When the gymnastics liaison for the Pac-12 recently visited the University of Utah as part of the preparations for the upcoming league championships, she was amazed by what she saw.
From the Utes’ practice facility to the thousands who packed the Huntsman Center to the smooth way the Utes run their meets, Heather Perry left not only confident in the Utes’ ability to host a league event, but also wondering what else the Utes could do for gymnastics in the Pac-12 conference.
No. 1 Utah at No. 21 MichiganAt the Crisler Center (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Meet » Friday, 4 p.m.
Records » Utah (4-1), Michigan (6-1)
About the Utes » The Utes have hit 113 of 120 routines this season and are led by Corrie Lothrop, who is 20 of 20 in made routines. … The Utes lead the overall series with Michigan 23-11, but trail 6-2 in Ann Arbor.
About the Wolverines » Scored a season-high 195.825 to finish second to Nebraska (196.55) last week. ... Top all-arounders are Joanna Sampson (39.3) and Katie Zurales (39.3).
"They have the best commitment for gymnastics I’ve seen," she said.
It was the kind of commitment that Perry, along with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and others, would like to see replicated throughout the conference.
Scott, who served as president of the Women’s Tennis Association for six years, says gaining exposure for the league’s so-called Olympic sports such as gymnastics, softball and track and field is as important to him as overseeing the development of the league’s new TV network and globalizing the league brand by creating events in Pacific Rim countries, including China.
"Olympic sports are something that is very good for the health of the conference," he said. "It’s something I feel very bullish about."
Leading the charge is Utah gymnastics, which has averaged more than 10,000 fans for home meets the past eight seasons and is a consistent contender for the NCAA championship.
While acknowledging that the Utes’ rabid support has reached a unique level, Scott and others believe the Utes’ presence can serve as a marker for other schools in the league.
"They’ve raised the bar," Scott said. "They’ve shown with aggressive marketing and smart marketing what can be done and serve as a great model."
Gymnastics in the Pac-12 has been healthy on the competitive floor for several years now, with UCLA winning four national titles since 2000 and Stanford and Oregon State regular participants at the NCAAs.
The Utes haven’t won a national title since 1995, but their consistent presence in the top 10 and at the NCAAs has kept them at the forefront of the sport.
"With Utah in the league, we are right there with the SEC with the number of titles," said Perry, noting the two leagues are tied with 15 championships apiece. "We’re hopeful that there is a little momentum now with Pac-12 gymnastics, and Utah’s presence further demonstrates to the country and recruits that the Pac-12 is the place to be."
However, being successful on the floor and in the stands are two different challenges. Most teams in the Pac-12 compete in relative obscurity.
Even UCLA, with its five national titles, drew only about 3,500 fans per home meet last year. Attendance will be even lower this season, since the Bruins are competing in a smaller gym due to construction on Pauley Pavilion.
Other programs draw an average of less than 2,000 to their meets.
There is no talk of more Pac-12 schools adding gymnastics programs. Colorado recently announced it is adding women’s lacrosse, a growing sport that isn’t considered as expensive as gymnastics since there is less overhead involved and provides the same number of scholarships (12).
Rather than adding programs, Utah coach Greg Marsden is hopeful that Scott’s vision, combined with better marketing, can help the existing programs thrive.
"We all need to be supportive of each other and make gymnastics as strong as possible and give [athletics] departments reasons to care about their programs," he said. "I hope with Utah in the conference we can show what we can do, but it doesn’t happen overnight."
Scott says he is willing to do his part to increase interest by giving gymnastics and other Olympic sports more coverage. Plans are to televise between 500 and 600 hours of Olympic sports on the Pac-12 Network. He believes better marketing can expose the sport to a new fan base.
And Scott should know. He oversaw such a revival in the WTA, which increased its revenue by 250 percent and its prize money by 40 percent while he was in charge. Scott said getting sponsors to open their wallets was a challenge, but he believes the same kind of aggressiveness in marketing the Pac-12’s Olympic sports will pay off by putting fans in the seats.
"These sports don’t sell themselves," he said. "You have to be aggressive about it and be creative. One of the biggest things we are going to do is create a platform where people can see it and it’s out there. That is one of the reasons we are developing digital media, the social media and digital marketing. You need to support what is on the air, too. You can’t just put something on TV and if people don’t know about it, it’s hard to follow. We need to rethink how we market it and schedule it."Next Page >
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