Apr 23, 2017

New Group Rallies Support for Texas Women’s Basketball Team

Reporting Texas

Women’s basketball ambassadors cheer during a University of Texas game. The ambassadors are  women who work throughout the year to promote the Texas women’s team. Photo courtesy of University of Texas Athletic Department

When Marcia Kirkland retired after a 26-year career as an educator, she needed something to occupy her time. She decided on Texas women’s sports.

She followed softball and volleyball, but quickly became invested in basketball. The number of away games allowed her to travel; she has been to six of seven continents and 49 of 50 states. Of the 351 University of Texas women’s basketball games since 2004, both home and away, Kirkland has missed about 20.

At away games, Kirkland began to notice something – other schools had arenas filled with fans for every game.

Texas didn’t.

Women’s basketball always has had trouble with attendance. Last year only two teams, South Carolina and Tennessee, averaged more than 10,000 fans. Men’s basketball had 43 teams average more than 10,000.

The Longhorns drew 3,700 fans per home game in the 2015-16 season, down 1,500 from 2005-06. They ranked 28th among Division 1 women’s basketball programs, with newly crowned champions South Carolina leading the way with 14,364.

The Longhorns have improved consistently during the past five years. They went from a 12-18 record to 22-12, 24-11 and 31-5 in the last four seasons. This year, they finished 25-9 and built a 19-game win streak. For the past four seasons since head coach Karen Aston took over, they’ve qualified for the NCAA tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 three times. The Associated Press ranked the Longhorns seventh last season, and this year’s pre-season poll ranked them eighth. Two former Longhorns, Imani Boyette and Carla Cortijo, were on 2016 WNBA Opening Day rosters.

Kirkland understands that women’s sports must contend with football and men’s basketball, as well as the many outdoor activities Austin provides. But she doesn’t think that’s a good excuse.

“Texas is a great program,” she said. “The athletes are deserving of people coming to watch them. I wanted to help increase attendance for Texas and get fans to watch this great basketball team.”

Last April, when Kirkland received an email from Fran Harris – a former Longhorn who played for UT’s 1986 NCAA title team – about becoming an ambassador, she immediately signed up. The Ambassador Program was a new program focused on increasing attendance at women’s basketball games. Harris knew Kirkland was a big Texas women’s basketball fan and reached out for her help.

The Ambassador program’s goals are simple: to create evangelism around Texas women’s basketball, to deepen the connection of fans to the game, and, most important, to increase attendance – to get “cheeks in seats,” as Harris says. Currently in its first season, the program consists of 50 women and men – Texas Exes, former players and others committed to promoting women’s efforts – who spread awareness of the Texas women’s basketball team on social media and sell tickets. None of the ambassadors is paid. They do it because of their passion for the game, the university or women’s sports.

There are five teams of 10 members, each with a captain. Ambassadors earn points based on their promotional efforts and the number of tickets they sell. The team with the most points at the end of the season will claim bragging rights.

When captain Lana Petru, the owner of Liderology Consulting Group, received a call from Harris about the Ambassadors, she was skeptical. As a student, she was never a basketball fan and admits that, if she were to attend a game, it would likely be a men’s game.

When Harris explained the challenges facing the women’s team, Petru realized something. As a businesswoman who trains and empowers professional people, especially women, she couldn’t ignore those on the court.

“I decided whether I had a lot of interest in basketball or not, I needed to get on board to be part of the change,” Petru said.

This season, average attendance increased to 3,890. Though it’s difficult to tell with certainty what percentage of that increase can be attributed to the Ambassador Program, Harris bets at least 80 percent of the growth is based on their evangelism and referrals to games.

“If people just get to a game, they’d see the women are just as good as the men,” Kirkland said. “They can’t dunk, but everything else, the women do it just as good and the games are very competitive. If we continue to get people in there for their first game or two, they’d want to come back.”

Harris has not yet decided if the program will continue next season – the ambassadors need to hold their year-end meeting to assess the program. They’ll take a look at the data and let that guide future plans.

But Petru and Kirkland both hope the program will continue. They believe it has made a difference in spreading the “gospel of Texas women’s basketball.” They love their Longhorns, and they want other people to love them, too.

“I think we’re just getting started,” Petru said.