Maryland Women's Basketball Has Been a Box-Office Smash

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Over the course of her four seasons at Maryland, senior Marissa Coleman has grown used to playing in front of enthusiastic crowds comprising several thousand people at Comcast Center. On Sunday, the ninth-ranked Terrapins beat Rutgers in front of 12,861, the ninth-largest crowd in ACC history. Tomorrow evening, an even bigger crowd is expected when Maryland goes for its 33rd consecutive home victory in a game against No. 7 Duke.

But every once in a while -- like on Thursday night, when the Terrapins beat Georgia Tech in front of only 1,361 fans at Alexander Memorial Coliseum (capacity: 9,191) in Atlanta -- Coleman is reminded just how special those big Comcast Center crowds are.

"It's definitely not something you want to take for granted," Coleman said. "Seriously, when we go to other places and you see they're struggling to get a thousand [fans], you wish you were at home playing in front of all these people."

Since winning the NCAA title in April 2006, the Maryland women have led the ACC in attendance and have ranked among the top 10 programs in the country. This season, the Terrapins are averaging 7,729 fans, and their final two regular season home games each are expected to draw more than 10,000 people.

Maryland is responsible for nine of the 10 biggest crowds in ACC women's basketball history, eight of which have come at the 17,950-seat Comcast Center, the largest regular home court for any ACC women's team. But perhaps more impressive is the consistency of its crowds; the Terrapins' season ticket base is 5,252 this season. Even their smallest crowd this season -- 5,865 watched a mid-afternoon game against UNC Asheville on the Monday after Christmas -- was bigger than the largest crowd of the season for six other ACC teams.

"We've put a lot of effort into growing the fan base during [the national championship season] and then we've put a lot of effort into keeping that fan base," said Brian Ullmann, Maryland's senior associate athletic director for external operations. "You can't manufacture big crowds. Yes, we're very aggressive about marketing. But I don't care how aggressive you are about marketing, you have to have the other intangibles like genuine players. Plus the parking is affordable, it's a good family atmosphere and you get a taste of collegiate atmosphere."

During the 2002-03 season, Coach Brenda Frese's first at Maryland, the Terrapins averaged 2,059 fans. That number grew to 4,814 during the 2005-06 season, when a young squad led by junior Shay Doron, sophomores Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper, and freshmen Kristi Toliver and Coleman made a surprising run through the NCAA tournament and won the title in a thrilling championship game.

Maryland began aggressively marketing the women's basketball team during that 2006 NCAA tournament with what it originally called its "Sweet 16" marketing plan. According to Ullmann, the athletic department actively targeted members of the Terrapin Club, and also went after what he described as "nontraditional sports boosters." It lowered ticket prices for the 2006-07 season from $65 to $45 for an adult season ticket and from $160 to $99 for a family four-pack.

"It was the perfect storm of events, because we were aggressively marketing a team at a time when they were playing excellent basketball and they were young," Ullmann said. "The theory was, if we get people in next year, the year after the national championship, we've got four players coming back that are absolutely going to keep people. To have Langhorne, Harper, Toliver and Coleman? That doesn't come around very often."

The season ticket base jumped from 1,597 in 2005-06 to 5,493 the following season, and the average attendance soared to 9,533. This season, season tickets cost $115 for adults and $145 for a family four-pack. Single-game tickets for adults range in price from $8 to $12.

The key to maintaining the crowds is building an affinity between the fans and the team, Ullmann said. The players and the coaches make an effort to reach out to their fans in different ways, ranging from a television show called "Under the Shell" to hosting socials with the Rebounders, the Maryland women's basketball booster club that has more than 200 members.

"We're fan friendly," Frese said. "These players are so approachable. We do autograph sessions after games. We give tours to teams before and after games. The women's game is so much different than the men's game in the fact that we're approachable, we're hands-on and you can get intimately involved."

To supplement the season ticket base, Maryland actively targets groups such as Girl Scouts or youth teams for the weekend games. On Sunday, for instance, the Sunday Youth Basketball League of Southern Maryland brought 700 people to the game against Rutgers, according to SYBL President Bob Hanley.

Mary Jo Thompson sat in Section 121, behind one of the baskets, with her husband Bobby and daughters Katie, 13, and Karly, 12, who play in the SYBL. They had never been to Maryland women's game before; during the week, they don't have time to make the 1-hour 10-minute drive to College Park from their home in St. Mary's County, and on weekends, the girls are usually playing in their own games.

"This is pretty neat," said Mary Jo Thompson, looking around the arena. "We would come back. Definitely."

But Maryland, like many women's teams in the ACC, struggles to draw students to its games. Ullmann estimates that the average student attendance is around 200, though he admits that figure is skewed by the large numbers that show up for games against rival Duke. The athletic department has tried to make it easier for students to get tickets -- which are free -- by including the women's ACC games in the same student ticketing system that handles football and men's basketball tickets and by periodically sending out e-mail reminders.

A crowd of 14,000 is expected for tomorrow's game, and Duke senior guard Abby Waner is looking forward to it.

"Somebody else was asking me the hardest places to play, and Comcast is right up there for me," Waner said. "Honestly, the fans at Comcast get rather brutal, but as a player, that's fun. I love playing in front of crowds like that. It's just a really cool place to be because -- if you step back from the fact that I play for Duke -- they support their women's team like nobody else I've ever seen."

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