A person doesn’t win 617 games like Lisa Bluder has as a women’s college basketball coach by giving up easily.
But even Bluder, in her 14th season as the Iowa women’s coach, has her breaking point. She’s reached it with regard to student attendance at home games, or more specifically, the lack of it.
Actually, she reached it a while ago, figuring there was only so much she could do in terms of marketing after years of trying unsuccessfully to attract more UI students to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. She isn’t bitter, but sad and frustrated by the disconnect.
“I think we have good fans and the fans that we have are extremely knowledgeable,” Bluder said Wednesday. “But we are missing that student element. And we have not been able to get it. When I first got here we tried some different student promotions to try and get more students here. But they won’t come. And they never have.”
Bluder would be ecstatic if the student section bustled with activity during home games and created distractions for the visiting team. But she has learned to accept that vision as wishful thinking and has moved on.
“It’s almost like at one point you just kind of say, ‘Oh, well,’ because those aren’t the fans that are going to come back year after year anyway,” Bluder said of the UI students. “The traditional fans, they’re going to be here year after year after year, whereas those kids, you finally work on developing them and then the graduate.
“And so are we putting in too much time and money and effort working on that when we’re not getting the reward back? So we really just kind of washed our hands of it and said, ‘It’s too bad but what can we do about it?’ We’d rather focus on the fans that are here that are enjoying the experience.”
The absence of students was painfully obvious when Iowa hosted then-No. 22 Syracuse on Dec. 5 in a game featuring two nationally ranked opponents. Iowa prevailed 97-91 in a game that was highly entertaining.
Unfortunately, the student section was almost empty. A section that easily seats 3,000 students maybe had 20 people in it. And it’s uncertain if they were even Iowa students.
The overall crowd of 3,323 wasn’t too bad by women’s standards because Bluder’s bunch has a loyal fan base that attends the home games on a regular basis. It’s enough to rank Iowa among the top 20 teams nationally in home attendance for women’s basketball.
But with hardly any students attending the home games, the women’s team is missing a key element. The empty seats serve as a painful and constant reminder.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Bluder said. “But, obviously, they don’t like the game.”
Adding to the frustration is that Iowa is the only Big Ten women’s team and one of just 13 nationally to have appeared in each of the past six NCAA Tournaments. This year’s team at 10-2 is well on its way to making it seven NCAA Tournament appearances in a row.
“We notice maybe before the tip, but then after that it’s just go time and we focus on what’s in front of us, which is the opposing team,” said freshman Ally Disterhoft, who graduated from West High and grew up watching the Iowa women play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “It is a slight frustration just because our team has been successful. But we have great older fans that come out. The core fans that come out are great and they really do help us during these big games with the atmosphere. So we appreciate what we have.”
Bluder didn’t ask me to write this column, nor am I pleading with Iowa students to attend the women’s games. It’s just an attempt to shed light on a disturbing trend that seems to have no cure.
It’s baffling that the number of UI students who attend Iowa women’s basketball games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena pales in comparison to the support from Iowa State students at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
One explanation is that there is less to do in Ames compared to Iowa City, but that’s sort of like saying there is less to do in Fort Dodge compared to Sioux City.
Another explanation is that women’s basketball is boring because it’s played below the rim and at a slower pace compared to its male counterpart. That argument seems stale and narrow-minded at this stage and it doesn’t explain the situation at Iowa State.
And there was nothing boring about the run-and-gun affair between the Iowa women and Syracuse in which Iowa junior guard Melissa Dixon tied the school record with seven 3-point baskets, all of which came in the second half.
One of my friends, who until recently would’ve immediately turned the channel, decided to watch the second half of the Iowa-Syracuse game and was impressed by what he saw. He was surprised by the pace of the game and by the level of play. He wasn’t surprised by how few UI students were in attendance, though, because it’s been that way for years.
And that’s just sad and unfortunate.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball