Female sports can be revenue generators
And then there’s basketball — boys or men’s basketball, of course.Too often it stops right there. Too often, administrators and athletic directors look no further for programs that can generate revenue, publicity and community support, but with budgets shrinking drastically, no school at any level can afford to overlook any possibilities.
“I think girls basketball is at the top of the list of potential moneymakers,” says Brea-Olinda High School (Calif.) principal Jerry Halpin, “with girls volleyball right there.” The same is true at the collegiate level, though some universities have also managed to do well with gymnastics, baseball and softball. But regardless of the level, female basketball is an undeveloped resource at many institutions.
Does that mean women’s basketball at the college level can turn a profit? Not unless that college is Tennessee or UConn. But it can produce income, which isn’t true of all sports.
“At our level,” says Aaron Johnston, coach of the successful South Dakota State University program, “there are very few teams that generate more than they spend, but it’s still important to generate revenue.”
And there’s more to the equation that just dollars and cents — though every administrator is counting every penny right now. Women’s basketball at the college level generates publicity, and at the high school level, it generates community involvement, making it much easier to fund-raise, which has become an absolute necessity in many areas of the country.
“Last year, we were ranked nationally,” says Johnston of his Jackrabbits, “and our program was one of three televised in ESPN’s National Selection show. I don’t know what it would take to buy a 30-second spot on ESPN, but I’m sure it’s a lot.”
“It’s not front-page stuff,” says Bob Wilson, athletic director at NAIA women’s basketball power Vanguard University (Calif.), about publicity for his women’s basketball program, “but when we won the national championship, all the Orange County organizations became more aware of Vanguard. It makes for a great awareness in the Southern California community.”
“Our strongest fan base comes from the community,” says Johnston. “Communities identify really well with women’s basketball.”
And very often, it’s more the community than the student body that buys tickets for women’s basketball. “The most fun thing was watching the community rally around us,” says Mark Trakh, who began his career at Brea before moving on to the college level at Pepperdine and USC. “There were a lot of times we packed the gym.”
“We have a large number of people who have been coming to Ladycat games for 25 years,” says Halpin. “Many of them did not have any kids in the programs.” And though they are Brea fans overall, they are Ladycat fans first and foremost. “Sometimes, they’ll watch the boys games, but often they leave when the girls game is over.”
Brea athletic director Sharon Caperton can remember when it all started. “In the old days, we’d fill our gym. We had 20 guys wearing sombreros – it was fun. Now some other students have taken that on,” she says, as Brea’s girls are ranked in the Top 10 in the nation.
And that kind of success breeds both recognition and pride.
“When you think of UConn, you think of women’s basketball,” says Trakh. “When you think of Tennessee, you think of women’s basketball.”
“I can’t tell you how many times the admissions’ counselors talk about our success,” says Russ Davis, Vanguard’s coach — and since Vanguard is a private school, every positive can be important in encouraging potential students.
For private high schools, a strong girls program can provide a boost as well. Bob Mackey, the girls basketball coach and athletic director at the Christ the King in New York City, knows that first hand. The Royals were one of the most dominant high school programs ever in the 1990s, and their alumnae include Olympians Sue Bird and Chamique Holdsclaw, and present-day UConn star Tina Charles.
“Our girls program can stand on its own,” says Mackey, which is saying something. “Our boys program is storied, and our alums include Lamar Odom and Khalid Reeves.” Still, in Christ the King’s league, the girls and boys play at different sites on the same nights, but the Royal females draw well. “We can get six or seven hundred for a game,” he says, but the benefits don’t stop at the gate receipts or the food sales.
“A lot of people recognize Christ the King. They say ‘Oh, you’ve got that great girls basketball program.’ You hear that all the time. We draw from an area around Queens County, and a lot of students do come for athletics.”
In economically challenged California, it’s not as much about enrollment (though it might be at private schools) as it is about getting the community involved. “Businesses really want to be in the Ladycat program,” says Halpin of Brea-Olinda, which has holds the state record for most basketball championships with nine. “Whenever someone wants to promote something, they mention the Ladycats.”
“We are known internationally for our girls’ basketball program.”
Of course, international fans don’t exactly translate into gate receipts, but the benefits of girls and women playing in a successful program go beyond the bottom line.
“What’s great was watching the young girls sitting behind the bench at Brea,” Trakh says. “They had female role models in that community.”
“If you’re a junior high or high school basketball player in South Dakota,” Johnston says, “and you see other South Dakota girls playing on ESPN, or in the NCAA tournament, it’s inspirational.”
So what does it take to make that happen? If there’s a sense that boosting the girls or women’s program would help a school, where does the process begin?
The answer, not surprisingly, is that it all starts at the top.
When Trakh arrived to coach Brea, the girls team had lost 49 games in a row, and he was just 24 years old. Did he wave a magic wand, or go out and recruit?
“The principal was a big, big fan and she really supported us,” he says — and he also points out that all of the girls who went on from Brea to get college scholarships were in the school system in seventh grade. That kind of local emphasis was amplified by support from the superintendent of schools and a key school board member: “That power base was crucial,” Trakh says.
“To build continuity,” says Vanguard’s Wilson, “support has to come from the upper administration. Philosophically, we talk about pursuing excellence in academics and athletics, and our female basketball players are models for our athletic programs and our student body.”
And of course there are benefits for the athletes as well. “They’re going to have something the men have always had,” says Trakh. “In 30 years, they’ll be able to sit around and talk about these games. The community actually thinks of these girls as legends.”
But even a program that doesn’t deliver legendary results can still do a lot for a college or high school. Both income and image are there for the taking, but athletic directors and administrators must invest some time and energy to make it happen. Recognizing the potential in girls and women’s basketball is the first step, and the second step is to hire the right person to move the program forward.
“The most important thing I do as a principal,” says Halpin, “is hire the right people. I always look for a program-builder — but you have to be careful about selling your soul.”
The right coach in the right school in the right community, though, can be a gold mine for everyone involved.
“You can generate income in women’s basketball,” says Trakh, “and you can generate publicity.”
And also open minds, both male and female, about what women can accomplish athletically.