This week, the distinctive voice of Michigan women’s
basketball coach Cheryl Burnett will be on the answering machines
of thousands of Ann Arborites. This is not some sort of extreme
recruiting tactic, or a masochistic effort to quiet her already
hoarse voice. It’s just another way Burnett and
Michigan’s promotions department are trying to get a few more
people in the generally empty seats at her games.

Step into Crisler Arena for a Thursday night home game, and
it’s easy to see why this group has gone to such great
lengths to fill up the stands.

The arena is sparsely populated, primarily with family and
friends of the athletes, a few regulars and a slowly growing pack
of Bluenatics — the team’s official student fan
club.

The fan base at Crisler is a dedicated and enthusiastic group,
but it’s not what Burnett was used to at Southwest Missouri
State, where she coached for several years.

“I’m from a program that averaged 8,000 over the
last decade for women’s basketball,” Burnett said.
“That’s what I’m used to. That’s what
we’re wanting to develop here. We want it to be electric and
exciting — to have 8,000 fans consistently. It’s a
wonderful environment for the fans and the players who play
there.”

The average game attendance currently hovers around 2,100,
according to Mark Riordan, Director of Promotions. While this is a
fairly significant leap from last year’s 1,645, it
doesn’t do much to make the 13,751-seat arena feel more
crowded. Riordan believes that the team is on track to average
2,200 fans, which would put them in the top-45 in attendance,
nationally.

In contrast, Michigan State was able to attract about 5,211
per-game last season, illustrating that a Big Ten team in Michigan
can indeed acquire a decent-sized fan base.

This current project — in which Burnett recorded an
invitation to tomorrow’s rematch against No. 17 Michigan
State to leave on answering machines throughout the area — is
one of several ways that Burnett and Riordan are hoping to attract
potential fans. During halftime, Tom Silver, a hypnotist, will
provide the entertainment. For the final game of the season,
Riordan has scheduled a squad of frisbee dogs.

Will a man who gets people to cluck like chickens and a couple
of energetic pups really draw people in? Riordan hopes that they
will help, but he has committed more of the promotions budget to
advertising, in particular to families with young children.

“We made a huge push this year into radio in Ann Arbor,
with the Cheryl Burnett Show and with getting our games on the
radio,” Riordan said. “And then an advertising push on
two local radio stations, W4 Country and Cool-107. They really hit
our demographic. Every time I’ve done a push in the
advertising, I’ve seen a spike in attendance.”

Whether or not these ads will make the permanent difference in
attendance that Riordan and Burnett hope for remains to be seen.
But Riordan has observed what he believes to be a critical change
in people’s attitudes when they are asked about Michigan
women’s basketball.

“I’ve noticed, in general, that when we get tickets
out to the public, last year it was ‘Women’s basketball
— why would I want to go to that?’ and this year
it’s been more, ‘Women’s basketball — yeah,
I’ve been meaning to go to that,’ ” Riordan said.
“I think we’ve turned a corner in terms of
that.”

To some degree, the attendance at women’s games is out of
Riordan and Burnett’s control.

“What helps a women’s program blow up is a
men’s program that sells out,” Riordan said.
“People want basketball during the winter — they want
some form of entertainment. At (Michigan) State, their men’s
program is sold out, but people still want basketball, so they come
over to the women. Once they come over to the women, they get
hooked. It’s a cheaper form of basketball. It’s good
for the family.”

It will likely be a long, hard road to attaining record-breaking
attendance levels, but Burnett is confident that the program will
eventually get there.

“The Big Ten has been very successful with building fan
bases,” Burnett said. “(Penn State coach) Rene Portland
was saying they had 13,000 at their last game, and that’s
definitely something we aspire to. I think our style of play will
create that as we bring recruits in and play the way we want to
play.”

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