In Washington, where the WNBA's Mystics have drawn close to 15,000 fans per game and set league attendance records despite one winning season in seven years, the local women's college teams -- several of which regularly appear in the top 25 and advance to the NCAA tournament -- attracted on average fewer than 2,000 fans per game last season.
What makes this disparity even more striking is that overall WNBA attendance has steadily declined while women's college basketball's audience has continued to grow.
As the women's college basketball season gets under way this week, the coaches and players from local teams are wondering why this area supports women's basketball in the summer but ignores it in the winter.
The answer certainly is not success. Although the Mystics have reached the playoffs three times, their only winning record is 17-15. In 2003, they went 9-25 and drew 14,042 fans per game. By contrast, George Washington went 26-6 last season and attracted only 1,243 fans per game.
"Part of the appeal is the MCI Center," said American Coach Melissa McFerrin, who spent three seasons with the Mystics, first as an assistant coach then as general manager. "They've made it a truly great fan experience: how they get there to what happens in the building to what happens afterward, their access to the players. On top of that, they have a great amount of exposure from the national level.
"There's not a WNBA commercial that's shown on TV that you didn't see Nikki McCray, Chamique Holdsclaw and now Alana Beard."
By publicizing those players, the fans had a face to put with the team. According to several college coaches, building connections to individual players is one of the keys to increasing support for women's basketball.
Georgetown Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy spent the last two seasons at Southwest Missouri State, which has ranked among the top 10 in attendance three of the last five years mostly because of the popularity of Jackie Stiles. In 2001, Stiles became the NCAA's career leading scorer and led the Lady Bears to the Final Four.
"For the fans watching Jackie Stiles, they really came in and got interested in women's basketball," Williams-Flournoy said. "For women's basketball, I think once you see it then you come back."
The schools that lead Division I in women's basketball attendance also tend to have another shared characteristic: lack of entertainment competition. Anyone who has been to Tennessee, Connecticut, Texas Tech, New Mexico or Purdue -- the top five last season -- knows there is not much else in the way of sporting events in Knoxville, Storrs, Lubbock, Albuquerque or West Lafayette, Ind. There are no NBA teams or other Division I schools to contend with for miles.
George Washington Coach Joe McKeown coached at Oklahoma, which has ranked in the top 20 for attendance the past four seasons. McKeown understands why the Sooners draw large crowds.
"My wife grew up in a small town" in Oklahoma, he said. "If you grow up in a small town in Oklahoma, just to go to any event at the Lloyd Noble Center, it's a big, big thing, and if it's women's basketball, fine."
In this area, however, there are a lot of options -- particularly in the winter, something the Mystics don't have to contend with during the summer.
"It's not just getting them to show up to a George Washington game," said David Carter of the Sports Business Group. "It's also the fact that the competition for the entertainment dollar is pretty fierce among those seven or eight schools. . . . You've got to find a way to not just get them to want to follow and participate in college women's basketball, but once you've done that, you've got to persuade them to go to a GW game and not Georgetown or anywhere else they might want to attend. I think that can be a pretty tall order in a market like that where there's just so much to do."
Many of the area teams are trying a variety of things to build awareness. It may be as simple as reading to school children or speaking in front of a community group or giving away free tickets to youth groups and high school teams. Maryland, which has increased its women's basketball attendance the past three seasons, also has paid to advertise on billboards.
"It was our job to get our fans to believe that we had a product, we had a team, that was worth them coming out and seeing," Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese said. "Any time we're out in the community or I'm speaking or any kind of service we're doing out there, people form impressions on your team. I think that helps them decide whether they're going to come out and support your team."
McFerrin, whose team had the worst attendance in the area last season, has made it one of her priorities to increase the Eagles' fan base. At a recent practice, she told her players that their parents need to buy tickets soon because one day they are not going to be able to walk up to the door and get a ticket.
"I do know that women's basketball can sell in a lot of settings," McFerrin said. "I know it can happen because I've been places where they've said it can't happen. Women's basketball can't break even or make money, and it can. Every place I've ever been. I can dispel the myth. . . . We're going to fill that arena. It may not happen tomorrow, but we're going to put people in those stands."