There is reason for optimism despite attendance being slightly down at the first two rounds of the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament.
The 16 sites drew an average of 4,464 fans, about 250 less than the previous year.
“While overall attendance numbers for the first and second rounds were similar to last year, we were encouraged by 10 sessions that exceeded 5,000 fans,” NCAA senior vice president for women’s basketball Anucha Browne said. “We have had a very competitive championship so far with increased parity and are looking forward to four great regional sites this weekend that should be rocking.”
While Syracuse was below the mark, drawing an average of 3,200 fans over the three sessions, it’s way above their season attendance. The Orange only averaged 752 fans during the regular season. They had 3,842 show up on Sunday to see them beat Albany and advance to their first Sweet 16.
“Obviously, we are very happy with the win, but we are mostly happy with the great women’s basketball environment that we had here,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “The key to winning two games is definitely hosting. To do it here and in front of this home crowd, nothing can be more gratifying than that.”
On the other end of the spectrum was South Carolina. The Gamecocks led the nation in attendance and the first two rounds were no different. They averaged just over 10,000 fans.
“It’s quite incredible. Other coaches around the country when they see all of us on the recruiting trails, they ask us, what are we doing. They’re some marketing behind it, but it is word of mouth,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “It is our fans enjoy the atmosphere that they create in our arena and the people that can’t make the games they give their tickets to their friends to make sure there are people sitting in those seats in that arena. And they cheer extremely loud.
“It was really, really loud in there (Sunday). I can’t thank our fans (enough) for just writing the script. I don’t know if it’s ever been done like this. Ever, in any program.”
South Carolina’s growth can be seen on a similar parallel to UConn. The Huskies grew their attendance in the 1990s and 2000s. Lately though the fans hadn’t been showing up in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Whether it was start times, cost of tickets or the weather, UConn’s numbers weren’t as high as expected in the past.
This year though, coach Geno Auriemma implored the fans to show up and give a proper sendoff to Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and perhaps Morgan Tuck. The fans answered with nearly 6,400 showing up for the second round win over Duquense that started at 9 p.m. Auriemma thanked the fans in a message on Twitter on Tuesday.
While Syracuse, South Carolina and UConn cruised to easy victories, fifth-seeded Mississippi State barely edged Michigan State in the second round and the 7,000 fans gave the Bulldogs a huge home-court edge.
The Bulldogs only were able to host the game because the Spartans’ arena was being used for the state’s high school tournament.
“It was a great atmosphere. Give Mississippi State a lot of credit. I’ve been a head coach for 21 years and played in a lot of arenas with a lot of people, maybe more people. But I’ve never, ever played in front of a crowd that loud. Ever,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “It was the loudest crowd I’ve ever played in front of. I don’t know what the attendance ended up being — 7,000? It felt like there were 70,000 in there.”
With regionals set in Dallas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Lexington, Kentucky and Bridgeport, Connecticut, there is a good chance for more fans to show up.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, John Wawrow in Syracuse, New York, and David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi, contributed to this story.