Holden: More Than Spectating
By Will C. HoldenMarch 23, 2012
When Tiesha Brown made her decision to play basketball at Texas Tech, it had a lot to do with the prestige and exposure of playing in the Big 12.
Little did she know that the New Mexico program she ended up transferring to would average 7,677 at its home games during the 2010-11 season – a greater number of fans than those who showed up to watch Texas Tech and two other Big 12 teams with winning records that season.
Make that a pair of Big 12 men’s teams with winning records.
It doesn't end there.
The following men’s programs, listed below along with their 2010-11 accomplishments but not explicitly named out of respect, also failed to eclipse the New Mexico women in terms of average home attendance during 2010-11:
One Pac-10 team with a winning record, one Big Ten NCAA Tournament team, one Big East NCAA Tournament team, one team that has made the NCAA Tournament 13 straight years, two teams that played in the Final Four and one team that played for the national title.
Go ahead and speculate, you speculative spectators.
Speculating Spectator 1: "All this proves is there’s nothing else to do in Albuquerque!"
If that’s what you think, Brown would advise you to check out her hometown of Clovis on the New Mexico-Texas border.
"That's the kind of place where you go to a high school basketball game on Saturday night because there actually isn’t anything else to do," Brown said.
Albuquerque, conversely, is a bigger TV market than New Orleans, Memphis and Oklahoma City and draws 3.1 million tourists annually – comparable to Atlantic City.
Speculating Spectator 2: "Maybe Albuquerque is just a basketball town. The Lobo men are good. The NCAA men’s tournament games at The Pit this year had good showings. The Lobo women must be scooping up the spillover!"
If that's how it works, then surely the Syracuse and Kansas women could reasonably expect to capitalize on a couple of the most successful men's programs in NCAA history or their ‘basketball town’ reputations?
Both average less than 2,500 per home game. The UNM women have more season ticket holders than that.
Speculating Spectator 3: "But the Syracuse and Kansas women aren’t historically successful programs. No spectator wants to watch a team that’s not going to win. I’m a spectator. I think I would know!"
Brown knows you’re a spectator. And she also thinks she now knows the difference between a spectator and a fan.
It’s a perspective she gained during this past season, when the Lobo women stopped winning consistently and the fans kept showing up.
The Lobos entered the 2009-10 season with a streak of nine straight 20-win campaigns. The 19-13 record they finished that season with was solid, but the ground the UNM women stood on became anything but the following season.
After a 13-18 finish in 2010-11, five Lobo freshmen walked out the door. Don Flanagan, the man who put the Lobo women's program on the map in 1995, had just one year left on his contract and was forced out the door along with the defectors.
"Don couldn’t recruit the way he wanted to or would need to with only one year left on his contract," said Yvonne Sanchez, a former Flanagan assistant who succeeded him as head coach in 2011-12. "It was about as dark a time as this program has ever seen."
As a result, the average attendance from the 2010-11 season to this past 2011-12 campaign dropped off by a little more than 900. That might seem like a lot, but in reality it came down to a 12% decrease.
Call the remainders The 88 Percent.
The 6,763 fans the Lobos averaged this season was still good enough to be ranked 11th in the country.
They showed up to watch a team that finished with a record of 11-20.
And it turns out that the 6,447 fans who turned up to watch Brown’s first game at UNM were more than enough to give the new Lobo goose bumps.
The will-be sophomore (eligibility-wise) first came to UNM this past December. As a transfer, she sat on the bench all year and did so for the first time on Jan. 2 when the Lobos faced Houston.
Brown’s new teammates pummeled the Cougars 70-44. But that specific memory will fade.
"I'll never remember the final score," Brown said. "But I'll always remember the way The Pit felt that night. People showed up and stayed until the end just to watch women's basketball. I'd never seen that before."
And it wasn't like Brown had never seen an energized crowd at a women's game, either.
PR types can only hope the dunk from Brittney Griner in an NCAA tournament last week – the second-ever for a woman in college basketball – draws fans the way the first-ever punch reported in a women’s basketball game did in 2010.
Griner landed a stiff right hand square in the mug of Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle during a Baylor win towards the end of the 2009-10 season. It would have brought a tear to Evander Holyfield's eye. It brought several to the eyes of Barncastle, along with a broken nose.
The rematch at Texas Tech the following season – Brown's first year at the school – drew a crowd of more than 10,000. It was almost 4,000 more than the one that showed up three days earlier to watch the Red Raiders beat Iowa State.
"The punch was all anybody talked about on campus in relation to women’s basketball," Brown said. "Yeah, people showed up. But they showed up for the wrong reasons. They were spectators. They weren’t fans."
Albuquerque has taught Brown the difference between the two. She’s yet to suit up for a game and yet she can’t suit up in anything baring Lobo women’s basketball insignia around town without being spotted and sparking a conversation.
"People see it and say, 'Heck of game you gals played last night,'" Brown said. "I never got that at Tech. People even recognize me. 'Hey, you're the Clovis girl. Get us back on track next year!'"
Sanchez doesn't need to look outside the state or her own conference to realize just how unique that enthusiasm is.
At nearby New Mexico State, the Aggies went 23-9 during the 2007-08 season and averaged 999 fans per game. A year later, they went 9-22 and averaged 990 per game. In 2009-10, they finished 18-14 and drew 1,207 per game. Another year later, they went 14-18 and averaged 1,062 per game.
Win or lose, Aggie fans don’t seem to show up.
Say it's due to the inconsistency of the men's program at New Mexico State. Then again, the consistent men's program at San Diego State hasn't done much for the women. The men had a bigger crowd for its first exhibition game (11,711) than the women did for all 14 home contests (8,652).
Apparently The Show are no-shows when it comes to women's basketball.
All the data has Sanchez counting her blessings.
"Fans of women’s basketball at the University of New Mexico are an exception," Sanchez said. "The support we received this season has been a tribute to the program here and a tribute to the people of Albuquerque."
Those Lobo fans ended the year with reason to rejoice as their team made an improbable run to the Mountain West title game, only to lose to San Diego State. But if the entirety of the 2011-12 basketball season proves anything, it's that Lobo women's basketball fans don't need a winning program in order to show their support.
"And that," Sanchez said, "is exactly why they deserve one."
Writer Will C. Holden brings you some of the unique storylines from
across the Conference in this digital edition of Stories of
the Mountain West.