Women’s basketball head coach Shawna Lavender walks through the doors into Moody Coliseum before the biggest game of the year. Her team faces nationally ranked West Texas A&M. She looks up into the stands and expects a good crowd. What she sees is a disappointment. Only 1,400 people are in Moody to witness not just the biggest game of the year but the biggest ACU victory in five years.
“West Texas and Angelo State always bring a lot of students to their home games,” Lavender says. “I really feel for our players when no one comes to see what we have to offer. We put a good product on the floor, and it’s disheartening that no one is seeing it.”
Other teams and players share Lavender’s feelings. ACU routinely puts great teams on the field and the court for fans to see, but often, the fans don’t come. Women’s basketball and volleyball suffer the most. Both are good programs; yet few fans attend. Compare that to the Wildcat football team that attracts thousands of fans every week. Are these fans attending because ACU football is a top-ten nationally ranked team? Or is football the only sport students care about?
According to ACU Athletic Director Jared Mosley, the number of fans has dwindled due to the options available to students.
“With more students with vehicles, we don’t see the crowd we used to have at basketball games,” Mosley says. “20 years ago, the hangout spot was basketball games. Now with so much more to do, you don’t have to resort to socializing at sporting events.”
The players feel the same way the coaches do. Players want to see a lot of fans supporting them, especially when other schools in the Lone Star Conference average almost double the fan base ACU does.
Senior volleyball player Michelle Bacon echoed Lavender’s disappointment.
“It stinks ’cause we were really good this year,” Bacon says. “We all love getting that recognition from fans that come to our home games.”
To put some of the numbers in perspective, when ACU played West Texas in volleyball at WT, more than 1,500 people attended. The highest attendance ACU ever had for a home game was 750.
In women’s basketball, the largest crowd to see the Wildcats was the previously mentioned game against West Texas when ACU had 1,400 people in support. West Texas, on the other hand, eclipsed the 2,000 mark five times last season.
Football is the beneficiary of the fan base. More than 9,000 fans attend an ACU home football game every week; when ACU plays away, opponents average only 7,300. Throughout the week, wall-sized posters and banners are set up not only around campus but also around the city of Abilene, advertising the product ACU puts on the field every Saturday.
It’s not just students and families at Shotwell during the fall. Some people with no connection to ACU will attend football games.
Is the cause the marketing on and off campus? Mosley says it is pure dollars and cents.
“We do not have a marketing budget for advertising; we have to carve that out of funds we already have,” Mosley said. “What we have to do is look at return on investment. We have tracked our ticket revenues over time, and there is just not a large enough pool at this point to justify spending marketing dollars on those other sports.”
So what is ACU doing to combat this financial issue?
Mosley went on to say the athletic department has worked with on-campus advertising to utilize Facebook and other social networking sites like Twitter to promote attendance. Another way they are trying to encourage students to go watch sports is with the huge banner posted outside the McGlothlin Campus Center that has the schedules of every sport during that season on it.
The schedule was posted because Mosley says the primary complaint athletics hears from students is that they don’t know where the games are.
Mosley still isn’t satisfied with student attendance, though. He wants to start something of a spirit group on campus in charge of getting students to come to games on a regular basis, even making it a competition between students for a prize. What Mosley does not want is athletics to invade students’ privacy.
“I don’t want students’ inboxes inundated with e-mails telling them when sports events are,” Mosley says.
Bacon offered another idea to bring students to games: She says the involvement of social clubs would be critical.
“It would be really cool to get clubs involved, maybe doing the halftime shows,” Bacon says. “Maybe getting club points and having clubs compete would be a big enough incentive to get them here.”
One thing is certain. People who never catch a game are missing out on a top-tier Division II athletic program, regardless of sport.