Grentz shoots for women’s basketball attendance rebound

Coach Theresa Grentz talks with Maggie Acuna during the first half against the Ohio Girls Basketball Report Legends on Nov. 15, 2004. Daily Illini File Photo

Coach Theresa Grentz talks with Maggie Acuna during the first half against the Ohio Girls Basketball Report Legends on Nov. 15, 2004. Daily Illini File Photo

By Courtney Linehan

As Audrey Tabon emerged from the tunnel, only the sparkle of flashbulbs and a stream of spotlight beamed onto the court at Assembly Hall. She jogged onto the court, high-fiving teammates along the way, as the stands above her rippled with the motion of a full house.

“It’s amazing playing in front of all those fans for midnight madness,” Tabon said.

With just a few barren rows in the C section, 13,405 people crowded the Hall for Illini Basketball Madness on Oct. 14. It was the fans’ first glimpse of the 2005-06 men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the crowd responded to each player, each basket, each dribble with the same roar they brought to each men’s game last season, when the team spent 15 weeks at No. 1.

But Tabon and the rest of the women’s basketball team knew why the fans cheered. Illinois’ men’s basketball program became the star of Champaign during its record-breaking season, earning the support of fans around the state, around the country and especially around town.

But while men’s basketball tickets have already sold out for the second-straight season, the women’s team continues to struggle with filling the lowest third of Assembly Hall. Illinois women’s basketball averaged 1,771 fans per home game last season – less than one-eighth of the men’s team’s home attendance. With the losses piling up and the already slender crowd thinning with each season, women’s head coach Theresa Grentz made it her mission this year to get the fans back in the stands.

“Last spring I decided I was going to take the program in another direction,” Grentz said. “I absolutely loved watching the men play, and I was going to extend some of that love and bring it over to our side.”

Women’s basketball has not always struggled to get high attendance figures. From 1993 until 1998 the team played at Huff Hall, where it had no trouble drawing a full house. In 1997-98, the team’s last season at that facility, average attendance was more than double the averages of the last three seasons. With a strong squad earning a Big Ten Championship after the 1996-97 season and trips to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 1997 and 1998, Illinois recorded five sellouts of 4,050 in its last two seasons at Huff. The team even sold out Assembly Hall when they played a single game there in 1997.

The women played at Assembly Hall for the program’s first 12 years, but was moved to Huff after never averaging more than 1,000 fans in the 16,000-seat arena.

Grentz says she ignores suggestions the team should move back to Huff, claiming the court is awkward and the stands are too close to the floor. But St. Joseph resident Greg Hunt, who has been coming to games since the Illini played on campus, said the team may be averaging the same size crowds, but the effect is drastically different.

“One thousand or 2,000 people was a big crowd at Huff and it made it seem like a big crowd,” Hunt said. “Two thousand people here seems like it’s empty. That hurts.”

Senior guard Janelle Hughes said big crowds offer an extra incentive to win, but the players work just as hard in front of small draws. When they played the first leg of an Illini doubleheader at the United Center on Saturday, for example, the venue was almost empty during the first half. The stands filled up later, as the men’s game approached, but Hughes said that didn’t lead to the team’s 75-40 win. The Illini had already pulled ahead.

“You want to win for your school first,” Hughes said. “Then you want to win for your fans.”

Which is why Grentz decided to battle the box-office blues. She started by going to 120 lectures on campus to promote the women’s basketball team. She flipped burgers at Fat Don’s, a once-a-week cookout hosted by campus dining services. And she’s traversed the community to talk to businesses about purchasing season tickets.

“While (the players are) working hard in the gym, I’m working hard to promote them on the outside,” Grentz said. “When they see that place full, and they see that people really appreciate what they’re doing, they’re going to play that much harder.”

There are two parts to the campaign: campus and community. Grentz was one of several non-revenue sport coaches who pushed for – and got – free student admission to their games. She’s worked with University Housing to develop a program in which the students who go to the most games receive prizes including electronics, food and a semester worth of books.

Kolbe Kasper and Jason Kaye, leaders of the Blue Crew student cheering section, say even though it is still the preseason, the efforts have resulted in raised attendance at the team’s scrimmage and first exhibition game. They said Grentz’s Halloween party on Oct. 30 – when she encouraged fans, band members and even reporters to come in costume – succeeded in upping the student attendance from what Kasper and Kaye would have expected.

Even with almost 40,000 students on campus, Grentz knows it would be a struggle to get kids alone to fill the Hall. She’s worked out a program for area businesses, in which they buy four season tickets and sponsor 100 general admission tickets which are donated to scout troops, school groups, and other local children’s organizations. The plan, she says, is to fill the A- and B-sections of the stands and in turn bring the energy back to the stadium.

“During the boys games it’s so hard to play in here, it’s so loud, there’s so many people,” Tabon said. “Having the fans to back you up really boosts your confidence.”

Since making a permanent return to Assembly Hall in 1997, the women have brought in more than 10,000 fans on five occasions.

“That makes it a huge advantage for the girls, whereas when there’s three or four hundred people here, albeit for an exhibition game, it doesn’t feel like home advantage,” Hunt said.

But Illinois’ record has suffered in recent seasons, and the attendance has dropped with the fall in the number of wins. The team has made the NCAA tournament just one time since 1998, and has not gotten past the second round of the WNIT.

“They had a year that was not as good, and then because of that they for some reason lost everything,” Kaye said. “With the men’s team, they’ll have a bad year and people will still come back. But with this team, they have a bad year and people will just throw them off to the side.”

Last season, when the team earned an 8-2 record going into the Big Ten season, Tabon noticed a rise in fan support. Several tough losses followed, though, and attendance began to dwindle.

“Coach always tells us to play like there’s 17,000 people here, but it’s still not the same,” Tabon said. “You can try to simulate it, but it’s not the same without the noise and the support you get from all those people.”

Hunt says all fans need is a reminder of what makes women’s basketball games worth watching, and they’ll be back. Hunt, his wife and their two daughters sit front and center for each home game. He says his 8- and 10-year-old daughters love being close to the action and getting to know the players. While he and his wife enjoy the men’s team’s games, he said for the kids, nothing compares to women’s basketball.

“One of the reasons (we come) is because we have two daughters who will be playing basketball,” Hunt said. “For the women’s games you can get tickets and actually sit close enough to enjoy the game. For the men’s games, if you get tickets you’re going to be up in C-section. You’ll be on the roof.”

Grentz says there is an untapped market she is shooting to break into. While most sports are played by men, promoted by men and watched by men, she says women’s basketball is a unique opportunity to bring women and families, like the Hunts, into athletics.

Tickets for this season are still available, and are likely to remain available. It takes time to bring back the fans, Grentz says, and to convince those fans that the team can put and exciting game on the court.

“We have to provide something for them to see,” Tabon said. “Then they have to support us.”