Yolanda Richardson and her teammates are beloved by Toledo fans. Richardson has an even closer bond because she is a Start graduate.
Tricia Cullop learned 13 years ago her role as a women’s college basketball coach is not limited to recruiting a quality roster. A person in her position must also be the curator of the team’s fan base.
Bustling home crowds, intimacy shared between players and fans, and the rise in visibility the past five seasons for University of Toledo women’s basketball circles back to an eye-opening road trip Cullop took in 2000.
As a first-year Evansville coach, Cullop dipped into her own pocket so she and two employees of the school’s athletic department could get a tutorial on sports marketing. They drove seven hours to the University of Wisconsin to sponge ideas from the Badgers women’s coach, stopping on the drive back at the University of Illinois.
The Big Ten programs were enjoying spikes in attendance, and Cullop wanted to know why.
“It’s not the marketing and promotions job to sell your program,” Cullop recalled Wisconsin coach Jane Albright advising her. “It’s yours. Don’t look down the hall for help.”
The Rockets are shattering norms of a midmajor women’s program, finishing the recent regular season 20th nationally in home attendance — averaging 4,212 fans — and outdrawing all but one Mid-American Conference men’s program.
Foremost, there is no substitute for success.
Cullop’s teams are averaging about 25 wins in her five years at Toledo, a run that produced four MAC division titles, two regular-season titles, and four postseason berths. The Women’s National Invitation Tournament is a factor.
Season ticket sales have grown by roughly 2,000 since Cullop’s first berth at Toledo in 2010 and increased by almost 1,200 after the Rockets captured the WNIT title the following season. Toledo, making a fourth straight appearance in the postseason tournament, won two games last week and is one of 16 teams vying for the crown.
“We were able to gain some new fans that had never been to Savage Arena for a game, and we’ve been able to hang onto them,” Cullop said. “The WNIT has done so much for our attendance.”
Equally as important is the team’s ability to connect with supporters. Several fans at a recent game said they keep coming back because of the bond they have with Cullop and her players, such as affable international imports Naama Shafir and Inma Zanoguera, the hometown products Yolanda Richardson and Brianna Jones, and the less-acclaimed players who engage fans after games.
Cullop, win or lose, frees her players after the game to mingle in the stands. Her philosophy: Everything can wait until tomorrow.
Six player jerseys generated at least $1,000 last month at the Rockets for the Cure auction, with Shafir’s netting $2,000. No men’s jersey elicited more than $500 at an auction that lasted several months.
“When you go to a women’s game, especially at Toledo, it’s a much more intimate setting,” said Karen Shulman, president of the team’s fan club, The Igniters. “That’s because of the way coach Cullop is and the way the players are. Fans are on a first-name basis with players.”
Cullop, a three-time MAC coach of the year, tries to accommodate community-service organizations that request help from her team, and she encourages players to attend other campus sporting events.
Appealing to children is emphasized. Toledo’s education day last month, aimed at attracting a younger audience, is an idea Cullop took from Dayton.
The 3,519 season tickets sold this year doubled the sales during Cullop’s first season in 2008-09 and exceeded the men’s figure for a second year.
The advertising department at Toledo packages the teams together — and in three-way deals with football. Many schools make price concessions for women’s basketball, said Mary-Bec Gwyn, Rocket Sports Properties general manager.
“The women are more fan-friendly than the guys," said Abe Fadell, a dual season ticket holder. “It kind of resonates with the crowd. There’s much more excitement at the ladies’ games.”
Forty-two percent of women’s season ticket holders hold men’s season tickets. The men’s crowd, which ranks third in the MAC in attendance behind Ohio’s men and Toledo’s women, is more stoic and older.
They applaud by clapping, seldom raising their voices. The women’s supporters are animated. They reacted to successful free throws in a 20-point rout as if the shots were a crunch-time 3-pointer. Clapping becomes inaudible beneath full-throat screaming.
A women’s game draws more families and children, especially young girls. An average of 30 fans 12 and under attend women’s games, compared to 20 for men’s games.
Women’s fans also travel. About 900 tickets were sold at Toledo for the Mid-American Conference semifinal game in Cleveland, which does not account for tickets purchased on site.
UT followers who attended key road tests at Ball State and Central Michigan overwhelmed the supporters who showed up for the home team. And Ball State didn’t even charge admission and Central Michigan played its biggest game in decades.
It is no surprise Toledo is tossing around the idea of raising women’s ticket prices next year, if only by a few bucks.
“The girls have gotten better and better and have gone to some tournaments,” said fan Ron Poturalski. “People are excited.”
Poturalski, a season ticket holder for men’s games for nine years and for the women for four years, may represent a trend among fans who now follow both squads.
The vibe at men’s games could intensify next year, when the team comes off a postseason ban with a talented roster that could contend for a league title.
No one The Blade spoke with recently said anything negative about the program, other than slight criticism that coach Tod Kowalczyk does not engage with fans enough.
Shulman, the fan club president, senses women’s fans don’t harbor resentment for the exposure enjoyed by the men, but "if you would have asked me that question 10 years ago I would have probably said ‘yeah’."
Kowalczyk, who has energized a rock-bottom program with two straight winning seasons, dismissed the idea that his team’s ego is dinged by turnstile numbers.
“I look at the fact Tricia has done an unbelievable job with their program, and why wouldn’t you want to watch their team play?” Kowalczyk asked. “I want to watch their team play.”
Women’s coaches contact Cullop for advice. She will tape a marketing presentation to air at the NCAA tournament, giving a peek into how she has made Toledo women’s basketball into one of the hottest tickets around.
“You have to show your community how much you care about them,” Cullop said. “They’re the ones that are financially supporting your program.”
Rockets to host Illinois
The University of Toledo women's basketball team will host Illinois at 7 p.m. Thursday in the third round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
The Illini (18-13) advanced Monday with a 62-54 win over visiting Eastern Illinois.
This will mark the 13th straight WNIT game Toledo has hosted.
Contact Ryan Autullo at:
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