“The State of the Game”

One of the respondents to my unofficial “why are you a women’s basketball fan” survey suggested I check out an NCAA study. The online abstract looked pretty interesting, so I sent for it. Along it came this week, with a card from the person who sent it to me. This ‘Assistant Director of Brand Strategies and Events’ (I’m not completely sure what that means) wished me luck and invited me to contact her with any questions. I thought that was pretty cool of her.

The study is called, “NCAA Basketball: The State of the Game,” and was prepared in Sept., 2002. It seems to be a timeless study, though, and I personally think the conclusions about women’s basketball should be required reading for college athletic directors.

The focus was on four marketing segments around D2 and D3 schools: adults, kids, college students and households. NCAA officials collected data from subjects via written response, panels and telephone, and were able to establish demographic sports viewing patterns for both men’s and women’s basketball. The discoveries were many.

Fan Interest

Almost half (48 percent) ofthose surveyed consider themselves “big,” “casual” or “slight” fans of men’s college basketball, while 34 percent say they are fans of women’s college basketball.

Relative to 14 other major NCAA sports, men’s basketball ranks fifth (on par with the NBA) and women’s basketball, tenth.

A pie chart shows that 20 percent are fans of the men’s game only, 37 percent are fans of both the men’s and women’s game, and 2 percent are only fans of the women’s game (42 percent are fans of neither). This gets into the next point, that interest in women’s college basketball is highly dependent on interest in men’s college basketball.

The study found that 8 in 10 “big fans” of the women’s game are also “big fans” of the men’s game. But only 1 in 4 “big fans” of the men’s game are also “big fans” of the women’s game. Thirty percent said they were “very interested” in men’s regular season ball and “very interested” in men’s post-season play, while the percentages for the women’s game were 10 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

None of this is probably a surprise to anyone, least of all me. The most equitable support of the women’s game comes in high school, when students show up to support their classmates regardless of sex.

I coached with a high school team this year that was at the top of its league. We went to play the league’s other top team at their house, and the place was packed to the rafters. Noisy ass fans – it was a pleasure to watch. The same was true when teams came to our house. I’ve found it more equitable here with regards to attendance than in Seattle.

College is much the same way, but when you get to the pro level, the split grows. Hence, the empty seats at WNBA games and the packed arenas for NBA teams that suck.

Target audience

The populations that have “significantly” higher levels of interest in both men’s and women’s college basketball are:
– African Americans
– Men with kids
– Women college graduates

Primary targets for college game attendance include:
– College students
– Single adults
– Fans with household incomes of less than $50k
– Residents close to their colleges

Targets for TV viewership include:
– Fans with less education (high school graduates or some college)
– Fans with household incomes between $40-$70k

The most interesting part of the study for me was the section that discussed the differences between why people are fans. The findings are loaded with implications.

Being a “big fan” is highly correlated with having a favorite team – “connection” – a key element in interest in any sport. The study says that aside from that, competition and catharsis are the next strongest drivers of interest in sports.

Here’s the interesting part: the study found that the most important determinant in fanhood of the men’s game is connection. For fans of the women’s game, the most important factor is character.

That makes a lot of sense. One thing a respondent to my question on rebkell pointed out was that we fans of the WNBA seem to be comfortable with using the first names of players, and assuming a type of intimacy with them that fans of the men’s game usually don’t with those players. I would concur, and would expand this to include female college players. Women’s basketball fans are generally quite protective of their favorite players, as if they were sisters or daughters.

The study outlines the process of becoming a sports fan, which they call the five phases of a “sports love affair.” The first is introduction, which the majority of fans received in playing the game themselves either now, or in the past. The next phase is attraction, followed by connection. After that comes committment, and the final phase occurs when the team becomes part of the fan’s identity.

The WNBA has this down pat. They have plenty of fan events when a team is new, to establish that connection for fans to the players, and gain the committment and even the identity part. Then the fan events slowly disappear. Colleges should be so tactical with their promotions.

In fact, the study said that while fans view the main challenge in men’s basketball as being the perceived conflict between academic and business interests, challenges for women’s hoops were different. The main challenge facing women’s college hoops is lack of exposure, according to the study. Researchers proposed a grassroots-type campaign to overcome this issue, including using posters and flyers on campuses, increase the number of fan giveaways, and gaining support from the media.

I don’t disagree with anything in the study, but is the NCAA taking its own advice to promote the women’s game?

When I go to Eugene, Oregon, I see billboards with the University of Oregon women’s basketball team on them. When I go to Seattle, there’s no advertising for UW women’s basketball. But I suppose it’s easier to promote in smaller cities.

I’m no marketing genius, but I wish those who are – both collegiate and pro-level – would read this study and take action. Promote in the African-American community; go after those fathers; court college-educated women. Establish the connections between fans and players at the college level that is being done in the WNBA. Get the fans fully invested and identified with the teams. Then you’d start to see some change.

– Sue F