There’s something we try very hard not to do here at The Daily, and that’s write about the fans.
For the three years I’ve covered the Michigan women’s basketball team, not talking about the crowd has been easy. It’s a sea of gray-haired retirees that show up on a Sunday afternoon, politely applauding when a basket is scored and rarely rising into a raucous. It’s middle school basketball teams and church groups who come for a bonding activity. It’s less than a quarter of the total who come to men’s basketball games.
The curtains covering the upper bowl have only come up twice, both in the 2019-20 season: once for a double-header where the women played after the men on a Saturday, and the other to host Michigan State. The stadium felt hollow in the double-header, and the game against the Spartans is the only time I’ve seen the Crisler Center resemble capacity — 11,068 fans attended that game.
For reference, 12,445 fans watched the men’s basketball team play Southern Utah this past fall.
“(In men’s games) you see the student section’s all the way up in the rafters so it would be awesome to have that, it does make a difference,” senior wing Leigha Brown said on Jan. 9. “Obviously the fans are great but having the student section there and bringing the energy would be huge.”
As you might expect, the disparity between men’s and women’s attendance isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to basketball. Both soccer and lacrosse see attendance differences in the regular season, though not on the same scale. Of the four main sports that Michigan has a men’s and women’s team competing at different times (soccer, basketball, lacrosse and gymnastics), only women’s gymnastics outperforms the men’s squad, and that’s because they mostly compete in difference arenas with different capicities.
The disparity between these programs’ attendance can’t be explained by a difference in performance — the women’s soccer team made it to the Elite Eight this past season before falling to eventual champion Florida State and the women’s basketball team has been ranked in the top 10 for weeks.
It’s not because women’s sports aren’t as interesting, either. Television audiences for the women’s gymnastics championship (which Michigan won, by the way), had a 510% increase in viewership from 2019 to 2021. Last year’s Women’s College World Series viewership increased by 10% over 2019, leading to “numbers comparable to those from the men’s College World Series in 2019.”
No, the difference in attendance is because the women’s teams don’t get enough attention, enough hype and, in reality, enough of anything. It’s the same reason the NCAA neglected women’s teams in the NCAA Tournament and continually treats women’s sports as less-than.
The hike in gymnastics viewership was so stark because ESPN and Disney gave it the attention it deserved and put it on ABC, instead of hiding it on ESPNU. The women’s basketball team is in the middle of a Big Ten Title race in part because the student section finally started to give it attention, showing up to ranked games.
Instead of 20-30 students in groups of three or five sitting down, relaxing, there’s constant noise. Loud applause that rouses the normal attendees and turns the energy into something greater. It spurs on senior Danielle Rauch to make behind-the-back passes and senior forward Naz Hillmon to put defenders into a spin cycle.
“We see it at the men’s games all the time,” women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “So I think they truly are difference makers and I also think when our student athletes see their peers there it’s really special and means a lot to have them there.”
In women’s basketball, far more than men’s, crowds can impact the play because most teams aren’t used to playing in such hostile environments. In three of the Wolverines’ four losses, they played in arenas with larger-than-average crowds, including their loss to Michigan State on Thursday.
But now, as Michigan stares down a fight to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, its attendance average (when fans have been allowed) is the lowest since 2016-17 at 2,910. While the Wolverines are second in the Big Ten standings, that attendance average is 10th in the conference.
There’s no reason for that to be the case except that people aren’t paying enough attention to the women’s basketball team. And they’ve missed out on two top-5 wins, an All-American candidate and a team that’s avenged losses all season.
So start paying attention and start going to games.