007, UT's per-game attendance has dipped to 4,710. Why? Because the Longhorns haven't finished a season ranked higher than 16th. When Conradt was on the sideline, they were often a top-five team.
Every Big 12 program has its base. These people attend pregame activities in the arena, where the Ambassador often speaks. They show up at preseason scrimmages and the year-end banquet. No matter how bad the product, the Loyalist is there. But there aren't enough Loyalists to fill the stands. (Weaker programs might have about 500 of these diehard fans; a team like Baylor might have 4,000.)
The Product drives attendance from solid to spectacular. And in 14 seasons since its formation, the Big 12 has averaged 6.6 nationally ranked teams per year.
Each part of the equation increases attendance. Nailing the trifecta packs the house. Fennelly can charm the folks of Ames, but the Hilton Coliseum sells out because Iowa State has executed all parts of the formula. If Mulkey were shaking hands and running clinics in downtown Miami, her persistence would win over only a handful of locals. But it's the community of Waco, which responds to her tell-it-like-it-is approach, that uniquely embraces her. And if Patterson continued burning the midnight oil in Manhattan, but never put a winning team on the floor, the purple seats of Bramlage Coliseum would remain mostly empty.
Mulkey signs her last autograph. Dozens of fans are lingering on the Ferrell Center court. She has already given everyone what they came for -- a Lady Bears victory, a picture, a smile, a hug -- and now they're just absorbing her presence. She waves a quick goodbye, then scoots through the tunnel and into the empty space just before her team's locker room.
She pauses for a second. Releases one long, deep breath. The Ambassador is ready to close up Baylor's heartland hoops embassy for the night.
It opens again first thing in the morning.