The catch phrase is "growing the game." That's what you hear people in women's college basketball say when they talk about increasing attendance.
It's not a new concept but one that has seen a more organized effort from leaders at the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and the NCAA this academic year.
The public discussion about attendance began at last year's Final Four, where though the event enjoyed its 15th straight sellout, concern was mounting for dwindling attendance at the eight neutral sites that hosted the first and second rounds.
The NCAA decided recently to return to playing the opening rounds at 16 predetermined sites, instead of eight, starting in 2009. Crowds averaged 4,789 for the early rounds last year, down 29 percent from 2004, the last year 16 sites were used. Increased travel for fans was cited as a reason for the drop in attendance when the number of sites was halved.
The move is not without its critics but it set the table for a new round of programs aimed at increasing the fan base of women's basketball.
For instance, the NCAA, along with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, is sponsoring a Pack the House contest geared at increasing women's basketball attendance at individual schools with prize incentives for marketing departments.
Last week, the NCAA announced a grant program offering financial help to schools to implement marketing strategies specifically aimed at improving numbers at women's games.
All of this structure has filtered down to the local level, where marketing skills used in the business world are being applied to college sports, particularly to women's college basketball.
"I'm one of those fossils who has been coaching since before marketing was even thought of for the women's game," said University at Buffalo coach Linda Hill-MacDonald, who began her head coaching career in 1980 at Temple. "What you see schools doing now is designating more dollars for marketing the women's basketball program. I think there's been more attention paid to the demographic -- and I think that varies from place to place."
In the Big 4, the average attendance at home games last season was 636 -- down from an average of 774 in the 2005-06 season. Last year, Canisius drew the best, averaging 830 fans in its 14 home games followed by UB's average of 807 over 13 games.
It was a down year for the Bulls, who had averaged more than 1,000 fans a game the previous two seasons.
So who do you market the women's game to? Traditional markets include families and seniors. Schools are also starting to court their own student population. There have been notable results at UB and Canisius, where student sections have grown in the last few years, creating an energetic and exciting game-day atmosphere.
Outside of that, marketing efforts for UB have focused on developing relationships with women's organizations and businesses in order to increase awareness of the game and potential partnership benefits.
"My approach is to develop more of a one-on-one relationship with the organizations that are in our area so that they understand the product," said Anucha Browne Sanders, senior women's administrator and director for marketing. "I don't think how you target to that particular audience is by sending out mass e-mails. It's developing a relationship."
While UB deals with its own budget restraints, it is still ahead of the game when it comes to available marketing money compared to other Big 4 schools.
For smaller schools, such as the traditional Little Three, lack of money and personnel keeps their marketing efforts low key. Some schools latch on to national programs -- like National Girls and Women in Sports Day or the Think Pink initiative to raise money for and awareness of breast cancer research. Many women's teams have kids' day promotions, playing a weekday afternoon game to pack the gym with students from local elementary schools -- an event that usually sets an attendance record.
The hope with such a game-by-game promotion is that once people get in the door, they will like the team enough to come back.
"I've had people tell me that they came to a game and then wanted to come back to another one because they loved the way our team played and how we got after it," Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. "Success helps a lot. People see you're winning, they come to games, have a good time and come back."
Games to watch
* It's a light week as teams take a bit of break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Still, you can find places to get your sports fix, including a women's basketball Big 4 showdown when Canisius plays at the University at Buffalo at 5 p.m. Saturday. On Tuesday, it's the men's turn, when the Bulls host the Golden Griffins at 7 p.m.
* Canisius libero Jess Stackhouse became the first women's volleyball player in league history to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor three times. The senior, who also won it as a freshman and junior, ranked second in the MAAC and 19th in the country with a 5.85 digs per match average.
* Niagara women's hockey defenseman Shannon Moulson was named the College Hockey America Defensive Player of the Week. In addition to her defensive play, the senior had one goal and three assists for the Purple Eagles in a weekend sweep of North Dakota.
* St. John Fisher advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III football playoffs with a 24-7 win over Hobart. The Cardinals (10-1) will host Curry College (12-0) at noon Saturday. Senior Steve Stepnick (Iroquois) was named the Empire 8 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Stepnick, who leads the Fisher secondary with five interceptions, is second on the team with 66 tackles (39 solo). Defensive lineman Matt Becton (St. Joseph's) and defensive back Scott Miranto (North Tonawanda) earned second-team all-conference honors.
* St. Bonaventure goalkeeper David Flynn was named to the Atlantic 10 men's soccer all-rookie team. The freshman started all 16 games for a Bona team that allowed the second-fewest goals among A-10 affiliates with 15. Flynn ranked in the top 10 of every statistical goalkeeping category in the conference, including third in goals-against average (0.88) and save percentage (.833). His GAA set the single-season program record.
* Daemen men's basketball forward Devon Dawson was the American Mid-East Player of the Week. The freshman averaged 23.5 points, 7.0 steals, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists as the Wildcats began their season with two wins in their own tournament.
* Richmond football coach Dave Clawson, a former standout athlete at Lew-Port, has been named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. In just his fourth season with the Spiders, Clawson has parlayed his ability to rebuild programs into three consecutive winning seasons -- just the first time that has occurred at Richmond in 52 years. The Spiders (9-2) advanced the 16-team NCAA Championship Subdivision playoffs and will host Eastern Kentucky on Saturday.
* St. Lawrence junior cornerback Andy Welkley (Tonawanda) was a Liberty League first-team selection. He was the team's fourth-leading tackler with 37. The Saints finished 4-5 overall.
-- Amy Moritz