Staging the gymnastics team’s only Saturday afternoon meet of the season, the University of Utah featured Snow White and Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Utes have their own attractions, including nationally ranked gymnasts MyKayla Skinner and MaKenna Merrell-Giles. “Character Day” took the star power to another level, with actors roaming the Huntsman Center concourse. The strategy worked, for a program that barely needs any boost. The sellout crowd of 15,558, including thousands of girls wearing lighted tiaras, watched Utah beat Washington in another display of the most effective marketing program in all of women’s college sports.
“Without question, that’s the blueprint,” said Lynne Roberts, the Utah women’s basketball coach.
Roberts wants her to increase her own program’s following, and that’s happening to an encouraging degree. Even so, the school’s gymnastics success is partly a Utah cultural phenomenon with built-in advantages that no other women’s program could fully model.
Ute gymnastics works, for all kinds of reasons. With only five home meets during the 2018 regular season, season tickets ($30 to $125) are affordable and every competition is more of a novelty, compared with 16 home basketball games. The recent opening of the arena’s upper bowl for season tickets has pushed sales to 9,200 this year, up 2,500 from two seasons ago.
ABOUT THE SERIES • Fandemonium is an occasional series that examines the sports fan experience in Utah. This installment: University of Utah women’s gymnastics, and how women’s basketball is emulating it.
The meets are crisply operated in a 1-hour, 45-minute window with only short breaks in the action, keeping children engaged. It also helps that the No. 2-ranked home team almost always wins.
Beyond those factors, sociologists say, gymnastics fits a cultural profile that’s universally appealing ‚ perhaps more so in Utah than elsewhere. Gymnastics is “the ideal women’s sport for gender conformists,” said Mark Rubinfeld of Westminster College, noting how it mixes athletic strength and power with graceful moves, fancy costumes and makeup.
Michael Rueckert, the Ute marketing staff member in charge of gymnastics, cites an appreciation of “performing art” in Utah that makes the sport popular. Ute gymnastics meets once were advertised in newspaper entertainment sections.
Southern Utah (3,222) ranked No. 11 in gymnastics attendance last season and Utah State (2,130) was No. 20, further evidence of the sport’s niche in the state.
Greg Marsden, who launched Utah’s program and coached and promoted the team for 40 years, initially targeted mothers and daughters as the primary audience. The audience is evolving somewhat.
Briant Smith and his son, Braxton, 13, and daughter Anisssa, 11, stepped off the light-rail train and walked around to their usual Northeast entrance Saturday, avoiding longer lines at other doors. They attend selected Ute football and men’s basketball games, but gymnastics is their season-ticketed sport.
“I would have to say that the atmosphere in the Huntsman Center watching the gymnastics meets is much more exciting and fun, especially for the children, than the football or basketball games,” Smith said. “My son obviously disagrees and prefers football, but as a family I think the overall consensus is that gymnastics has always lived up to the hype and never been a disappointment.”
Robin Pendergrast, who works as a fan ambassador at Ute events, had heard about the gymnastics phenomenon. During this season’s first meet, Pendergrast marveled as fans filled the building and later observed, “Then … showtime. Holy whatever.”
That’s a good description for Utah’s high-energy production, with almost continuous action and knowledgeable fans who boo perceived low scores. To help newcomers, videotaped demonstrations explain what to look for as the Utes move to their next event.
After leveling off for about 15 years, Utah’s average attendance jumped above 14,000 in 2012 and last season topped 15,000. When other schools want to know what’s behind Utah’s success, Rueckert cites “the 40-year Greg Marsden marketing plan,” saying the former coach created the model “before sports marketing was a thing.”
Marsden’s strategy involved free attendance to generate interest in loyalty. The women’s basketball program is using that approach, with recent promotions including a Blackout, a Pinkout and a Redout — with free admission for fans wearing those colors.
Ryan Donaldson won courtside tickets to a game and brought his daughters of ages 7 and 5. The marketing staff “has come up with great giveaways and I wanted to take my daughters to show them that women can be powerful athletes,” Donaldson said. “After that, my daughters were hooked on going to the event and seeing the [players] as role models.”
His view suggests the perception of basketball in this market has advanced since the early 2000s, when the Utah Starzz of the WNBA moved to San Antonio. After six years, Jazz owner Larry H. Miller gave up on the women’s product, explaining, “How much [money] do you expect me to lose?”
The pro team’s failure, juxtaposed against the collegiate gymnastics success, was striking. The social acceptance of gymnastics was a popular answer at the time. Keith Henschen, a Utah professor and observer of sports in society, said gymnasts represented “the wholesome stereotype of what everybody wants to be.”
Almost a generation later, the outlook may be changing. And the Utes want to capitalize on it by attracting basketball fans. “If they come once, they’ll have a good enough time to come back,” said Andrew Everhart, who markets women’s basketball.
2016-17 NCAA WOMEN’S SPORTS ATTENDANCE
1. Utah gymnastics (15,244).
2. South Carolina basketball(12,277).
3. Alabama gymnastics (12,152).
4. LSU gymnastics (10,050).
5. Georgia gymnastics (9,453).
6. Tennessee basketball (9,184).
7. Iowa State basketball(9,106).
8. UConn basketball (8,888).
9. Louisville basketball (8,256).
10. Nebraska volleyball (8,210).
Roberts is determined to increase attendance, making community appearances and welcoming fans. “With women’s athletics, the key is access,” she said. “They come because they feel connected to the team, the coaches, the athletes.”
Smith’s family enjoys gymnastics partly because of the bonding among fans. The basketball program also wants to bring them closer together, with curtains draping the upper bowl and signs at the concourse asking them to sit in row 15 or lower. Only those seats are needed, for now.
The marketing people have “put effort into it, and I appreciate it very much,” Roberts said. “It’s up to us to keep moving the needle.”
The Utes, who stand 6-6 in Pac-12 play, have averaged 2,036 fans for seven home conference games — even with three Sunday afternoon dates in the Pac-12′s scheduling pattern. Utah drew 3,281 fans for UCLA on a Friday night in January, with a high percentage of free tickets. That’s about where Marsden’s gymnastics program started, 40-plus years ago.