Badgers fans, you should be pretty darned proud of yourselves.
On Saturday, Wisconsin broke the NCAA single-game women’s hockey attendance record during the Fill the Bowl event at the Kohl Center. 15,359 Badgers faithful watched as No. 1 Wisconsin completed a sweep against St. Cloud State after blitzing the Huskies 9-0 on Friday.
This was a big deal. Andy Baggot reported that the game outdrew NHL games in Florida and Arizona on Saturday. B5Q’s own Nicole Haase reported that Fill the Bowl was the eighth-largest crowd to watch women’s hockey. Ever.
The Fill the Bowl event follows on years of sustained fan support of Badgers women’s hockey. So far in 2016-17, attendance sits at 35,076 (3,508 per game). By comparison, the attendance of Wisconsin road games has been 7,202 (554 per game).
In 2015-16, Wisconsin was second in the nation in total attendance at 42,398 (2,019 per game). Minnesota led the nation (42,501/2,125); Minnesota-Duluth was third (21,293/1,331). With this year’s Fill the Bowl, the Badgers might finally take the attendance crown from the Gophers (hopefully it will not be the only thing they take back from their rivals to the west this year).
In 2016, the Wisconsin volleyball team ranked third in the nation in total attendance at 94,829 (a school record), averaging 5,927 per game (98.58 percent capacity). Nebraska (155,986/8,210; 103.83 percent capacity) and Hawaii (128,414/6,759; 65.62 percent) were ahead of the Badgers (note: someone call the Lincoln Fire Marshall). Next closest was Minnesota (82,190/4,835; 82.79 percent).
The volleyball team’s 2015 total attendance also ranked third in the nation. The Badgers totaled 85,774 fans (average of 5,046; 84.09 percent capacity). Nebraska (147,714/8,206; 103.79 percent) and Hawaii (131,187/6,905; 67.03 percent) were once again ahead. Next closest was Penn State (66,672/3,922; 67.48 percent).
One of my favorite stories from this past season: after Wisconsin got hosed with an early-afternoon Friday start time, coach Kelly Sheffield donated 1,000 tickets to the volleyball team’s Round of 16 NCAA tournament matchup with Ohio State for students who may have had trouble making the match. Some were concerned that the start time would drive down attendance. The match still sold out.
Thank you fans for shattering our attendance records in 2016! Averaged 5,927 fans per match - an improvement of nearly 900 per match! pic.twitter.com/TIEZNdWLFU— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 21, 2016
Wisconsin has quietly become one of the premier Division I schools in the country in support of women’s athletics. The NCAA reporting tool stat.ncaa.org reports attendance for six major women’s D-I team sports (basketball, field hockey, ice hockey, soccer, softball and volleyball). Only five schools show up in the top five in total attendance in multiple sports* over the past two years: Michigan (field hockey, softball), Minnesota (ice hockey, volleyball), Penn State (field hockey, volleyball), South Carolina (soccer, basketball) and Wisconsin (ice hockey, volleyball). (#B1G)
*Note on the attendance statistics: I used the the last two full-season statistics for each sport (2016 and 2015 for fall sports, 2015-16 and 2014-15 for winter, etc.).
Winning helps. These are talented teams, filled with All-Americans and generational talent, with charismatic athletes who are easy to root for. They have managed sustained success over the past few years, with tournament appearances and national titles sprinkled in good measure. Even formerly popular programs experience fan exodus if the victories go away long enough (just ask a men’s hockey team just now starting to pull itself out of an attendance death spiral after years of leading the nation in total attendance).
But it’s not just about winning. Harvard hockey, a year removed from a national title game appearance in 2014-15, averaged 720 fans per game in 2015-16. Oregon State basketball made the Final Four last year after years of continued improvement. OSU averaged 4,103 fans per game; in contrast, Wisconsin averaged 4,026, won seven games, and the coach got fired.
That’s not a knock on those amazing programs or their fans, who are as passionate and supportive as any in the country (Harvard ranked eighth in the country in total attendance in 2015-16). But it illustrates something about the broad base of fan support for Wisconsin women’s athletics relative to what other successful women’s programs experience throughout the country.
Fan support matters. It matters to the players. As Nicole reported, after the Fill the Bowl event junior forward Emily Clark said ,“(i)t was definitely a nice experience. The fans are amazing and one more time they just showed everybody how awesome they are. I wish any women’s hockey player could get a chance to play in front of a crowd like that.”
It matters to the coaches—for the games, definitely, but also in recruiting and resourcing. It has been reported that before he took the Wisconsin job, Sheffield asked Barry Alvarez whether Wisconsin planned to commit the programmatic infrastructure to women’s volleyball necessary to compete nationally.
The athletic department was willing, obviously, but I wonder if Wisconsin installs a state-of-the-art video board in the Field House next year, as the Wisconsin State Journal reports, if the Badgers only drew 400 per game. Does LaBahn Arena get built as anything more than practice and meeting space without a history of fan support for the women’s hockey team?
It matters to the fans themselves, particularly young women and girls. For the first time, young female fans are growing up in a world where women athletes are the norm. When families bring their sisters and daughters out to games where they can see “grown up” versions of themselves living out a dream, that sends a profound, powerful message. The players, themselves, help this by actively engaging with their young supporters, which is the norm for Wisconsin teams.
We are living in a golden age of women’s athletics. Serena Williams may be the best to ever pick up a racket. The U.S. Soccer women’s national team just won a World Cup and regularly outdraws its more highly-compensated male counterparts. Mixed-martial arts, of all things, may be at the very front of the pack, with female fighters headlining major events.
Badgers sports are an integral part of not only the university and alumni communities but also the social fabric of the state. The beating heart of it all? The fan support: the attendance numbers, the social media activity, the overall enthusiasm. When it comes to college women’s athletics, Madison is the place to be.