Friday, March 27, 2009

Rutgers Womens Basketball; THEY DESERVE MORE SUPPORT

Note- this entry is a response to the column in this morning's Star-Ledger by Steve Politi regarding the Rutgers women's basketball team.

And I'll fess up right now....I've been tough on the Star-Ledger for the past several months because of their role in the ousting of former athletic director Bob Mulcahy, and because of their stand on the reinstatement of the Olympic sports that were cut by Mulcahy. Also, I have ripped Steve Politi in the past because of some of his "lock-step" mentality regarding the perceived "party line" and talking points presented by the Star-Ledger.

And yes there is irony and inconsistency in his criticism of the lack of transparency and the use of tax dollars for the football program, while calling for better marketing of women's basketball.

But on most of his points in the column, he's right.

All and all, the Rutgers women's basketball team have been relegated to the back seat by the Rutgers athletic department...but even worse, they have shamefully been ignored by the majority of sports fans and media of this state, and by the metropolitan area.

Part of the problem is simply BECAUSE its women's basketball, and the perception that its not the same as men's basketball. And that perception is reinforced....dare I media outlets like the Star-Ledger who go ga-ga over the men's tournament and treat the women's tournament as if its something they are REQUIRED to cover. Shouldn't the Star-Ledger's "Bracket Boy" give some love to those women who are practicing at dawn on cold winter days, getting elbows to the face and midsection, having their ACL's blow out, while trying to balance school work and graduate within the specified five year time frame?

The local electronic media is even worse in its regard for the sport. Unless RU gets to a Final Four...or is insulted by a national media celebrity...they rarely, if ever, get a mention on local TV sports reports, the exception being cable's NEWS 12 NJ. No Len Berman or Scott Clark...just invisibility. And the decision of WCTC New Brunswick (which broadcasts most women's games) to go to that boring "goodtime oldies" format eliminates any local sports talk and subsequent buzz that the team could have. Yes, there is WRSU, but college radio is what it radio, designed for insiders.

Media problems aside, there are things Rutgers should and must do in order for women's basketball to become more mainstream. It will never replace football or baseball as the first love of area sports fans, but as a "niche sport", like soccer or even hockey, it can get more visibility in this media market.

The team drew an average of 3,321 fans per game and watched its national rank in attendance drop from 24th to 39th nationally. There were two sellouts this year, against Tennessee and UCONN- bigtime opponents do draw in an area that is driven by "the Big Event". Part of this drop in attendance can be attributed to the poor play Rutgers had when they appeared on national TV- against Tennessee and Maryland, for example, they were awful; that's not the way to sell a program.

But even more disturbing were some poor choices by Rutgers athletics in identifying just who made up their fanbase, who buys tickets, getting people to buy tickets, and getting more "fannies in the seats".

The athletic department can't be blamed because they didn't foresee a nation in economic freefall- few of us did. But the price of courtside seats has risen to
$20-30 per game. Courtside youth is $15. Now, Mom and Dad and their two kids decide to take in a game. Let's say they want to sit courtside....we're talking at least $70 to $90, not counting parking, food, souvenirs, etc. Its easily a $100 day or night, unless you get a family four pack and sit up in the nosebleed 300 sections.

The women's basketball fanbase of Rutgers consists mainly of seniors, families with young children, girls groups and teams, and female sports fans. The percentage of students going to the games is minuscule, unless it involves a UCONN or a Tennessee. Ticket prices for courtside seats have risen more than 100% in the past five years, but attendance at games is dropping (at the worst) or static (at the least). Families with a tight budget have to decide- do we take in a movie and/or go out to dinner, or go see a women's basketball game? Seniors on fixed incomes watch ticket prices escalate for games being played in a building that isn't user friendly for the aging; there are no handrails for courtside seats, no escalators, only one elevator, and a handicapped section that is close to being maxxed out.

Even if we were NOT in the throes of a deep recession, how can Rutgers athletics justify raising ticket prices for women's basketball when at best the yearly per game attendance is about 4,000 or less in an 8,000 seat arena?

Now....I'm no financial wizard by any stretch....but hasn't anyone involved with RU sports ever heard of the rule of supply and demand?

Wouldn't it make more sense to make women's basketball ticket prices more in line with the price of a movie at around $10 or less?

To find a model of how a sport like women's basketball can survive in a media market like that of New York/New Jersey, just take a ride down US1 to Trenton to see how the Trenton Thunder have succeeded above anyone's expectations.

To the north and east there are the Yankees and the Mets, and to the south there are the World Champion (and it still feels odd to say those words) Philadelphia Phillies. Champions of the AA Eastern League, the Trenton Thunder are one of the greatest success stories in the history of minor league baseball. They play in a 6,500 seat ballpark, and average about 6,000 fans per game, and have drawn more than 400,000 fans per year in all but one year of their existence, having moved to Trenton from London, Ontario in 1994.

Ticket prices to Thunder games range from a high of $12 to a low of $9. Parking (as of last year ) was $2. They have corporate promotions at nearly game, and run a fan friendly ballpark experience for the family. Its fun, and its affordable- four box seats and parking at a Thunder game will cost Dad and Mom 50 bucks, less than half of the price of two Rutgers women's courtside seats ALONE.

Granted...this is private enterprise, and the Thunder payroll is subsidized by the deep pockets of the New York Yankees. But the fans keep packing the place. Back in 1993 the naysayers were telling all that New Jersey would never accept minor league baseball.

The success of the Thunder, followed by other affiliated and non affiliated winners as the Somerset Patriots, Lakewood Blue Claws, and the Camden Riversharks proved minor league baseball can flourish in this area by keeping the games fan and family friendly, and affordable.

Women's college basketball may be a tougher, but not an impossible sell. There will always be the usual sexist pinheads who wouldn't give the game a fair look even if their own daughters were playing in it. And the problems at Rutgers are not much different than at the vast majority of women's programs.

They already have a good product at they just need to get more people to buy what they're selling. New AD Tim Pernetti was one of the architects of College Sports Television, which is now CBS College Sports.

If there ever was a person out there who could sell women's basketball to the public, it seems that Pernetti could be that man.

Here's hoping for success.

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